Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


GOES-16 Satellite and its Orbital Gaze

Posted on | February 7, 2017 | No Comments

“With this kind of resolution, if you were in New York City and you were taking a picture of Wrigley Field in Chicago, you’d be able to see home plate.” So says Eric Webster, vice president and general manager of environmental solutions and space and intelligence systems for the Harris Corp. of Fort Wayne, Indiana about the capabilities of the newly launched GOES-16 satellite (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite). But what this statement fails to reveal is the comprehensive view of the Earth that the satellite provides and the extraordinary amount of information that can be gleaned from its images.

NASA launched the GOES-16, formerly known as GOES-R, on November 19, 2016, and after testing, it became operational earlier this year. This satellite provides powerful new eyes for monitoring potential disasters including floods and other weather-related dangers. It was built for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Denver, Colorado by Lockheed Martin, with imagers by Harris and launched in an Atlas Rocket.

With 16 different spectral channels and improved resolution, scientists can monitor a variety of events such as hurricanes, volcanoes, and even wildfires. The satellite’s two visible channels, ten infrared, and four near-infrared channels allows the identification and monitoring of a number of earth and atmospheric events. Unlike the earlier built GOES-13, it can combine data from the ABI’s sixteen spectral channels to produce high-resolution composite images.

Operating from geosynchronous orbit roughly 36,000 km (22,240 miles) above the equator, the satellite can take images with its Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument of the entire earth disk. It can also focus on just a continent or a smaller region that may be impacted by a specific climate event. Parked at 89.5 degrees West longitude, the satellite has a good view of the Americas all the way to the coast of Africa. (A future GOES satellite will focus on the Pacific side) It can take a full disk image of the Earth every 15 minutes and a smaller image of the continental U.S. every 5 minutes, and a specific locale can be captured every 30 seconds.

Spac0559 - Flickr - NOAA Photo Library
Photo from the NOAA Photo Library

What is most significant is what the satellite can do to inform the public of weather events and potential disasters. It can monitor water vapor in the atmosphere and depict rainfall rates. It can gauge melting snowpacks, predict spreading wildfires and measure the poisonous sulfur dioxide emissions of volcanic eruptions. It can sense sea surface temperatures and provide real-time estimates of the intensity of hurricanes, including central pressure and maximum sustained winds.

One of the most valuable benefits will be to monitor the key ingredients of severe weather like lightning and tornadoes. The GOES-16 also utilizes the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) to monitor the weather for severe conditions, primarily by detecting lighting. It uses high-speed cameras that take pictures 200 times per second allowing it to detect cloud-to-ground lightning and also lightning between clouds. These features allows it to decrease the warning time for severe weather events.

GOES-16 will reduce the risks associated with weather and other potential disasters throughout the Americas and provide much needed support for first responders as well as policy makers.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

How Schindler Used the List

Posted on | January 28, 2017 | No Comments

When Schindler’s List (1993) was released, I was living in Wellington, New Zealand. But I caught the film during the winter holidays in Hawaii. When I got back to Wellington, I read the book Schindler’s Ark and wrote this article for the city’s newspaper in anticipation of the movie’s NZ premiere in March. It appeared in The Evening Post on March 8, 1994. In it, I examine the political ideology and technology used by the Nazis.


Schindler’s List (1993), Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed movie on the Holocaust, premieres in Wellington on Friday. Dr Anthony Pennings backgrounds the reasons for the programme of mass genocide.

The cinematic adaption of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel, Schindler’s Ark by Steven Speilberg has won international acclaim as one of the best movies of the year. The story of Oskar Schindler credits the Austrian-born industrialist with saving over 1200 Jews from almost certain slaughter in Nazi death camps during the Second World War. By employing them as slave labour in his factories, he was able to harbour them from the mass genocide programme conducted throughout the German-occupied territories.

Although excellent narratives about Oskar Schindler, the book and movie lack adequate descriptions of why and how the Nazis conducted their murders. Not that any justification can be given for the killing of nearly six million Jews, but the popular stories are lacking in the historical background needed to come to grips with the horrible actions of the Nazis. The rationales behind the Nazi extermination programme against the Jews are not as obscure as some people would think, though often hard to hear for our enlightened, liberal ears. The belief in “humanity” and the equality of races, although predominant in our time, is a rather new idea with a weak historical foundation.

One the strongest challenges to the enlightenment period that advanced these ideas was the German Nationalist Socialist movement, a parochial, tribal movement based on the belief of their racial superiority. The Nazis believed that the Germans embodied the Aryan bloodlines, which gave them privileged access to a type of spiritual plane or electrical force that could make them living gods.

They sought to destroy communism, democracy, industrial capitalism, and other forces that supposedly threatened their Aryan bloodlines and sought the rule of wise priest-kings who were imbued with mystical power.

They believed that any dilution of their gene pool through mixing with “lower races” would lock them out of their Garden of Eden. This deeply held mystical paganism was strengthened by the teachings of Darwinism and the pseudo-science of Eugenics, which emerged in the late 19th century. These new beliefs gave the Nazis the rationalisation, however misguided, to their fears of mixing with outsiders.

The Nazis believed the Jewish race was the chief threat to the Germanic people. This belief can be traced back to the writings of Martin Luther, who was the first best-selling book author not only and sparked the Protestant Reformation but left a lasting anti-Semitic legacy with his later writings. According to Luther, Jews were second only to the devil in their capacity for evil.

The later Nazis also used metaphorical devices to denigrate the Jews, such as in the Eternal Jew. This film clip interspersed images of ghetto Jews with footage of rat hordes to suggest Jews were unsanitary and less than human.

Using a vast network of radio relays and loudspeakers dispersed throughout German cities, Adolph Hitler was able to preach his xenophobic version of the Jewish threat to millions of Germans. He argued that the ultimate goal of the Jew was world domination, and the Jewish doctrine of Marxism, in particular, would mean the end of governance by the “aristocratic principle of nature,” the only hope for the German-Aryan bloodlines. Parliamentarism, the press, and the trade union movement were other conspiratorial techniques of the Jews who would ultimately face the Aryan in a worldwide apocalyptic battle.

