Singapore Enters the Machine Age

SINGAPORE (07/25/2000) - Only a small proportion of Web surfers are likely to have heard of Vashti and Kuno, the heroes of a short story by E.M. Forster called "The Machine Stops."

In the story, written in 1909 and prompted by Forster's horror of the effect of technological advances of the time such as the automobile, the telephone and the "flying machine," Vashti and Kuno argue over the merits and demerits of The Machine, which provides all food and housing, communications and medical care.

People rarely leave their hexagonal living cells or meet face-to-face; instead they interact through a global Web that is part of the Machine. Each living cell contains a glowing blue optic plate and a telephone apparatus, which carry images and sounds among individuals and groups.

Ultimately, of course, the Machine fails, and humanity, unable to fend for itself, also perishes.

Forster's story is, in fact, the old debate about the potential alienating and deadening effects of technology, whether it be the spinning wheel, the television -- or the Internet.

Technophobic views like Forster's cut little ice here in Singapore, where ubiquitous, pervasive connectivity has just been declared a national goal by the government.

Bereft of natural resources and lying in a strategic location at a time when location is increasingly unimportant, Singapore is urgently reinventing itself as a communications and Internet hub, and for that it needs connectivity.

Every household and most offices already have a choice between cable modem and DSL (digital subscriber line) broadband access. Soon to be added to the list are LMDS (local multipoint distribution service) wireless broadband and direct satellite-to-building delivery. A little further down the track comes direct fiber-optic access for homes and businesses.

By 2005, everyone in Singapore will have Internet access, with data transfer rates of at least 5M-bps (bits per second), IDA said at its recent technology forum.

On the wireless side, Singapore expects to be the second country in the region after Japan to roll out 3G (third generation) telephone services with data transfer rates hitting 384K-bps. Mobile phone subscriptions will reach 3 million in 2005, according to IDA projections -- not bad for a country with a population of around 3.5 million.

And if you provide the bandwidth, the applications will follow, IDA believes.

High-bandwidth applications --"hungry" applications, in IDA's jargon -- will deliver the always-on, value-added services that citizens are all supposed to need.

Oddly enough, it is at the very top of the ruthlessly efficient IDA that the question of whether more connectivity is inherently good is being raised.

IDA Chairman Lam Chuan Leong acknowledges that the new technologies face a generational divide. People under 30 -- Forster's age when he wrote 'The Machine Stops' -- tend to be more comfortable with pervasive connectivity than the older generation. There are few teenage technophobes.

"IT is having a very profound and crucial impact on everybody's lives," Lam said at the IDA forum. "But the pace of change, the nature of change and the scale of change are proving quite disconcerting to older people and creating some stress."

And Lam, himself part of the over-30 brigade, also worries about the intrusive nature of the technology.

"I hope that we will always be the master of this technology and not slave to it, and always want to turn our mobile phone on rather than turn it off."

Not many people in Singapore -- certainly not in IDA -- would regard this as a serious concern. Competitiveness requires e-commerce, and e-commerce requires connectivity. This is progress. We will not turn our backs on pervasive broadband mobile connectivity any more than we did on the airplane, the automobile, the telephone or the Internet. And we will get used to it.

As Vashti says in Forster's story: "How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!"

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