The Universal Digital Network

Fernando Sáez Vacas Universidad Politécnica de Madrid

Its extraordinarily advanced approach and content, as well as the structure of his account—a sort of electronic “Hopscotch/Rayuela”—may make “Más allá de Internet: la Red Universal Digital” (Beyond the Internet: the Universal Digital Network) (2004) the essay that best defines Fernando Sáez Vaca’s career.

To what extent do concepts such as the Internet, globalization, and the Information Society define the new techno-social environment and contemporary human beings?

Response: That’s a hard question for me to answer, because I still find the very concept of the Universal Digital Network debatable. In the book, I even described it as “gaseous”, given that it names something that does not exist or that, if it did exist, would not have a definite form. No person, organization or power has designed it or worked to maintain its integrity, which is something that, according to rigorous reason, it does not have. It denotes a trend, above and beyond all the infinite, changing details of its material, technical, organizational or economic reality and that is why I’ve assigned it a certain metaphoric quality.

Q: Even if the New Techno-social Environment or N.E.T. (Nuevo Entorno Tecnosocial) is presented as a theoretical model, it actually refers to an ever-denser info-technological structure.

A: That’s right, the metaphor becomes asymptotic. That is, although the Network may never achieve such tangible unity, it is becoming more and more of a fabric, an ever-denser capilarity which, given that its composition and texture are invisible, appears to its users as a sole, coherent system.

Q.: Four years down the road, what is your latest definition of the Universal Digital Network?

A.: The "Universal Digital Network" is the term I use for a heterogeneous set of multiple, different networks that are continuously evolving. It includes: the Internet, local area computer networks, telephonic landline networks, telephonic cellular networks, Wi-Fi networks, GPS satellite networks, electrical energy networks with PLC technology (wideband power-line communication), body area networks, system networks (an automobile), Internet 0 (“The Internet of Things”), and closed circuit TV networks, among others, which are increasingly digital (including radio and television) and interoperable. They form a vast, extremely complex and almost invisible fabric of networks. Due to our specialization, we do not see its emergence over time as a whole or a system.

Q.: And yet, though it includes too much information to cover in one definition, the Universal Digital Network continues to establish new endogenous and exogenous connections…

A.: That’s right, technologies are constantly being developed and advertised as having interoperability. For example, a company has just announced that it has a technology that can connect quite different devices to each other (computers, mobile telephones, PDAs, digital frames, or digital photography cameras). There is also talk of a push-to-talk over cellular (PoC) feature for interoperability among mobile telephone and radio voice communication networks.

Q.: The genesis of a concept as crucial as this is as important as its contents. Was it based on a formulation or were you looking for a model?

A.: One gradually discovers the concepts one considers important, at times over the course of years of study, observation and reflection. As a professor, I think that, from a didactic point of view, it is worth explaining the steps taken in these personal processes, as I did three years ago with my students through a document in which a breakdown is given of the general architecture of the Universal Digital Network [1]. However, in 1983, I was already developing models for the convergence of information technologies [2] and, of course, an operative concept that would define them. In 1998, the term "Total Digital Machine" (Máquina Digital Total) occurred to me as I was explaining [3] the way Moore’s Law seems to govern the exponential growth of a universe full of machines, whose powerful mechanisms are no more than invisible recordings on semi-conductor material that are increasingly closer to the scale of DNA in genetic material. These microcircuits end up as the cells comprising the cyberspace recently revealed to us by experts. At that time, I was referring to the data and technical forecasts for the near future presented by various authors at the conference titled "The Next Fifty Years of Computing", held to mark the fiftieth anniversary of ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery. Those presentations were subsequently published in the book “Beyond Calculation”, published by Springer Verlag in 1997.

Q.: Was your initial approach bio-technological to some degree?

A.:At that time, I wrote that, with no Orwellian slant, we can conceive of a future where the Total Digital Machine gradually becomes our interface for perceiving, knowing, recording and controlling the world via information. In 1999, however, I wrote a set of brief essays offering "Lessons on the Dark Side of Info-technology" (“Lecciones sobre el lado oscuro de la infotecnología”), focusing on the reticular nature that hypothetical machine was taking on, and I decided to call it the Universal Digital Network (Red Universal Digital) [4]. And the name has stuck.

Q.: Since then, have we come any closer to human-machine hybridization?

A.: The book on the Universal Digital Network says that, in a few years’ time, those microcircuits led us to wearable computing, part of ubiquitous computing: textiles woven out of circuits that process, transmit, or receive data and energy, glasses with displays, keyboards printed onto clothing, and biosensors that measure sweat, temperature and muscle tension. Humans innately aspire to expand their realm of action through tools and prostheses. They aim to amplify and sharpen their senses, multiply their strength and memory, calculate powerfully, and travel farther and faster. In line with these goals, humans also develop embodied info-prostheses, a type of computerized furniture and fittings. Continuing along these lines, the human body would end up as an encapsulated node in the Universal Digital Network from which messages and data could be sent and received, as well as information about the state of one’s senses and organs.

Q.: Concepts as innovative as the Universal Digital Network take time to become consolidated and require some external support, the feeling of belonging to the same school of thought as other observers. Did finding out about other authors’ views, even people from other disciplines, help to broaden your horizons?

A.: Certainly. For example, months after my book was published, I felt a certain amount of moral support for using the "gaseous" concept and even for giving it a name when I read something said by Tony Hoare, one of the pioneers of programming and the 1980 Tury Award winner. In his presentation of "Seven Grand Challenges for the Computing Industry" on 8 June 2004, he stated that to better understand the world of 2020— practically the immediate future— which will be full of computers, we should not see it as a world containing numerous separate computers but rather a sole G.U.C: Global Ubiquitous Computer. In addition, Robin Wood presents his theory of technological waves in his book “Managing Complexity”, published by Economist Books in 2000. He argues that, with the convergence of telecommunications, computing and the media, we are in the Sixth Wave, the Network Revolution, lasting from 1975 to 2010. And outside strictly technological circles, Fritjof Capra in his book “The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living" (Spanish translation published by Anagrama in 2003), states that one of the crucial intuitions of the systemic approach was understanding that the network is a pattern common to all living things: organisms can be understood as networks of cells; and organs, organ systems and cells, as networks of molecules. Convinced by my own reflections and also in keeping with observations like the ones mentioned above, in 2004 I wrote that I understood that the broad network notion was becoming an authentic general conceptual paradigm [5].

Q.: Does the key lie in an open reading of “Hopscotch/Rayuela”?

A.: I won’t deny that, when I christened the human environment undergoing change due to the massive application of info-technology as the Nuevo Entorno Tecnosocial (New Techno-social Environment) (N.E.T.), I was delighted to see that in English, those initials mean “network”.

Footnotes

[1] http://turing.gsi.dit.upm.es/ fsaez/OtrosArticulos/otro_articulo_02.html

[2] http://turing.gsi.dit.upm.es/ fsaez/OtrosArticulos/otro_articulo_01.html

[3] http://turing.gsi.dit.upm.es/ fsaez/educacion/pcweek005.html

[4] http://turing.gsi.dit.upm.es/ fsaez/educacion/pcweek021.html

[5] http://turing.gsi.dit.upm.es/ fsaez/OtrosArticulos/futurosingenieros.html

 

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