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Written by David Brunnen   
Tuesday, 07 February 2012 16:22

Dickens, born 200 years ago, would have been amazed.

Head of CommunicationsHe would have been surprised that his works are now considered ‘classics’, that his status as a literary celebrity is still intact around the world and that so many of the deprivations that he exposed in Victorian times were later described by social reformers as Dickensian.

It was during his lifetime that scientists and entrepreneurs took the first cautious and uncertain steps towards the invention of a telephone system.  It is tempting to see in history a smooth progression from the curiosity of galvanic music to iPad-enabled participation in a book-group reading of Nicholas Nickleby.  Tempting it may be, but misguided.

A true reading of progress in telecommunications shows a very jumpy and disruptive history rather than some incremental process of organic development.  As a commercial proposition the fluctuations of galvanic music gave way to binary telegraphy long before being outshone by analogue telephony - only for the binary world to reassert itself in the last 50 years with the packetisation first of data and then of voice.  This disruptive process continues with optical communications – boosting capacity in ways that put even Cooper’s Law of spectrum efficiency into a modest context.

At each innovative twist and turn, far from a smooth progression, technological disruption is agonizing.  Unless some compromise can be reached the old ways must be abandoned in favour of the new.  Trying to re-purpose some elements of the system can buy a little time but most probably not enough to stave off a mass defection.  It happened with mains electricity that at one time was generated locally in the form of Direct Current but by the mid-50’s finally gave way to the more efficient and flexible Alternating alternative.   Interestingly it was deprived inner-city areas that were the last to benefit from this massive infrastructure investment.

Dickens stories were (and still are) often criticized for their blatant sentimentality but it is fairly clear from the way they fuelled the social reform movement that their graphic intensity revealed his true purpose and outrage at institutionalized inability to innovate.

If Charles Dickens was born today he would grow up in a world where we wouldn’t yet have the word Dickensian.  We would most likely speak of things being ‘unfit-for-purpose’.

He would grow up in world where banks were thought too big to fail.  He would gain an education in a complex multi-dimensional league-table-measured society where older teachers cheered themselves by muttering ‘Gove compare’.

Beyond schooling the young Dickens would now, as then, desperately search for a poorly-paid internship from friends of his father.

But during every day and when he got home at night he would positively revel in the glorious freedom of being on-line, of being a citizen of the world, of having access to resources to match his own huge ambition – except, of course, that his ambitions would reach way beyond today’s scant provisions and in his stories he would rail against the limitations, the throttling, the short-sightedness of those providing network access that was ‘unfit for purpose’.

But Charles Dickens was born 200 years ago – so we can now say with the full crippling sense of stunted opportunities, unnecessary poverty, excessive inequalities, inadequate and inefficient social and community provision and high employment, that the ‘last generation’ of creaking copper lines is Dickensian.

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Notes:

Coopers Law refers to the progression of increasing spectrum efficiency (primarily through re-use brought about by smaller cellular base stations and adaptive antennas) first documented by Dr Martin Cooper - the leader of the team that produced the first commercial cellular phone - leading to his assertion that "there is no shortage of spectrum, only a shortage of spectrum efficiency".

This editorial was written for members of the Communication Management Association (CMA), part of the BCS - the UK's chartered society for ICT professionals.

Charles Dickens was born 7th February 1812.  

Last Updated on Tuesday, 07 February 2012 17:09
 

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