November 15, 2012

Old concerns in bandwidth


I recently finished reading A Fire Upon The Deep and The Star Fraction. Both are science-fiction novels written in the early-mid 1990’s by authors with a computer science background, and both share (as part of the background context) a somewhat antiquated concern with network bandwidth. A Fire Upon The Deep is a rollicking space opera – an exciting and fast paced adventure containing many interesting ideas. The Star Fraction is a near future tale of a possible singularity event (largely avoided) and wasn’t nearly as enjoyable due to a dominant preoccupation with politics that didn’t flow nicely with the action.

Both novels feature Usenet-like communication and both fret at points about having enough bandwidth. I think Star Fraction even makes a reference to gopher at one point. Younger readers might wonder what I’m talking about. In the early 90’s the dominant forms of communication on the Internet were email and Usenet. The Web had just been developed, but had not yet gained popularity, and it was competing with the similar Gopher technology. Usenet was a system of discussion groups like modern message forums (e.g. Reddit), but much more primitive. At the time bandwidth was severely limited and often a concern. For playing a text-only online game in 1992, I was banned from a computer system for excessive bandwidth usage amounting to a few hundred kilobytes over several hours! Email has survived, but Usenet and Gopher have both been superseded by the more flexible Web. Bandwidth has risen to the level where HD movies (measured in gigabytes) can easily be watched online.

I can imagine both authors were blinded by their closeness to their contemporary technology to see the revolutionary change about to occur. Thus their books are now quaintly dated. It is interesting to compare this to Neuromancer. Written a decade earlier than the other novels and dealing heavily with computer networks, it hasn’t aged too badly with its portrayal of cyberspace (a term first coined in the book), despite being written by someone with little background in computing. In an interview the author states that the Net as depicted in Neuromancer was a metaphor for the media, but it still works. Evidence of the cliche that being too much of an expert can cloud your powers of extrapolation.

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