The Nazi Volkdom (the merging of race politics with the machinery of the State) became committed to eliminating the Jews (and other “sub-races” such as the Slavs) as a matter of national policy. Hitler’s elite warrior class, the black-uniformed SS (Schutzstaffel, or Defence Corps) became the main instrument for carrying out the Race and Resettlement Act, their euphemism for the extermination process.

Headed by Heinrich Himmler, this new group took charge of the secret police (the infamous Gestapo) and the concentration camps which were being built to hold political prisoners and other “anti-Reich” elements such as Bolsheviks and Freemasons. Pledged to give their lives to the Fuhrer, this treacherous and highly indoctrinated Teutonic brotherhood carried out the Holocaust orders.

Two groups, in particular, conducted most of the killings: the Tofenkopfverbande, which bore the chilling death head insignia on its label; and the Einsatzgruppen, a special police force whose tactics even shocked many of the German generals. They combined precise military training and a high level of technocratic competence towards their ideal of a German racial utopia. Unfortunately, the cost would be the lives of several million Jews from Western Europe, 1.7 million from the Soviet Union and the incredible figure of three million from Poland, where most of the Schindler’s List story takes place.

What is so extraordinary about the Nazi Pogrom is that the full force of modernity, with its technologies of chemical production, engineering design, information management, and logistical transport, were brought together under the management of a highly indoctrinated, or at least compliant, professional class. Bureaucratic and scientific advances were marshaled with incredible indeterminacy to carry out the ghastly killings.

The SS spread over the occupied territories to co-ordinate the corralling and transporting of Jews. From small villages, medium-sized cities, industrial centres, and other locations around Europe and the Soviet Union, millions of Jewish families were set into motion.

At first, the Jews were sent to ghettos in the large cities or to industrial factories and other sites of slave labour. As the war progressed, however, the “resettlement” process took priority. Competition arose between the Army and the SS over the use of the railroads, but the Army’s need for supplies, reinforcements and sometimes retreat were secondary to the ideological satisfaction of the Final Solution.

Even the war effort’s need for skilled labour gave way to Himmler and the SS who, with Hitler’s blessing, only increased their extermination efforts as the prospects for winning the war dimmed. Trains flowed day and night with human cargo destined for the death camps at Auschwitz (2,000,000 estimated killed), Belzec (600,000), Chelmo (340,000), Majdanek (1,380,000), Sobibor (250,000) and Treblinka (800,000).

As a scholar of communications, I have been deeply influenced by Cambridge professor Jack Goody, whose Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (1986) has helped me understand some of the crucial relationships between information technology and the politics of modern life.

Innovators in bureaucracy and population technology, the Germans were leaders in the use of telegraph and teletype communications to control their national administrators and armies. By the turn of the century, the Germans had transformed British “political arithmetic” into “statistics” (state-istics), numerical techniques in the service of State and population administration. They used the tabulating machines and punch cards designed for the US census to identify and control the population. These techniques were taken up by the SS in their management of the Final Solution.

From its first spoken word, “Name?” Schindler’s List investigates the political technology used in the Holocaust. The use of the census was an integral part of the process, as it allowed the Nazis to round up Jews and start the continual process of selecting who would be eligible for work, who would be transported to a concentration camp, and who would be killed. Everyone was assigned a number that was tattooed on their arms. Every number had an associated punch card. Every name needed to be accounted for, registered and given a position.

The list is ancient political technology, which Spielberg chose as a major motif. It is linked to the film’s narrative in a meaningful way, so that it reinforces some of the main themes, such as the bureaucratic momentum of the Nazi machine.  A striking example is shown when Schindler’s trusted accountant (Itzhak Stern, played by Ben Kingsley), forgets to bring his working papers one day and winds up on a train awaiting deportation to an extermination camp. Schindler rushes down to the station to intervene but is told nothing can be done as Stern is now on the list to be transported. Schindler can only get an exemption after he convinces the SS officer that he has the influence to have the officer sent to the Russian Front within weeks.

The list and its physical counterpart, the line, figure prominently throughout the film as mediums of control and efficiency. The line is a particularly brutal and yet effective political technology. It renders people passive and orderly. Disrupting or attempting to escape its smooth, linear surface is an invitation for punishment or death, as many Jews discover.

However, the list also becomes a technology of resistance and escape. With the Russian advancing, Schindler’s factory must yield to the Final Solution. He bribes enough Nazi officials, however, to transport 1200 of his Jews to a new location near his hometown of Zwittau in Austria. From within the Nazi bureaucratic maze, Schindler’s list emerges as a ticket to freedom for the Jews. The list is a manifest for getting on the train to Schindler’s new factory. Getting on this list is a matter of life and death.

For Keneally, it is a modern-day Noah’s Ark. As he writes in Schindler’s Ark about the legends that developed around Schindler’s list: “The list is an absolute good. This list is life.”

It is difficult to say whether Schindler’s List has a happy ending. Spielberg is much harder on Schindler than Keneally. Whereas the latter credits him with an early transformation, the movie-maker waits until nearly the end to acknowledge his attempts to put the welfare of the Jews in front of his own self-interest. He invokes a Talmud equation which is inscribed on the ring offered as a gift to Schindler from the Jews he saved: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”

Schindler is overcome with grief at the end as he calculates the lives he could have saved with the money he wasted. Ultimately, we left with this moral balance sheet.

Dr Anthony J Pennings is a political scientist and a lecturer in communications studies at Victoria University. He is not Jewish but his parents lived under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands, a country that had 75 percent of its Jewish population shipped to Nazi concentration camps. 

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2017, Jan 28). How Schindler Used the List.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Digital Spreadsheets – The Time-Space Power of Accounting, Part 1

Posted on | January 22, 2017 | No Comments

Part of upcoming book on Digital Money and Spreadsheet Capitalism

Accounting is, understandably, an acquired taste, but it should be recognized as a key component of an organization’s structural characteristics and a key source of its longevity and power to grow. One of the first major uses of computers was to make the accounting process easier and faster. Later, the spreadsheet became a key technology in the accounting process and its use for management decisions. Accounting practices and associated technologies are complicit in the formation of modern capitalism and the way it develops.

This new series of posts continues my analysis of the digital spreadsheet as a technology of power by considering their integration into organizational information systems, particularly accounting. This post covers the important historical role of accounting in developing time-space dominance for early bureaucracies and the formation of capitalism. The next post investigates how spreadsheets have transformed accounting and the modern global economy.

