Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Predicting the Future, Part 1

Between 1998 and 2003, a group of IT staff members at Penn worked together to produce technology vision and strategy documents called PennNet-21. There were 3 editions, published in 1998, 2000 and 2003. Each explored relevant technologies and the steps we hoped to take to deliver better services to our user community. 
As one small part of this effort, I wrote vignettes that helped to describe how future technologies could play a role in improving common workflows. I found them fun to write and fun to look back upon now. There were five in all. For the next few days I’ll publish one a day here in this blog, word for word as they appeared at the time. 
I invite you on a trip back to a “future as seen from the past” in these 5 PennNet-21 stories. As you read them, try to remember the actual technology of the time – a time before smartphones, generally before wireless networks, and before many of the things described were at all possible.

From PennNet-21 1st Edition, 1998
“Business as Usual – A Story Set 4 Years Into the Future”

Robert arrives for work at his office in the Van Pelt Library about 30 minutes before his scheduled video conference call, and sets Rover, his handheld computing device, next to his desktop computer. The handheld and desktop quickly authenticate to each other and then automatically start to synchronize their data over a wireless connection.

“Any messages, Scanner?” Robert asks his desktop. “Three,” his desktop computer replies in Robert’s preferred voice, “two from callers on your critical-caller list, one that seems to be a sales call.” Robert tells Scanner to route the two critical caller messages to Rover, where he can access them wherever he might go, and to leave the sales call. He’ll pick that up later as time permits. “I reserved some video time for this morning,” Robert continues. “Bring up a screen directory, please.”

Schedule information for his reserved 4-way video conference, and three scheduled video multicasts he had indicated might be of interest, display on his screen in a window just above the rolling ticker display of university announcements. He confirms the video conference call and clicks ‘reject’ on two of the multicasts and ‘accept’ on one. Scanner completes the network reservation requests for both the video conference and the video content he requested.

One of the video multicasts Robert rejects is on a campus issue he has been actively involved with, but he can’t spare the time today. He decides to take a moment to search a likely directory for some current information on the topic and ends up listening to a short audio clip of a recent address by a university vice-president on the subject. Robert gets an idea on the subject and decides it is worth discussing with an executive member of the vice-president’s staff with whom he’s worked before. He pulls up his calendaring tool and tries to schedule a meeting with her, but her calendar is blocking requests at the moment, so he hits the voice-contact button on the screen and Scanner places an audio call. Surprisingly, the call is “picked up” quickly. Robert doesn’t know for certain whether Jean has picked up the call on a conventional telephone device or whether she is answering through her desktop computer.

“Good morning, Jean. I was hoping to get a brief meeting with you – in person rather than video conference if you can – to discuss the Locust Walk proposal. But your calendar wasn’t responding.”

“I’ve heard we’re having a server upgrade here,” Jean says, “but it should be cleared up within the next half hour. Would 2pm Wednesday at my office work for you?”

“Oh yes, thanks, that’s great. I’ll queue up a request for your calendar and it should be visible on your end when your server comes back up. See you then.”

Robert has 20 minutes before his conference call, so he picks up Rover and walks down the hall toward the coffee machine.


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The above appeared as a "PennNet-21 Story" in the 1998 publication PennNet-21 First Edition. Some of it seems corny, some of it hints at technologies that we really did come to know. Please leave a comment to let us know what you think, and come back soon to read the second of the PennNet-21 stories.

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