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From the December 5, 1997 ComputorEdge (Issue 1549)

By Jim Trageser

On Nov. 11, I was invited to speak to the Amateur Radio Group at the San Diego Yacht Club ( about radio-computer convergence. I was a bit long-winded, but have distilled what I said down to the following:

The biggest social issue facing the computer culture is not any of the hyped "concerns" in the media. It's not technological illiteracy nor privacy nor online commerce nor even government censorship. It strikes me that what ties all the above together is the neglected role of the hobbyist. In the growing commercialization of the personal computer market, we're losing something important: A sense of fun, of possibility, of "gee whiz."

And we're also losing a sense of leadership.

Most computer users today are not hobbyists; they buy computers that are marketed and sold as home appliances – and how many people join a Frigidaire or Kenmore user group?

But computers hold far more possibility than refrigerators or toaster ovens for changing society (for better or worse), and it has been in those user groups that the leadership of the computer community was formed. It was in user groups that topics such as piracy, public access, online free speech and other issues that spread far beyond our own hobbyist community were first debated. Without the kind of expertise and passion incubated in user groups, society as a whole is going to have a tough time making decisions on issues relating to computers in the future.

At the same time, just as "wireless" did earlier this century, computers and the Internet are helping spread the power of communication to the people. That's why many of us get involved in radio or computers – the chance to communicate freely, to create a new sense of community unbounded by time and place.

And I think those of us interested in maintaining a sense of community among computer hobbyists, those of us who think such a community can be of value not only in helping society come to grips with new technology but as a benefit in its own right, can – and should – look to the amateur radio community for ideas and guidance.

Much as desktop publishing and now hypertext on the World Wide Web have continued the print revolution begun by Gutenberg, so will, I believe, the Internet and computers extend what Marconi began with radio: giving EVERYONE the power to communicate to a broad audience.

We can already see the first stirrings of this radio-computer convergence, with RealAudio "stations" where you can listen to music through your Web browser.

But that's only the beginning. With RealAudio, you still have to have distinct data files that are then downloaded via modem. However, as cable modems increase in popularity and bring their higher bandwidth, we will see greater emphasis on real-time audio streaming, where live netcasts are sent out over a digital signal to anyone who cares to pick them up.

And just as the development of affordable high-resolution laser printers and digital font technology lowered the cost of entering the printing and typesetting business by a factor of 10 or more, so will the advent of truly high-speed modems bring the cost of having your own "radio" station into the realm of individuals and families.

For the price of a PC, a mixing board and high-bandwidth Internet access, you will be able to have your own radio station. No more FCC license. No more tower. No more transmitter. And consider this: As portable, digital, PCS-type phones become more powerful and more affordable, and as laptop computers continue follow suit, the ability to use a computer to access netcasts anywhere will rival that of the portable radios.

I think that within a decade we'll see portable PCS as an option in most cars. They'll be installed, with an onboard cell or PCS phone/modem or radio uplink, in the dash or console. And so while tooling down the road you'll be able to go on the Internet and find any netcast you want.

Which brings us back to the first issue: The hobbyist.

Again, what the hobbyist brings is leadership. An ethos. A sense of tradition and community. Most importantly, of duty.

Because that's what the computer community is lacking – a sense of obligation to the larger community around it. Too many in our computer community have adopted the hacker ethic – that as long as you don't get caught, whatever you're doing is okay.

But anarchy is not an ethos, it is the lack of one. And THAT is the largest problem facing the computer community today.

There are some signs to provide hope. The San Diego Computer Society has been organizing its members to volunteer in wiring public schools for the Internet so our students get a basic grounding in technology. The Detwiler Foundation, despite its recent problems, has done a good job of getting businesses to donate their older and unneeded computers to the schools. And the Computer Museum of America in La Mesa is successfully preserving our computer heritage.

But when you compare these to the search and rescue operations of amateur radio, to the role ham radio played in tying the world together this century, to giving voice to the weak and powerless from around the globe, it is clear that the public service possibilities offered by computers are largely unexplored at present. Far more people already have access to the Internet than have ever had a short-wave or ham radio. And yet there are a heck of a lot more Web sites dedicated to UFOs or conspiracy theories (or both!) than there are to productive social work.

What we're going to need in the coming century is a ham computer community. It is important that those who have been active and involved in the amateur radio community stay open to new possibilities, and look for ways to involve more people. Whatever the next generation of computers brings us, we need to ensure that this new power is harnessed for the greater good.