While accounting is often dismissed as a realm of the mundane, a more serious inquiry connects it to real power over material and communicative domains. Anthony Giddens’s theory of “time-space power” is particularly useful here as it has the control of information and communication at its core. The former head of the London School of Economics and Political Science, Giddens’ developed a wide-ranging analysis of social systems that connected information technologies, including accounting and book-keeping, to economic, political, social power.

For Giddens, there is no overall mechanism or motor of social change such as class conflict or universal progress. Instead, he claimed, societies can better be understood through a process of “structuration” that reconciles the influence of human actors and the rigidity of social structures. Structuration includes the production of time-space power – the ability to reproduce and expand social systems (such as corporations, governments, and other collectivities) over chronological spans of time and geographical distances of space.[1]

Drawing on anthropologist Jack Goody, Giddens pointed out that the keeping of written accounts such as ledgers and lists about people, objects, and events generated new types of social control and organizational power. In Writing and the Organization of Society (1984), Goody studied ancient temples and monasteries and argued that writing techniques were developed as a form of social power. Lists became containers, not just an aid to memory, but a definite means of encoding and protecting information over time, first as a mechanism to store information over time, and then in more narrative forms.

Giddens argued that every social system ‘stretches’ across time and space and that “information systems,” including early media such as books and clay tablets have been critical to this dynamic. Writing, lists, and tables, as well as modern computer-based technologies, combine storage abilities meant to capture and store information over long durations as well as media that can be transported or transmitted over long distances. Steam engines and then modern communications systems, starting with the Victorian telegraph, allowed for relevant financial and logistical information to be gathered quickly over large spans of geographical space.

Another influence on Giddens’ perspective on the historical role of accounting was the seminal sociologist, Max Weber. Weber studied the emergence of capitalism and identified several key precursors including cities; the separation of the household from companies; contract laws; the bureaucratic nation-state; filing systems; and the organized control of territory by a unified government that allows commerce to develop. He especially stressed the importance of money and the associated role of accounting.

Weber saw money culture and the associated role of double entry bookkeeping as central components in the development of capitalism and modern bureaucracies. New accounting techniques allowed businesses to keep track of items and inventories and balance assets with monetary accounting. This enabled the calculation of the inflows and outflows of money and helped determine sources of profit and losses. Bookkeeping as a system of information, along with file keeping, allows for crucial organizational information to be maintained and supports the stability of organizations over time.

Giddens continued this train of thought, emphasizing that accounting “…allows for the distancing of economic relations across time-space, facilitating the storage and co-ordination of information used to regularize such relations.”[2] Lists in narrative and numerical representations form the basis of accounting techniques and most notably double-entry bookkeeping.

Giddens emphasized, “Double-entry bookkeeping allows the adjusting of inflows and outflows that occur over long periods of time-space.”[3] The system of double-entry accounting developed over the years from simple writing technology using lists and journals of written text and moved towards the more abstract book-keeping and eventually spawned an accounting discipline.

With numbers having mostly shed their connotations of mysticism and superstition by the 19th century, they were quickly becoming a preferred mode of representing business fact. Business accounting’s “credit-ability” was sanctified by the long-term development of a system of accounting with double-entry bookkeeping as its center method. Especially with the new mechanical techniques of calculation, accounting’s influence expanded culturally and geographically.

Historically, Laura Poovey’s analysis of the influence of double-entry bookkeeping on the rise of the European mercantile class is instructive here. She argued that the system of books used in early accounting helped raise the status of merchants through the verification of debits and credits. The process of recording inventories of wealth and transactions in a series of lists, journals, and ledgers, ultimately rendered them in terms of monetary accounts in a single currency. This provided a growing system of trust among merchants that formed the basis of Western capitalism.

    The nature of the double-entry fact can be grasped by recognizing that this system of bookkeeping did not simply record the things merchants traded so that they could keep track of assets or calculate profits and losses. Instead as a system of writing, double-entry bookkeeping produced effects that exceeded transcription and calculation. One of its social effects was to proclaim the honesty of merchants as a group. One of its epistemological effects was to make the formal precision of the double-entry system, which drew on the rule-bound system of arithmetic, seem to guarantee the accuracy of the details it recorded. – Mary Poovey

Double-entry bookkeeping provided a structured narrative that provided a trusted representation of the organization for owners and investors. It’s techniques emerged first to check for errors, but later resulted in the separation of a business from its owner, a precursor condition for the emergence of the corporation and the wide-scale success of capitalism. The stock ticker, for example, allows ownership to be dispersed more easily over space. Ticker-tape machines provided stock prices and the first electrically-powered broadcast news to investors over wide geographical spaces.
New levels of certainty brought on by accounting methods created widespread social changes that transformed Western Society. Along with the proliferation of capitalism and the modern corporation, the emergence of “state-istics” as it was increasingly used by governments created a wider social dynamic that included a new level of trust in numbers being used in science and engineering.

Accounting and other numerical techniques changed Western civilization. Modern capitalism emerged only after the integration of telegraphic systems with the information processing of accounting processes. The telegraph emerged in the 19th century as a key technology to collect and organize accounting information. It should be of no surprise that Western Union, the first modern corporation, connected telegraph systems across the US continent.

While double-entry bookkeeping made capitalism possible, the spreadsheet took it to new levels of possibility. Monetary accounting provided the written “real-time” constitution of a corporation, and with the spreadsheet, this power multiplied. Accounting as a type of information storage became integral for an organization’s power and consequentially its long-term survival. Not only did the speed in which accounting procedures and calculations occurred become vastly faster; new types of analysis and information were produced, and the transmission of accounting information expanded. Spreadsheets increased organizational tempo and coordination over distances.


