May. 2, 2001 09:29 AM
Cyberspace is a new domain, overlaying the physical world with a bypass network that allows us to reconstruct many aspects of human activity without respect to geography. It is much more than just Web sites and discussion rooms. It has a multitude of dimensions and trillions of potential variants. Because it allows us to do things in new ways, it will profoundly affect our business and social lives.
Welcome to Cyberspace
In the physical world, geography dominates. In cyberspace, time and connectivity dominate. Geography has little importance in cyberspace.
Until we start the cyberspace reconstruction of our world in earnest, it's in the mapping of existing physical and mental entities and processes that much of the rewards will lie. Since cyberspace is relatively new, this mapping process is still in its early stages, and requires a great deal of experimentation to discover which mappings are worth making and in exactly which form.
What Exactly Is Cyberspace?
It's spatially and temporally disjointed. When someone plays in a virtual world on an isolated machine, that virtual world is certainly part of cyberspace, but is not connected to any other part. By contrast, no part of the physical universe is completely isolated. Some parts of cyberspace spring in and out of existence when machines are switched on and off, or programs activated or closed down. Links in time can be backwards or forwards. Normal physical laws of causality need not be observed, and processes need not be played out in physical time.
It's asymmetric. When the network is reconnected to the above machine, that part may be connected to the rest of cyberspace either uni- or bidirectionally, so that the user may be able to see out, but no one is permitted to see in, or vice versa. Also, a select group of people may be able to see in, perhaps to different degrees. This is no different conceptually from someone providing a group of people with a key to the front door, or being able to go outside without permitting anyone in.
Appearances aren't fixed. While we all might agree that a ball is red, a cyberspace entity might present itself differently to different viewers, in different conditions, or at different times. A virtual shopping arcade might be a cosmic landscape with floating shops staffed by weird aliens to one user, while being a conventional 1980s mall to someone else. Both could buy the same products, though perhaps in very different ways.
Physics is optional and customizable. There are no God-given rules as to how things should behave or interact, and there is no absolute requirement for consistency of behavior. Imagination and skill are the only limits and behavioral variability may be a desirable option.
What Use Is It?
Cyberspace allows people to share a meeting even though they are geographically dispersed. It allows a limited form of telepresence, where a user can see or do things as if he or she were in a remote location. The only real limitation is that it doesn't allow for direct manipulation or transfer of atoms so the user has to rely on signaling to persons or machines to do this for him or her.
It allows conceptual entities and processes to interact freely, independent of their physical location or manifestation. This is tremendously important as it means we are unconstrained by today's business and social structures. Companies that have evolved in the physical world may have no reason to exist in a cyberspace-dominant world, and certainly we should challenge every aspect of our familiar world to see if there is a better way of achieving our goals.
Institutional Evolution in Cyberspace
If we look at other functions such as procurement and distribution, they certainly have a geographic element, but they can be organized from anywhere. A truck has to drive along a road, but might get its route information from anywhere. The other processes in a company such as finance, personnel management, sales, R&D, and so on, could be based anywhere. Decomposition will allow a complete disassembly of the functionality right across our business and society. From now on, there is no reason for all these processes to exist in the same location. Outsourcing was the beginning of this process. The Net will allow processes to be combined in optimal ways regardless of historic business structures.
The logistics side of businesses will be revolutionized. With a mature and ubiquitous e-commerce/e-business infrastructure, organizational units and processes will mostly have standard interfaces. Super-efficient logistics companies will organize processes on a global scale for millions of businesses. They will be the best of class, and we won't need very many of them. Wholesaling and retailing exist today only because most manufacturers don't have the means to organize delivery to the individual customer. In a cyberspace world, this will be organized by a remote logistics company. Customers will decide what they want and the logistics company will find or organize its manufacture, collection, and delivery. This will rely on many physical distribution and storage providers, but their selection and coordination can reside anywhere.
But most of the departments in today's companies might just disappear into history, or change beyond recognition. Many of the administrators just aren't needed in a cyberspace-dominated world with masses of machine intelligence in the background. E-commerce will produce easily traceable audit trails, and statistics by the database load. It will be able to arrange and record most things automatically. We'll need very few accountants or auditors, very few managers, and very few clerks. Almost all of their roles can be automated. Most sales will be arranged between agents, and the organization of the system needs far fewer points of sale in any case.
Managing personnel in such a world can be very lightweight too. Not because they'll be any more pliant, but because most of us will work on short-term contracts on particular projects, freelance. People with appropriate skills will log them in e-commerce databases, and they will be contracted when a job for which they are suited needs to be done. Of course, their "suitability" includes a host of factors. Even the board is not guaranteed survival. People will lend money on the Net according to various parameters. Loss adjusters, risk assessors, and so on will help this process. Virtual companies will spring up using this capital pool, and managers will be employed on the same virtual company basis as any other staff to implement or oversee the implementation of the system.
We might see an alternative structure - the knowledge guild. The guild simply guarantees the quality of the workmanship of its members. Members get work. These might evolve from today's guilds and professional institutions, but will be far more powerful, because they'll be global, with all the advantages of a network community.
The value chain in cyberspace will evolve too (see Figure 4). Customers will have a wide choice of interfaces through which they enter cyberspace - whether mobile communicator, 3D booth, interactive TV, a computer screen, or whatever. Providing a wide range of usable interfaces to cyberspace functionality will be a big business. The interface will take the user into some sort of personal cyberspace environment, which could be anything from a simple list on a cell phone to a 3D virtual reality space. Translating a multiplicity of forms of Internet data into a wide variety of personalized interfaces will keep interfacers very busy indeed.
