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The Impact of Electronic Publishing on the Academic Community

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Session 4: Social and cultural issues


Paolo Zanella

The European Bioinformatics Institute, Wellcome Trust Genome Campus, Hinxton, Cambridge CB10 1SD, U.K.

©Portland Press Ltd., 1997.
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Introductory remarks

The electronic digital computer is fifty years old. During half a century our society has been increasingly feeling its impact. The initial curiosity-generated labels like electronic brain and artificial intelligence were followed by terms like computer science and informatics. More recently it was realized that we were actually experiencing a digital revolution. The expected convergence of digital computers, digital networks and telecommunications, and digital television should bring further justification and add tangible content to this term.

The impact has been quite visible from the start in the areas of science and technology; the humanities are discovering the power and the potential of information technology (IT) but they are not rushing blindly to adopt everything offered.

We have been living through an extraordinary century. After the discovery of the electron, 100 years ago, we have witnessed the century of physics and chemistry. It has been the century of many ages: the Atomic Age, the Space Age, not to mention the Aviation Age, the Television Age, etc. Now we are entering the Information Age which, together with the Age of Biology, is going to play the major role in the near future.

The Information Age is descending on our society bringing with it new products and processes and making them obsolete at an unprecedented rate. We now have fax and scanners, personal computers and Virtual Reality gadgetry, the Internet and the World Wide Web. Most of these objects will evolve dramatically or disappear. Nobody can predict what the Web will look like 5--10 years from now. The past is not of much help to us since the Web did not exist 10 years ago and it was only an idea in the minds of its visionary designers 5--6 years ago. Will the concept of a Web page become an historical collection item in the Information Age Museum in the not too distant future?

We all see the effects of the electronic digital IT in our daily life at home and at the working place. Electronic publishing is just one such effect. At CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), where I worked for many years, we were throwing numerically simulated beams of particles at simulated experimental detectors to design high-energy physics experiments. Today, we produce airplanes like the Boeing 777 by simulating every aspect of the plane and its behaviour on powerful computers; by testing their flying capabilities in simulated wind tunnels, we avoid the time-consuming construction of expensive prototypes. Simulated cars are crashed against other simulated cars or against digital trees or walls to study optimal car security. (As a result car crashes are now much better understood than computer crashes!)

We have heard at this conference that if we wanted to store all the naturally digital DNA sequences of all living human beings, we would need a petabyte store, i.e. 1015 bytes of storage capacity. Well, massive storage capacities of the order of petabytes will be technically and economically viable by the time the first completely sequenced human genome is available in 2003. However, as Chris Sander pointed out, 'walking storage' will be a more compact and efficient way of storing DNA information for quite some time.

Looking at the crystal ball to predict the future of IT has not been a particularly useful exercise so far. In fact, nobody predicted the advent of the personal computer or the explosive diffusion of the Web. In the early days of the networks it was not obvious why computers should need to talk to each others. Some of the most daring predictions turned out to be miserably below the mark. On the other hand some forecasts are still struggling to come true, e.g. computers still have difficulties in understanding our spoken messages and the Chess World Champion is still a human being.

However, unbelievable forecasts are continuously facing, challenging or threatening us and our society. If Moore's Law continues to apply inescapably to the development of microelectronics, storage devices, etc., as it did for the last 25 years or so, we should see the first one-billion-transistor integrated circuits soon after the turn of the century. And if the progression goes on for another 50 years, we might see the gigabit chip followed by the terabit chip, the petabit chip, and so on, opening up mind-boggling possibilities all through the 21st century. Surely, sooner or later we will hit physical limits, such as the speed of light or the switching of a microdevice by a single electron.

One thing is sure, we are just at the beginning of the Information Age. While the U.S.A. is paving the way ahead by building the information highways, the European Union is preparing for the information society.

Franco Mastroddi, who is working at the European Commission's Directorate General XIII (Telecommunications, Information Market and Exploitation of Research) gave a very interesting presentation on his view of the information society and of the current trends in electronic publishing.

To complete the session Paata Kervalishvili spoke about the problems and the fast-growing importance of IT, networks, data communications and the Web in developing countries in general and in his country, Georgia, in particular.

The opportunities offered by modern technology are enormous and the expectations are rising quite dramatically. Education, academic research, science and technology may benefit considerably. The penetration is very fast and the younger generations are converting rapidly. One has, however, to build the infrastructure and make investments in order to realize the full potential of the new media of the Information Age.

In the discussions following the presentations a number of points emerged and the most important are briefly summarized as follows: (i) we should make sure that the Web will not impose the English language as the de facto standard communication language between Web users. Steps should be taken to facilitate multilingual exchanges. (ii) Privacy: Web user's privacy should be preserved. 'Cookies' and other monitoring software devices should not become unwelcome intruders. (iii) Bandwidth is not the only problem but we need a lot more of it to sustain the current rate of expansion of the Internet usage.

©Portland Press Ltd., 1997.
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