[1] “Structuration Theory in Management and Accounting,” by N.B. Macintosh and R.W. Scapens
“Structuration Theory in Management and Accounting N.B. Macintosh and R.W. Scapens” in Anthony Giddens: Critical Assessments, Volume 4. edited by Christopher G. A. Bryant, David Jary.
[2] Giddens, Anthony. A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. Power, Property and the State. Vol. 1. Berkeley: U of California, 1981. Print.
[3] Giddens, Anthony. A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. Power, Property and the State. Vol. 1. Berkeley: U of California, 1981. Print. p. 117.
[4] Poovey, M.A. (1998) A History of Modern Fact. p. 30.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Broadband Policy and the Fall of the US Internet Service Providers

Posted on | November 15, 2016 | No Comments

Much of the success of the Internet can be attributed to the emergence of a unique organizational form, the Internet Service Provider or “ISP,” which became the dominant provider of the broadband and web services. These organizations resulted from a unique set of regulatory directives that pushed the Internet’s development and created a competitive environment that encouraged the proliferation of ISPs and the spread of the World Wide Web. But after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed its Computer II decision in 2005, the ruling drove out competition. It effectively made a small number of telecom-media conglomerates, the dominant providers of high-speed broadband services in the USA.

This post discusses the rise of the ISPs and how thousands of these organizations, also known as competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs), emerged to provide Internet access around the USA. But the competitive stance of Clinton-Gore administration was replaced by a new pro-telco regime in 2000. By 2005 many ISPs were forced out of business as traditional telecommunications companies, were given ISP status.

The incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs), primarily AT&T, BellSouth, Hawaiian Telecom, Quest, and Verizon were able to take advantage of their new status to take over the ISP business. As carriers they were required to allow CLECs to interconnect with their facilities, they consistently resisted this practice through pricing and non-tariff barriers. This peering practice was necessary to allow data traffic to flow through the entirety of the World Wide Web. As ILECs then combined their services (VOIP, TV, Internet) into an unregulated bundle of offerings, it became extremely difficult for smaller ISPs to remain competitive.

The first ISPs began as US government-funded entities that served research and education communities of the early Internet. Secured by Al Gore in 1991, legislation signed by President George H. Bush created the model of the National Research and Education Network (NREN), a government-sponsored internet service provider dedicated to supporting the needs of the research and education communities within the US. Internet2, Merit, NYSERNET, OARnet, and KanRen were a few of the systems that provided schools and other non-profit organizations access to the World Wide Web. Only later were the ISPs released for commercial traffic and services.

While telecommunications carriers had been involved in moving some Internet traffic since the late 1980s, their role expanded dramatically after the Internet began to allow commercial activities. As part of the National Information Infrastructure (NII) plan, the US government decommissioned the US National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET) in 1995. It had been the publicly financed backbone for most IP traffic in the US. The NII handed over interconnection to four Network Access Points (NAPs) in different parts of the country to create a bridge to the modern Internet of many private-sector competitors.

These NAPS contracted with the big commercial carriers such as Ameritech, Pacific Bell, and Sprint for new facilities to form a network-of-networks, anchored around Internet Exchange Points. These former regional Bell companies were to be primarily wholesalers, interconnecting with ISPs. This relatively easy process of connecting routers was to put the “inter” in the Internet but are also sites of performance degradation and unequal power relations.

As the Internet took off in the late 1990s, thousands of new ISPs set up business to commercialize the Internet. The major markets for ISPs were: 1) access services, 2) wholesale IP services, and 3) value-added services offered to individuals and corporations. Access services were provided for both individual and corporate accounts and involved connecting them to the Internet via dial-up, ISDN, T-1, frame-relay or other network connections. Wholesale IP services were primarily offered by facilities-based providers like MCI, Sprint, and WorldCom UUNET (a spinoff of a DOD-funded seismic research facility) and involved providing leased capacity over its backbone networks. Value-added services included web-hosting, e-commerce, and networked resident security services. By the end of 1997, over 4,900 ISPs existed in North America, although most of them had fewer than 3,000 subscribers.[1]

FCC policy had allowed unlimited local phone calling for enhanced computer services and early Internet users connected to their local ISP using their modems. ISPs quickly developed software that was put on CD-ROMs that could be easily installed on a personal computer. The software usually put a browser icon on the desktop of the computer that once clicked on would dial the ISP automatically, provide the password, and connect the user to Internet.

The ISPs emerged as an important component to the Internet’s accessibility and were greatly aided by US government policy. The distinctions made in the FCC’s Second Computer Inquiry in 1981 allowed ISPs to bypass many of the roadblocks experienced by traditional communication carriers. Telcos were to provide regulated basic services and “enhanced services” were to stay unregulated. Schiller explained:

    Under federal regulation, U.S. ISPs had been classed as providers of enhanced service. This designation conferred on ISPs a characteristically privileged status within the liberalized zone of network development. It exempted them from the interconnection, or access, charges levied on other systems that tie in with local telephone networks; it also meant that ISPs did not have to pay into the government’s universal service fund, which provided subsidies to support telephone access in low-income and rural areas. As a result of this sustained federal policy, ISPs enjoyed a substantial cross-subsidy, which was borne by ordinary voice users of the local telecommunications network.[2]

ISPs looked to equip themselves for the potential new markets and also connect with other companies. For example, IBM and telecom provider Qwest hooked up to offer web hosting services. PSINet bought Metamor to not only transfer data, but to host, design, and move companies from the old software environment to the new environment. ISPs increasing saw themselves as not only providers of a transparent data pipe but also as a provider of value-added services such as web hosting, colocation and support for domain name registration.

As they would say in the new industry, “Its not about putting your company on the web as much as its about putting the web into your company.” Rather than just a presence on the World Wide Web, businesses were interested in combining the capabilities of the Internet with their business objectives. Sales, logistics, and accounting could be integrated along with other internal computing systems in order to create new dimensions of commerce. ISPs facilitated this process but were significantly devastated by the crash of 2000 and the telecom crash of 2002. Furthermore, Internet policy changed when the Bush administration took power in 2000.

During the 1990s, the telcos were conducting tests using a new technology called ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line). It was originally designed to provide video over copper lines to the home. It was called asynchronous because it could send data downstream to the subscriber faster (256Kbps-9Mbps) than upstream (64Kbps-1.54Kbps) to the provider. Different versions emerged based on the local telco’s ability and willingness to get a fiber link close to the neighborhood. They were soon generally called Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) and they began to replace dial-up modems. High demand and competition from cable companies with high-speed coaxial lines pressured ISPs and telcos to adapt DSL technologies. DSL and new cable technologies that carried Internet traffic as well as television came to be collectively called “broadband” communications.

