Among all of the essentials for human existence, the need to interact with others ranks just below our need to sustain life. Communication is almost as important to us as our reliance on air, water, food, and shelter.
The methods that we use to share ideas and information are constantly changing and evolving. Whereas the human network was once limited to face-to-face conversations, media breakthroughs continue to extend the reach of our communications. From the printing press to television, each new development has improved and enhanced our communication.
As with every advance in communication technology, the creation and interconnection of robust data networks is having a profound effect.
Early data networks were limited to exchanging character-based information between connected computer systems. Current networks have evolved to carry voice, video streams, text, and graphics between many different types of devices. Previously separate and distinct communication forms have converged onto a common platform. This platform provides access to a wide range of alternative and new communication methods that enable people to interact directly with each other almost instantaneously.
The immediate nature of communications over the Internet encourages the formation of global communities. These communities foster social interaction that is independent of location or time zone.
Technology is perhaps the most significant change agent in the world today, as it helps to create a world in which national borders, geographic distances, and physical limitations become less relevant, and present ever-diminishing obstacles. The creation of online communities for the exchange of ideas and information has the potential to increase productivity opportunities across the globe. As the Internet connects people and promotes unfettered communication, it presents the platform on which to run businesses, to address emergencies, to inform individuals, and to support education, science, and government.
It is incredible how quickly the Internet became an integral part of our daily routines. The complex interconnection of electronic devices and media that comprise the network is transparent to the millions of users who make it a valued and personal part of their lives.
Data networks that were once the transport of information from business to business have been repurposed to improve the quality of life for people everywhere. In the course of a day, resources available through the Internet can help you:
- Decide what to wear using online current weather conditions.
- Find the least congested route to your destination, displaying weather and traffic video from webcams.
- Check your bank balance and pay bills electronically.
- Receive and send e-mail, or make an Internet phone call, at an Internet cafe over lunch.
- Obtain health information and nutritional advice from experts all over the world, and post to a forum to share related health or treatment information.
- Download new recipes and cooking techniques to create a spectacular dinner.
- Post and share your photographs, home videos, and experiences with friends or with the world.
Many uses of the Internet would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago. Take for example, one person's experience publishing a home music video:
"My goal is to make my own movies. One day, my friend Adi and I made a video as a surprise for her boyfriend's birthday. We recorded ourselves lip-synching to a song and dancing around. Then we decided, why not post it. Well, the reaction has been huge. It's had over 9 million views so far, and the movie director Kevin Smith even did a short spoof of it. I don't know what draws people to the video. Maybe it's the simplicity of it, or the song. Maybe it's because it's spontaneous and fun, and it makes people feel good. I don't know. But I do know that I can do what I love and share it online with millions of people around the world. All I need is my computer, digital camcorder, and some software. And that's an amazing thing."
Examples of today’s popular communication tools
The existence and broad adoption of the Internet has ushered in new forms of communication that empower individuals to create information that can be accessed by a global audience.
Instant messaging (IM) is a form of real-time communication between two or more people based on typed text. The text is conveyed via computers connected over either a private internal network or over a public network, such as the Internet. Developed from earlier Internet Relay Chat (IRC) services, IM also incorporates features such as file transfer, voice, and video communication. Like e-mail, IM sends a written record of the communication. However, whereas transmission of e-mail messages is sometimes delayed, IM messages are received immediately. The form of communication that IM uses is called real-time communication.
Weblogs (blogs) are web pages that are easy to update and edit. Unlike commercial websites, which are created by professional communications experts, blogs give anyone a means to communicate their thoughts to a global audience without technical knowledge of web design. There are blogs on nearly every topic one can think of, and communities of people often form around popular blog authors.
Wikis are web pages that groups of people can edit and view together. Whereas a blog is more of an individual, personal journal, a wiki is a group creation. As such, it may be subject to more extensive review and editing. Like blogs, wikis can be created in stages, and by anyone, without the sponsorship of a major commercial enterprise. There is a public wiki, called Wikipedia, that is becoming a comprehensive resource - an online encyclopedia - of publicly-contributed topics. Private organizations and individuals can also build their own wikis to capture collected knowledge on a particular subject. Many businesses use wikis as their internal collaboration tool. With the global Internet, people of all walks of life can participate in wikis and add their own perspectives and knowledge to a shared resource.
Podcasting is an audio-based medium that originally enabled people to record audio and convert it for use with iPods - a small, portable device for audio playback manufactured by Apple. The ability to record audio and save it to a computer file is not new. However, podcasting allows people to deliver their recordings to a wide audience. The audio file is placed on a website (or blog or wiki) where others can download it and play the recording on their computers, laptops, and iPods.
Collaboration tools give people the opportunity to work together on shared documents. Without the constraints of location or time zone, individuals connected to a shared system can speak to each other, share text and graphics, and edit documents together. With collaboration tools always available, organizations can move quickly to share information and pursue goals. The broad distribution of data networks means that people in remote locations can contribute on an equal basis with people at the heart of large population centers.
Initially, data networks were used by businesses to internally record and manage financial information, customer information, and employee payroll systems. These business networks evolved to enable the transmission of many different types of information services, including e-mail, video, messaging, and telephony.
Intranets, private networks in use by just one company, enable businesses to communicate and perform transactions among global employee and branch locations. Companies develop extranets, or extended internetworks, to provide suppliers, vendors, and customers limited access to corporate data to check order status, inventory, and parts lists.
Today, networks provide a greater integration between related functions and organizations than was possible in the past.
Consider these business scenarios.
A wheat farmer in Australia uses a laptop enabled with a Global Positioning System (GPS) to plant a crop with precision and efficiency. At harvest time the farmer can co-ordinate harvesting with the availability of grain transporters and storage facilities. Using mobile wireless technology, the grain transporter can monitor the vehicle in-route in order to maintain the best fuel efficiency and safe operation. Changes in status can be relayed to the driver of the vehicle instantly.
Remote workers, called teleworkers or telecommuters, use secure remote access services from home or while traveling. The data network enables them to work as if they were on-site, with access to all the network-based tools normally available for their jobs. Virtual meetings and conferences can be convened which include people in remote locations. The network provides audio and video capability so all participants can both see and hear each other. The information from the meetings can be recorded to a wiki or blog. The latest versions of the agenda and minutes can be shared as soon as they are created.