Thursday, August 04, 2011

Computing, a new public utility of the 21st century, Part 1

Computing is qualified to be a public utility of the 21st century; and it is good if it comes true.

This is the part 1 of a three-installment mini-series.

Part 1: a broad view of public utilities

A public utility represents an infrastructure that serves a general demand of the public. The typical general demands include such as the demand of water supply, the demand of power supply, the demand of waste disposal, the demand of transportation, the demand of remote communication, and the demand of safety. Respectively we have the public utilities such as water, electricity (and natural gas), sewage, road (and rail), post (and phone), and police services.

Because of public utility ordinary people as well as the businesses may reach their general demands in low cost. Take the demand of power supply as the example. Before electricity became a public utility, power supply for not only the ordinary persons but also the businesses was expensive. In consequence, both the intensively energy-consuming personal gadgets and the intensively energy-consuming businesses were economically infeasible in society. After the invention of electricity distribution network, electricity became a new public utility of the 20th century. With the significantly lowered cost of power supply, many cutting-edge energy-consuming personal gadgets and factories rose from the horizon. It was the last great industry revolution.

But it is not to say that any general demand is suitable to be a public utility. Let's take a look at two examples.

The general demand of food supply is rarely implemented as a public utility. Comparing to the demands such as water supply or power supply, the food supply is too diverse in its demand. Different people often have varied requests on the food they demand. As the result, unless it is in some toughest time of history (such as during the war time when the general demand of food supply is generally reduced to be bread only) few governments take the demand of food supply to be a public utility.

Another typical example is the general demand of marriage. Although certainly everybody expects a spouse, never have this demand been a public utility. The reason is similar. Everybody has his (or her) unique preference. Such a demand is infeasible for a public utility solution.

With these insights we may start to study the other general demands and see whether they are feasible to be a public utility. Let's begin with a controversial topic---the general demand of healthcare. Shall our society be dominated by the government-run hospitals or the government-operated health insurance? The answer shall be no. The demand of healthcare is similar to the demand of food supply. The demand is general to everybody. But at the same time it is also too diverse in the demand with respect to the individuals. Government must initiate a few special programs for taking care of the health of the low-income people. It is the same as government has already provided special food supply programs for the low-incomes. But it is not a good idea to make the general demand of healthcare be a public utility, which would be equivalent for us to have made the general demand of food supply be a public utility.

Finally we are able to touch the theme---the demand of information computation. Based on what we have studied, we shall answer two questions in order to determine whether computing would be qualified for a new public utility. (1) Is the demand of information computation general to the public? And (2) are the requests from people in this demand too diverse to be handled by a public utility?

Since the invention of personal computer and World Wide Web, our society has already entered the information age. The digitized information is flooding over the daily life of many of us. Nowadays few people claim too little information to look at. By contrast, we often complain there are too much information but too limited ability to digest. The demand of information computation has been general to most of the ordinary people of our society.

Simultaneously digital data representation is gradually becoming uniform. After decades of studies the data storage at the physical layer has already been unified. We can now indistinguishably access the data stored in varied devices that are produced by different manufactures. Even at the presentation layer, due to the efforts of the Semantic Web and the linked data initiatives the data representation is approaching a common standard across the Web. All these achievements lays the foundation for implementing the general demand of information computation to become the new public utility of computing.


This first installment explains briefly why computing is qualified and good in theory to be a new public utility in the 21st century. The next installment will continue the topic by illustrating the Web evolutionary trend how computing is actually approaching to be a public utility.

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