The broadband industry changed significantly after the 2000 election. Internet traffic grew at a fantastic rate during the late 1990s as individuals and corporations rushed to “get on the web” and the rhetoric of the “new economy” emerged and fueled investments in web-based companies and telecommunications providers. A temporary bubble emerged as many companies lacked the technology or business expertise to effectively profit from their organizations. Dot.coms such as,,, GeoCities,,,,, and failed for a variety of reasons but mainly flawed business plans and the premature expenditure of investment capital. Similarly, many carriers such as Global Crossing, WorldCom and ISPs overestimated web traffic and built excess capacity. In the wake of the crash in 2000 and the telecom crash in 2002, a third of all CLECs filed for bankruptcy.

Cable companies began to offer Internet services and the power of the telcos grew. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 had maintained Computer II’s competitive distinctions (See video above) although enhanced services were essentially renamed “information services.” But FCC decisions made during the new administration would use this distinction to give incumbent telcos a major advantage. This action would have profound influence on the structure of the modern broadband/media industry.

In 2002, the FCC ruled that cable modem service was an information service, and not a telecommunications service. Cable companies became unregulated broadband providers and were exempted from the common-carrier regulation and network access requirements imposed on the ILECs.

Then in 2005, an FCC decision during the Bush administration effectively made telcos, companies unregulated ISPs. FCC WC Docket 02-33 allowed DSL to become an unregulated “information service.” This effectively repealed Computer II and allowed the ILECs such as Verizon and BellSouth to take over the ISP industry. ILECs were resistant to interconnect with the CLEC ISPs, claiming that sharing their network equipment was akin to subsidizing their competition.

The 1996 Act also allowed media companies to invade the other’s turf by removing regulatory barriers to entry to the once protected monopoly-controlled sectors. For example, broadcasters could move into broadband and carriers could offer content. It also allowed consolidation of different media companies, creating a new frenzy of mergers. Cable companies began to provide many broadband services and have merged with telcos (AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint) to form large integrated telecom-media companies.

Today, US broadband service is dominated by large integrated service providers such as AT&T, Comcast, Sprint, and Verizon. These companies are now trying to merge with content providers. AT&T is trying to merge with Time-Warner, Comcast has completed its merger with NBC, and Verizon is merging with Yahoo!, although a data hack slowed its progress.


[1] McCarthy, B. (1999) “Introduction to the Directory of Internet Service Providers,” Boardwatch Magazine’s Directory of Internet Service Providers. Winter 1998-Spring 1999. p. 4.
[2] Schiller, D. (1999) Digital Capitalism. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press. p. 31.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

“Run to Goshen Regardless of Opposing Train”

Posted on | September 29, 2016 | No Comments

When I was growing up, on a summer night, with the bedroom windows open, I could often hear the far off whistle of a train warning of its approach to a nearby road crossing. The trains were leaving or entering my hometown of Goshen, New York; a small community known for its regional government center, proximity to New York City and a history of horse racing. The railroad track is gone now, replaced by a hiking/biking trail called the Heritage Trail and the downtown station now serves as the town police station. Much of the history of those railroad tracks is lost or forgotten, despite its surprisingly notable historical importance.

The quote “Run to Goshen regardless of opposing train” by a superintendent for the New York & Erie Railroad (see map) marked an event that had a significant impact on US history, as it spurred the development of both railroads and the telegraph. The first recorded use of the telegraph in the US to coordinate railroads occurred in 1851 when Charles Minot telegraphed ahead fourteen miles to Goshen to delay a train.[1] This electric communication marked the beginning of a radical convergence of telegraph and railroad technology that would have a lasting influence on the accelerating development of both technologies, and ripple out into many other aspects of American life.

Recently, this article appeared in the Goshen Independent newspaper.

Goshen Train and Telegraph

The convergence of the telegraph and railways would change the future of organizational management and pave the way for the modern corporation. It would also have a major influence on American life through the standardization of time zones, the national distribution of agriculture and industrially produced goods, as well as the regional coordination and arbitrage of commodity prices.

An appropriate historical starting point for this post is the chartering of the New York & Erie Railroad in 1832 to build a rail line across the length of New York. Enos T. Throop, the Governor of New York approved the Act passed by the state’s Senate to allow the railroad to build the 447-mile railroad line. It would connect the southern part of the state at Piermont, New York, a small town with a good harbor on the Hudson River just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge, with Dunkirk, a small village on the eastern shore of Lake Erie. The plan was to connect the ocean at New York City’s harbor to the Great Lakes and the natural bounties of America’s Midwest, elevating New York’s commercial status to the nation’s major entrepot. Innovations in transportation infrastructure would make New York City the country’s center of import and export, for finance and insurance, and for collection and the distribution of goods and services.

Construction of the New York and Erie Railroad began in 1835. Along with the increase in economic growth along the southern part of New York, it was meant to provide some balance to the expenditures on the Erie Canal in the north. The first section completed was from Piermont to Goshen, New York in 1841 at a cost of $20 million. Goshen was the government center of the area, known for dairy products (especially “Goshen butter”), and becoming famous for its harness horse racing. While the process of funding and building the railroad line had not been easy, the entire line to Lake Erie was finally completed in the spring of 1851.

On May 14, 1851, a train carrying President Millard Fillmore, Secretary of State Daniel Webster, and 300 other dignitaries set off on a celebratory tour of this historic railroad accomplishment. They took a steam ship up to the southern tip of New York on the west of the Hudson River and departed amid much fanfare. But by the time it reached Goshen, the locomotive was having trouble with its engine. At the next stop in Middletown, New York, Minot had to telegraph forward to Port Jervis on the Delaware River to have another engine ready. After changing locomotives, the train passed through the southern tier of New York and puffed on to its destination without incident.

The mishap left an impression on Minot who would come to value the role of the telegraph and its relationship with the railway. Shortly after, when the train engineers conspired to refuse to move the trains under such a system, Minot authoritatively issued an order that the telegraph would henceforth be used to coordinate all train movements.

