Technology and History “Kranzberg’s Laws” applied to Telecom

Christopher Mims, wrote an article reminding us of Dr Kranzberg's six laws of Technology. Here is a link to the WSJ article.

I was lucky enough to be at the Georgia Institute of Technology during Dr. Kranzberg's tenure, but was never lucky enough to register in time to enroll in his very popular class. He retired at seventy in 1998.  His ideas were talked about on campus, but I needed Mim's article to remind me of them.  Now, I only wish I would have tried harder to register.

His six laws are as follows.  I am not going to offer explanation here, his presidential address, linked below, does better than I can match.  But I think it would be a interesting exercise to apply these laws to the history of telecommunications.    So let’s see how the laws apply.

The numbered bullets are the law and the indented bullet is the application of the law to telecommunications.

1. Technology is neither good nor bad; nor it is neutral.

  • The obvious telecommunications advancement whose impact varies wildly is the internet.  On the plus side the internet allows employees the flexibility to work from anywhere and offers enormous benefits to the environment in the form of energy savings.  What about the Internet's impact on our health?  On the negative side it is probably leading to obesity especially in children who rarely go outside. While at the November 29th Nashville Tech Council meeting, I saw the internet is allowing the insurance industry to improve our overall health.
  • During WWII, the totalitarian regime's over confidence and poor process control in using encryption led to an allied advantage.  What if encryption had been used more effectively and wisely by the totalitarian regimes?  What if the allies did not break the German enigma and decode Japanese communications in the pacific?  Both the Allies and Axis powers used telecommunication advancements in encryption, but the encryption itself was neither good or bad.  Reference "The Code Book", Simon Singh.

2.  Invention is the mother of necessity.

  • Every invention or new idea seems to initiate a slew of additional innovations to improve or replace the first idea.   The advent of the Internet was a huge rock thrown into the quiet calm telecommunications pond.  Progress in the telecommunications world was glacial.   I entered this world in 1991 working for Northern Telecom.  The Telecom industry was analog twisted copper pairs with digital back-haul and infrastructure.   TDM (Time Division Multiplexing) and synchronization, needed for the digital infrastructure, were the cutting edge technologies for close to thirty years.  All to support voice.  SONET was the new buzzword for transporting all this digital data. It was structured, the big players backed it, and it was expensive.  Then came the Internet.  Dial up was the first attempt to use the legacy voice network as an on-ramp to the Internet.  T1's (part of the TDM infrastructure) were the other on-ramp for those who could afford it.  It is best to completely ignore the industries hoped for solution, ISDN (It Still Does Nothing).  From here the invention of the internet drove development in several areas:
  • Better Access - Something had to be done to make the pipe to the home bigger.
    • Advances in modulation theory -  To put it as simply as possible nature/physics likes sine waves and dislikes digital/square waves.  QAM modulation is modulating digital data to take advantage of an analog carrier (sine wave).  Advances in modulation are used in all mediums: copper, coax, fiber and wireless.  Getting data to go further and faster.  Higher and different modulation rates, Spread spectrum, CDMA (Code division Multiple Access), OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) all needed to be developed to increase reliable thru-put.
    • Copper-First the original dial-up modem used advances in modulation to get more data across the same copper pair designed for voice.   Then the bottleneck was the digital voice infrastructure.  To get around the switched voice infrastructure's 64 kbps bottleneck it was bypassed entirely with the advent of the DSL modem. Connecting the home directly in the Internet routers. Advances in modulation continue to improve DSL thru-put
    • Coax - The analog TV plant was there connecting millions of homes to cable TV.  To this video only infrastructure the cable industry developed Cable modems to take advantage of the broad spectrum provided by the cable plant.   The fiber optic industry developed EDFA optical amplifiers (1986) to get modulated signals to reach further into the world. Many advances in RF were driven by the cable industry wanting to become an internet provider.
    • Fiber-Optics - The idea of fiber-optics for communication has been with us since at least the 1920's.  The development of low loss single mode glass and lasers in the 1970's made the idea practical.  The demand for internet caused an explosion in the demand for SONET systems in the 1990's to transport all the data.  SONET was an expensive solution to the problem, and this led to the development of less expensive optical Ethernet solutions.  Further capacity demands led to the development of CWDM and DWDM, sending many lambdas (light frequencies) across a single fiber.  To get even more data across a single fiber modulation techniques are now being used on each lamdba.
    • Wireless -It took a little longer for the wireless world to advance far enough to become a practical solution for internet access. It took advances in the areas of silicon, RF, modulation techniques, and fiber to make cell based wireless to the end customer practical.
  • Compression and Caching - Interest in compression and data caching techniques exploded as the internet demand drove their real world implementation.
  • Better Core networking - Routing standards evolved to match the growth of the internet.
  • Better Silicon -  Processing and memory demands were driven by the internet demand.
  • Better Signal Integrity and RF - The underlying concepts of SI and RF were pushed by every technical advance listed above.  And these underlying advances in SI and RF have driven advances in other areas.

3.  Technology comes in packages, big and small.

  • PSTN - Public Switched Telephone Network.  To provide voice services to the entire world, a huge industry emerged made up of many smaller parts. Entire ecosystems evolved to supply this industry, from material improvements for copper cable sleeve design, fiber-optics, battery backup and generators, voice recognition, to silicon fabs to provide chip sets.  This history of telecom advances and is advanced by many different devices and industries.

4.  Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions.

  • Examples of Government rules/rulings taking precedence over technology decisions: Net Neutrality drove content providers to supply caching servers to many ISPs (Internet Service Providers) for free.  FCC ruling on separated encryption for cable boxes drove up the cost of set-top boxes and hindered advancement.  The country's telecom standards acting as trade barriers to hardware providers. The slow adoption of funding rural data in favor of rural voice.  All of these are examples of government rules taking precedence over technology decisions.

5.  All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant.

  • From the 80's onward nothing has had a bigger impact on history than the technical advancements in telecommunications.   Impact on telecommunications on music, from reel to reel to records, to 8 tracks, to CD to just grabbing whatever music or video you want from the "air.” Movie creation and distribution.   Has anything had a bigger impact on business than telecommunications? From ordering a few items over the phone to purchases everything online.  The Medical field?  War?  Politics? Sharing of ideas? Recent history has been dictated by the history and advancement of telecommunications.

6.  Technology is a very human activity - and so is the history of technology.

  • Telecommunications is about bringing people and ideas closer together, what could be more human?

You can read Dr Kransberg's 1985 presidential address explaining his laws here, "Technology and History: 'Kranzberg's Laws' ", page 544 - 560.

Best regards,

David Redys, P.E.