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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Viewpoint: Information in the Information Age

The information age is characterized by the free flow of information made possible by computer networks. Information products and services account for a large part of the information in these networks. As a rule of thumb, information products and services are those that are knowledge-based, and can largely be delivered on paper. Examples include financial reports, newspapers, purchase orders, and mail order catalogs. All these products can undergo "information distillation"—the process of extracting information from its original paper-based form and representing and transmitting it electronically. In the information economy, the content—not form—of these products, is primary.

But these are not the only major types of information networks. Computer capabilities at the network periphery will change the nature of distilled information and greatly affect the nature of information in networks. This in turn affects the very landscape of the information age. The information distillation we know today is just the first step in opening Pandora's Box.

The distillation of information—the displacement of information from its containers—has been touted as one of the key developments of the information age. In fact, information distillation began with the advent of the telephone and telegraph network. The telephone allowed people to pass information between two parties through audio means, irrespective of the information's original form. For example, sales figures can be read by a salesperson reporting to the head office. Descriptions of pictures can be conveyed to a distant relative, albeit slowly, painstakingly, and quite likely, inaccurately.

The development of computer networks has only changed the complexity of the information distilled. Instead of distilling only partial information, as when we try to verbally describe a picture, we are now able to extract and transmit the exact pictorial information. The change has been a matter of degree, not novelty, and was advanced by improvements in the computer's information reconstruction abilities.

The ability to display a transmitted picture in quality approximating the original is what gives the distilled picture information its utility. This ability is often overlooked as intrinsic to the computer. We tend to view information as being paper-based and conclude that as an information processing tool, the computer should be able to reconstruct anything paper-based.

But it wasn't too long ago that text displays were the norm. Only with the ubiquity of graphical displays has the transmission of richer visual information, such as pictorial information, been useful. Diagrams and pictures can be relayed exactly as they look. This has made their distillation and transmission far more valuable, as the information embodied in the original can be used in its entirety.

Today, in addition to visual information reconstruction, audio reconstruction is also commonplace. Almost every computer is equipped with sound cards and speakers. Tactile sensory reconstruction is also evolving, spearheaded by the gaming community. Technology in the foreseeable future looks likely to allow for the fuller reconstruction of these "sensory reality" forms.

Distilled information is no longer restricted to the conventional notion of knowledge-based information. As robotics and computer intelligence improve, new forms of "reality" will be reconstructible, and information that represents these realities will be distilled and disseminated on information networks. The nature of information in networks will change along with our reconstruction ability. This in turn affects business models and processes in the real world. Products and services that become reconstructible with new technology will experience information distillation and play by the rules of a different business model.

As robotics and computer intelligence improve, new forms of "reality" will be reconstructible, and information that represents these realities will be distilled.

Even traditional physical products like apparel and furniture can potentially undergo information distillation and reconstruction.

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Potential for Physical Products

Advances in discrete manufacturing systems are shrinking the size of each production run. Intelligent control systems and flexible robotic and human workflow make it possible to customize each production batch, allowing for quick turnaround times between batches and making customized production feasible. Products built from commodity component material are the most likely to be manufactured in this way. Batches can be customized with different design options and raw material components. These products do not need to be mass-produced in fixed production lines.

When linked to networks, such manufacturing systems become another type of reconstruction ability. Products manufactured in this way are candidates for information distillation. The design of these products can be decoupled from their physical manufactured form. From the consumer's standpoint, the product will no longer be seen as the result of design and manufacture by one company, such as shirts from a particular company, but rather as a shirt design from a designer and manufactured by a different manufacturer.

For example, in the textile industry of the future, boutique fashion houses and designers will sell their latest designs over the network. Consumers can then purchase the designs and send them over the network to manufacturing outlets with specific customization requirements, such as size, material, and color preferences. Networked supply-chain management systems allow the manufacturing outlet to order specific materials required, and flexible intelligent manufacturing systems automatically cut and prepare the material for sewing and assembly by robotic and human workers.

A similar scenario might take place in the home-furnishing industry, with designers selling furniture designs to be manufactured by a workshop chosen by consumers. Such a business model would be extremely attractive to small start-up designer firms without sufficiently broad (traditional) manufacturing and distribution capabilities. Manufacturing outlets already equipped with flexible networked manufacturing systems may initially see this ad-hoc manufacturing as a high value-added supplement to their revenue stream.

Consumers benefit by being able to better price the value of a product's design separately from its workmanship, lowering pricing inefficiencies.

Contrast this to the current situation, where consumers are sometimes faced with expensive, well-designed products that are shoddily manufactured, and vice versa.

However, for this business model to become widely accepted for physical products, the potential loss of economies of scale in manufacturing will have to be addressed. The development of flexible manufacturing systems will also have to be advanced.

Products, physical or otherwise, and services that can undergo information distillation and reconstruction will be swept into the information economy. The agent of change is the engineering of reconstruction technologies connected to the network periphery.

New forms of distilled information in networks will give rise to new processing, networking, and socio-economic activities. By engineering advances in reconstruction capabilities, we will be better able to feel the pulse of the information age.

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Wei-lung Wang ( is a graduate student in the School of Computing at the National University of Singapore.

©1999 ACM  0002-0782/99/0600  $5.00

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