During the intervening time, the telegraph was becoming more prominent. Ezra Cornell, who had worked with Samuel Morse in 1844 on the very first telegraph line, had followed up this historic accomplishment in 1845 with the construction of a major portion of line between New York and Albany. Cornell, the benefactor of the famous university that bears his name, was more involved in the construction aspect of the telegraph line and even patented machinery for laying cable under the ground. In 1848, he helped put together the New York & Erie Telegraph Company to build a line of telegraph wire from New York to Dunkirk along roads in the southern border counties of New York. The completed line was celebrated in 1849 but soon found its fate intertwined with the railroads.

    The record of the very first train order sent in the U.S. was documented by Edward H. Mott in his book on the history of the The Story of Erie, Between the Ocean and the Lakes. According to William H. Stewart, a retired Erie Railroad conductor, in the “fall of 1851,” Charles Minot was on a west bound train stopped at Turner, N. Y. waiting for an eastbound train coming from Goshen, N. Y., fourteen miles to the west. The impatient Minot telegraphed Goshen to see if the train had left yet. Upon receiving a reply of “no,” Minot wrote out the order: “To Agent and Operator at Goshen: Hold the train for further orders, signed, Charles Minot, Superintendent.” Minot then gave Stewart, who was the conductor of Minot’s train, a written order to be handed to the engineer: “Run to Goshen regardless of opposing train.” The engineer, Isaac Lewis, refused Minot’s order because it violated the time interval system. Minot proceeded to verbally direct Lewis to move the train but he again refused. Lewis then became a passenger on the rear seat of the rear car and Minot, who had experience as an engineer, took control of the train and proceeded safely to Goshen. Shortly thereafter, the Erie adopted the train order for the movement of its trains and within a few years the telegraph was adopted by railroads throughout the U.S.[2]

The telegraph industry was still struggling to take off. The next year, 1852, the New York and Erie telegraph line failed due to competition and declining prices. It was the longest line in the country at the time and it was hard to manage, but a partnership with the railroads soon changed its fortunes. With the urging of Minot, Ezra Cornell bought the telegraph business back and renamed it the New York & Western Union Telegraph Company.

With help from Minot, they transferred poles from the roadways and placed them along the railroad tracks of the Erie Railroad. They also agreed that railroad depot employees would be telegraphy operators in exchange for unlimited use of the communication lines. The telegraph allowed for a single track railroad that would be more efficient, less expensive, and safer for the passengers. Trains could be coordinated safely in both directions, even on a single track. Cornell took on the role of Superintendent of the company. He soon joined the company with other partners and it became Western Union in 1856.

The New York and Erie was the first railroad in the U.S. to utilize the telegraph in its management activities. Minot promoted Luther Tillotson to the superintendent of telegraphs in charge of the eastern half of the route even though he was only 19 years old. Tillotson became one of the pioneers in utilizing the telegraph for train dispatching and later developed his own company manufacturing and selling telegraph instruments to the railroad industry.

The railroad company also hired civil engineer Daniel McCallan to coordinate its railroad routes. He realized that the management of a line nearly 500 miles long was a different venture than one that was only 50 miles. His solution was a data processing and management information system based on telegraphy, record-keeping, and regularized reports. He also drew up one of the first organizational charts and required all employees to wear uniforms indicating the employee’s rank in the organizational hierarchy. But he also recognized the importance of reversing the hierarchy of information flow and stressed the importance of communications going from the subordinates up to managers, rather than just the opposite.[3]

The telegraph was soon being used to transmit hourly reports on the progress of trains and to precisely coordinate the movement of railroad cargo and passengers. Experimentation with the telegraph had been conducted by the Great Western Railway in Britain as early as 1837 but they inexplicably lost interest, probably because the technology was in its infancy and the codes used were cumbersome. The standardization of Morse code was crucial to the success of the telegraph.

Railroads had been reluctant to expand territorially because of the difficulties of managing such vast and complex movements. However, responding to many tragedies involving train collisions, the railroads took steps to synchronize their routes. Trains required precisely timed movements through spatial landscapes and needed the capability of telegraphy for communicating ahead for coordination.

In October 1861, Western Union connected telegraph lines from the east and west at Salt Lake City in Utah, providing the first nearly instantaneous transcontinental communication between San Francisco and Washington DC. With westward expansion, railroads and telegraph lines soon crisscrossed the country. As the Civil War erupted, both the North and South attempted to capitalize on these technological developments. President Lincoln, who had been a railroad lawyer, studied the railroad and telegraph strategies used by Napoleon III to help unify Italy in 1859. He set up a communications post outside the White House to execute the war by mobilizing troops and organizing supplies. Many military officers in both the North and South armies became logistics experts and went on to help create the post-War national economy.

These two technologies became highly dependent on each other. As railroads became the major mode of transportation for most parts of the United States, it also aided the construction of telegraph lines. The combination of the railroad and the telegraph allowed the modern corporation to emerge. Companies like National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), Sears, and Standard Oil used railroads and telegraphs to expand outside their originating regions. R.W. Sears, a telegrapher, quit his job to form a catalog supply company, the Amazon of its time.

Britain also developed a telegraph network throughout its empire with undersea links to India, Indo-China, and Australia. Expansion brought on new problems in coordination. The information flow of the telegraph networks stimulated new data collection and processing technologies that were crucial for managing logistics, marketing, and production. The telegraph, and the complexities of organizing information over geographical space brought on by the railroads (and steam shipping) built the foundations of the modern data processing industry.

To create this new type of organization, a standard ‘time’ needed to be determined. The Prime Meridian Conference in Washington DC convened to find a solution. In 1884, they chose Greenwich, England as the zero meridian and divided the Earth into twenty-four one-hour time zones to help facilitate the coordination of transportation and commercial transactions.[4] With a standard “railroad time” in place, complex tables could be produced by cross-listing train movements with cities, towns, and ports and as a result regularizing transportation schedules. This brought “time” to rural America and the western frontier.

Innovations in time-tabling worked with the telegraph system to choreograph the complex scheduling of railroad transport. Transportation schedules accelerated the number of journeys in a given time period and provided consistency for passengers and freight hires. This mode of sequencing time and transport proved crucial for the development of regional and then nationwide markets for mass-produced goods.[4]

If the railroads provided the muscle, the telegraph provided a rudimentary nervous system. Information about train delays, obstacles, needed repairs, and passenger numbers, all flowed through the telegraph to keep the railroad system running smoothly.[5] Eventually, another innovation that would prove crucial for the management of railroads was the punch-card tabulator, developed by future IBM founder Herman Hollerith.