The Internet already has a huge amount of functionality and it's rarely obvious which is the best site to go to or the best product to pick. Guides will therefore play a very important role, as will facilitators, who'll help users do what they want.
Assimilators will bring together the functionality that the user wants. Today we have portals that do some of this, but really, with increasing complexity in everyday life, users will want a one-stop shop that offers to unload all the hassles of organizing their everyday lives. Outside this customized personal cyberspace, knowledge creators, guilds, and quality assessors will provide service to the one-stop shop. Logistics providers will organize the acquisition of goods and services that the user buys, including collaborative custom manufacturing and its distribution.
Most people will have their own little patch of cyberspace, even if it amounts to no more than an answerphone message. Usually they will interface with the rest of the Net via their own area. They may maintain many zones with a variety of privacy attributes, echoing the range of different roles that the person plays. Some will be completely personal and secure, others shared with family or close friends, others with business colleagues or members of a club. Users will be shielded from the cacophony of information noise by a multiplicity of smart filters and translators.
But people like to talk more than to listen and we can expect people to want to make their mark by transmitting into cyberspace as well as receiving from it. This ego-echo will challenge the assumption that lines to people's homes should be asymmetric with more data traveling to the home than from it. It may be the other way round! Their personal area would appear differently to other people depending on who they are, where they are, and when they are looking, as well as on that viewer's personal interface characteristics.
Personal cyberspaces will interact with each other and of course we will have group cyberspaces too.
Bandwidth and Access
Asymmetry might be the reverse of the assumption underlying ADSL. People running their own cyberspace presence from home may need more upstream bandwidth than downstream. The network will have to cope with this.
Privacy and security will be important factors. We can't expect each individual to be an IT expert, so the infrastructure will need to provide the simple means of guaranteeing these hygiene factors.
Finally, mobility will be important. UMTS will allow people to access the Internet at relatively high rates within a few years. As people become accustomed to always being in touch with the Internet, they'll become more dependent on it. Today being in an area with a poor signal is annoying; tomorrow it will be intolerable. Providing truly ubiquitous access will be an essential characteristic for mobile networks that wish to survive.
Where to Next?
There's a constant interplay between the products and services created and marketed in the physical space and the needs they meet in the mental space. New products create new needs. For example, the Sony Walkman is a classic example of a new product that created an unrecognized (and probably nonexistent) "need." In the future, Danish social researcher Rolf Jensen suggests we will live in a "Dream Society" in which successful products are those that appeal to people's emotional needs and aspirations (The Dream Society, 1999).
We already have two spaces - physical and mental - in which products and wants are coevolving. Cyberspace opens up a third space that can interact with the others. Cyberspace changes the way we interact with each other and the way we can interact with the physical world. As new ideas are developed in cyberspace, they can create new consumer wants in the mental space, and also interact with the physical space to create a vast new range of possible hybrid products and services, which in turn create new needs in consumers, and yet more product ideas.
Developing the Cybereconomy
Change is always a threat. Even in the physical world the average life of a company is around 25 years. As Arie de Guess points out in The Living Company, companies that have histories of a hundred years or more have survived by radically changing their core business over time. They often set up small subsidiaries in new business areas. Some will fail, some will be sold off, but one or two may grow to become the company's new core business. In cyberspace, change will always occur more rapidly, as there are no fixed assets to be depreciated or sold off.
Because there are no physical assets in cyberspace, it's easy and quick to set up new businesses. This fact, coupled with the primacy of innovation in maintaining competitive advantage, means power will shift away from owners of physical capital toward those who possess the intellectual capital. The trend, especially in the U.S., toward paying people by stock options reflects the reality that the true owners of a 21st-century company are its employees.
Getting attention will be key
In this world, branding will also be important. A brand won't be a product, but an assurance of quality for a wide range of products and services (rather as Virgin is attempting to be). But brands may not be owned only by large corporations. Groups of small companies could join forces under a common brand (rather like Best Western in the hotel industry). Such groupings would not just guarantee quality and possibly provide navigating/portal facilities to potential customers, but would also actively market their members and provide a route for new entrepreneurs to enter the cybereconomy once they had satisfied the membership requirements. Here we have the economic equivalent of the herd.
The Future of Cyberspace?
Unlike the natural world, cyberspace was devised by humans. Therefore we have to think in terms of "engineering" cyberspace in the same way we engineer other complex human artifacts.
Until recently cyberspace has been devoted to the relay of text, numerical information, graphics, and simple video. But electronic spatial environments themselves will increasingly become subjects for design. A fundamental feature of cyberspace is its interdisciplinary nature. Cyberspace is particularly rich in artistic content and in many ways has more affinity with media than engineering.
The conventional architecture of the physical world can only pro-vide passive amenities. The architecture of cyberspace is a dynamic, changing environment that, if well conceived, attends us in everything we do. Cyberspace has to reflect the intrinsically human quality of space and its role in thought, communication, and identity. Through its perceptual and cognitive realms, cyberspace extends us beyond ourselves to others. This is the potential strength of cyberspace - that it will allow us to integrate within a single architecture, personal, social, economic, and political considerations, as well as technical ones. and social lives.
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