The tabulating machine was based on the tickets that train conductors punched indicating the characteristics of ticket-holders such as hair color and sex. Hollerith developed a way to run electrical charges through the holes of the punch cards that turned dials, tallied numbers, and tabulated results. His punch-card and tabulating technology would be used to determine the 1890 US census, as specified in the US Constitution. The task had proved physically impossible to complete in ten years by manual labor due to population growth and the speed of immigration from Europe.

Hollerith’s tabulating machine and punch-cards were later used by the railroads in conjunction with telegraphy to manage cars and cargo. J.P. Morgan became a big believer in both technologies, and they became central to his strategy of “Morganizing” companies. His rise to financial notoriety began with railroads, starting with the creation of New York Central, but he was also known for consolidating other companies such as AT&T and US Steel. As American companies like Nabisco, Standard Oil, meat-producer Swift, and Western Union began to operate wide-scale businesses, the combination of punch-card tabulators and the telegraph became crucial management tools and the ancient forerunners of the Internet age.

So, what happened to the train track running through Goshen?
The Erie railroad was originally designed with unique gauge and spacing that was meant to keep the trains operating only in New York. But as this proved to inhibit its profitability, the entire train track was eventually replaced, allowing the rail to run into New Jersey down to the Hoboken station and as far as Chicago.

In 1984, with the approval of Orange County, the Metro-North Railroad ripped up the Erie Mainline between Harriman and Middletown, New York. The Metro-North Railroad chose not to recondition the historic line for passenger service. After more than 140 years trekking through Goshen, the railroad line was abandoned in favor of a longer route between Hoboken and Port Jervis for passengers commuting to and from New York City.


[1] Beniger, J.R. (1986) The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (pdf). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 230. Beniger’s reference for this information was from Edward Harold Mott’s Between the Ocean and the Lakes: The Story of Erie published in 1901 by John S. Collins in New York.
[2] A Monument to Charles Minot. Accessed September 26, 2016. A version of this article was originally published in the October 2006 issue of The AWA Journal, a quarterly publication of
The Antique Wireless Association, a non-profit historical society.
[3] Information on Daniel McCallan’s organization of Erie Railroad from Beniger, pp. 228-233.
[4] Anthony Giddens tied the relationship together between the telegraph and transportation in his work on administrative power and internal pacification in The Nation-State and Violence. (1987) San Francisco, CA: University of California Press. p. 174-175.
[5] This is from a short story about how the railroads and telegraph started working together.

AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at Hannam University in Korea and Marist College in New York. He started his career at Victoria University in New Zealand. He spent a decade as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally from Goshen, New York, he now keeps a home in Austin, Texas.


Posted on | September 13, 2016 | No Comments

Len Bosack and Sandy Lerner left Stanford University in December 1984 to launch Cisco Systems, a California-based company known for innovative networking devices. Data communications, and particularly, packet-switching, the key technology of the Internet, was in its infancy. Leading computer companies like IBM were slow to make the major innovations needed for its success. So the recently married duo took a chance and started their company to develop and market data networking technology.

In a previous post, I discussed the formation of Cisco and its contribution to universities connecting to the NSFNET. In this post, I examine how Cisco Systems emerged around the “Blue Box” network software and technology and how the company went on to become the key supplier of key Internet technologies for the emerging World Wide Web.

The key to Cisco’s strategy was to develop routing technology that could direct the packets of data along the network. In a sense, routing technology would act like a traffic cop helping to move automobiles through a busy intersection. Similarly, data routers facilitate movement of packets of digital information – 1s and 0s – through the intersections of the Internet. Packets of digital data are constructed by Transmission Control Protocols (TCP) and individually addressed by the Internet Protocol (IP) to transverse various networks. Routers were created to read an IP address and direct the packet towards the next stop in the network, or to another network, on its “route” to the intended destination.

This video is a little advanced, but discusses the differences between switches and routers.

The Internet was originally designed as a military network that could compensate if an enemy attack destroyed some network nodes. Early data communication equipment was designed to sense if a network node was offline (ie destroyed) and choose another route to direct the data towards its final destination. As networks could also become congested with too much traffic, modern routers were developed to determine the best path to send the email, document, file or web page, often in terms of the “cost” of transmission as well.

The Cisco founders did not invent the router technology. Instead, they drew together important work by many people at Xerox PARC and Stanford University that became the basis for the “Blue Box” (1981). This portable computer was originally designed to increase the distance between networked computers but turned out to be much more. The Blue Box incorporated three crucial innovations: the 3Mb Ethernet transceiver and adapter, workstation network boards, and the software that became the foundation for the Cisco operating system.

3Mb Ethernet Transceiver and Adapter

Xerox PARC is more popularly known for developing the graphic user interfaces that became the basis for the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft’s Windows environment. PARC had donated a lot of computers and network technology to Stanford University. This became a dynamic new environment for fertile innovation and the development of many of our current digital technologies.

Robert Metcalfe brought the AlohaNet technology to PARC that resulted in the Ethernet technology. The new version was standardized in 1983 as IEEE 802.3. Initially, it was used widely for Local Area Network (LANs) on campuses and companies; it is currently used for many services including wireless communications. Metcalfe formed a company, 3Com Corporation that became a leader in client-server networking and expanded into product areas such as digital switches, internetworking routers, modems, network hubs, network management software, network interface cards, and remote access systems.

Workstation Network Boards

Andy Bechtolsheim, with other Stanford graduate students, produced a network board based on their Aloha Alto Computer. This technology connected the computer to the Ethernet and became the prototype of the SUN workstation that was later marketed by another spin-off company, Sun Microsystems.

Software for Multiple Routing Protocols

Bill Yeager, who wrote software for a number of network connections on campus, including an ARPANET Interface Message Processor (IMP), contributed crucial code for the Blue Box. His software provided instructions to guide data traffic from different LANs using multiple routing protocols. Networks at the time were almost exclusively proprietary, designed to connect equipment from the same manufacturer. Yeager designed protocols that permitted data to be exchanged among different types of mainframe terminals, printers, and workstations. It initially linked Xerox’s Aloha Alto workstations, mainframes, mini-computers and printers, but was rewritten to connect different networks. Yeager’s software became the foundational operating system of Cisco’s routers and consequently, for modern local and wide area networking, including the Internet.

In the next section I will focus on Cisco’s push into TCP/IP protocols.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


Posted on | August 28, 2016 | No Comments

Enjoyed a month of vacation, with some work thrown in of course. San Francisco to meet with my favorite venture capitalist, and home to Austin. Took a desert road trip with family from Phoenix to Las Vegas with a lovely stop in Sedona. Took my daughter to Miami, the Bahamas, Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, Florida. Then New York for a few days of lake life in the Catskills, minus a day trip to Stony Brook University on Long Island. Manhattan and back to Washington Square Park where we lived for 9 years. Farewell dinner with friends at the restaurant in Korea town where my daughter decided to be born 10 days early (spicy food!). Got an extra day in Austin when my flight was canceled due to a typhoon in Japan. Many thanks to all that contributed to our trip. Too many to mention, but so much for which to be thankful.



Xbox One – Extending Virtual Reality and Multi-Player Games

Posted on | August 2, 2016 | No Comments

Today we got the first look at the new Xbox game console, the Xbox One S. It’s been three years since the original Xbox One was introduced xbox-one-sin a broadcast live on Spike TV from the Microsoft campus in Bellevue, Washington when representatives from Microsoft’s Xbox team and strategic partners such as Activision and EA demonstrated and hyped the new system. The new Xbox One S is smaller and lighter with more processing power and 2TB of internal storage. More relevant for this discussion is the backward compatibility (including Xbox 360 classics) and the continuing trend towards immersion and augmented/virtual environments.

It’s clear that Microsoft doubled down on the living Microsoft-xbox oneroom and large screen 1080p HDTV. Despite the recent popularity of mobile games, the Xbox One series was designed to return us to an immersive gaming experience within the home environment that integrates games with movies, music, live TV, Skype, and web browsing.

It’s too early to evaluate the Xbox One S, but I wanted to review one related technological trajectory, virtual reality (VR) and its relationship to the gaming experience and related industries. The new Xbox One Architecture combined the Xbox OS with Windows and a new connective tissue that works with Kinect to respond to voice, gestures, and body movements. With games such as Call of Duty: Ghosts designed for it, Microsoft promised a whole new level of immersive gameplay.

For a variety of reasons, Kinect was cancelled by Microsoft in late 2017.

Virtual reality began as an idealistic notion of the early 1990s, popularized through avant-garde magazines such as MONDO 2000, non-fiction best-sellers like Howard Rheingold’s (1991) Virtual Reality, sci-fi novels like Neal Stephenson’s (1992) Snow Crash and cyberfiction movies like The Lawnmower Man (1992). Star Trek: Next Generation provided the most dramatic example of what virtual reality could be like with its Holodeck. But VR’s future, at least its immediate future, was in the gaming industry.

Drawing on flight simulation technology and research, VR captured the imagination of pre-Web techno-enthusiasts deliberating the future of what William Gibson’s termed “cyberspace”. Conceptualized with electronic accessories such as high definition LCD goggles, surround sound, fiber-optic laced gloves and pressure sensitive body suits, VR was designed to simulate the world in a computerized artificial reality. It was conceived as a system that would suspend the viewer’s belief that the environment is produced and immerse them in a highly responsive, multi-sensory apparatus. The Renaissance invention of perspectival art, with its vanishing point creating a first-person view, proved to be one of the most important drivers of VR as it focuses attention and reinforces the ego.

While most of the technology and associated software was developed for various simulation devices, it was the digital game industry that fully capitalized on this innovation. Castronova pointed to three reasons for this new path.

  1. One was that the digital game environment focused for the most part on software, not hardware. From Magnavox’s Odyssey in 1972 to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in 2005, the game console proved to be a crucial platform for video game play, but it was the “killer app” software applications like Pong and Pac-man that propelled the industry’s success. VR development, on the other hand, was dominated by gadgetry such as the goggled helmet, the force-feedback glove and the sensor-laden body suit. The console was a major contributor to the video game explosion, but it was a series of good games that propelled the development of virtual game environments.
  2. The second reason VR was less successful than game virtual environments was that the virtual reality industry was pushed more by research concerns than by commercial concerns. The game industry on the other hand had no compunctions about its profit-making origins and goals.
  3. The third reason “the game version of VR” proved more successful was that it focused “on communities, not hardware.” From shoot-em-up Quake II free-for-alls on networked PCs to the programmed pandemonium of Atari Test Drive on Xbox Live, the social experience has been central to the success of the game experience.[1]

It was a young company named id Software that pioneered many of the virtual environment features that characterize the contemporary game environment. The small Texas-based company used the ego-centric perspective to create the first person shooter (FPS) game, Wolfenstein, in May of 1991. Id followed with the extraordinarily successful DOOM in December 1994. The game extended an image of a weapon into the vanishing point to orient the player’s perspective as they hunted a variety of monsters through a research facility on an alien planet. DOOM combined a shareware business model with the nascent distribution capabilities of the Internet. Just two months after Netscape introduced its first browser as freeware over the Web, DOOM enthusiasts by the droves were downloading the game by FTP to their PCs, many of them with a 14.4 kb modem. The first third of the game was freeware while another 27 levels and several new weapons could be purchased for a modest sum.


In a prescient move, id decided to make DOOM’s source code available to its users. This allowed their fans to create their own 2.5D (not quite 3-D) levels and distribute them to other players. Making the code available also allowed new modifications of the game called “mods”, including a popular one that involved the characters from the Simpsons’ animated TV show running around the DOOM environment with Homer Simpson able to renew his health by finding and eating donuts. The US military created a version called Marine DOOM designed to desensitize soldiers to the idea of killing. Many of the company’s new employees were recruited because they had developed expertise by designing their mods.

Id’s innovation streak didn’t stop there as they also pioneered multiplayer capability. While other games had developed an interactive mode between two players, DOOM allowed up to eight players over local area networks (LANs) or modems. Their next few games, QUAKE and QUAKE II, increased the capacity to 32 players while using true 3-D graphics to create a virtual world of stunningly immersive environments and player mobility.

Multiplayer games took off with QUAKE II and have since morphed into multiple variations including the Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) that can involve hundreds of players at a time. One of major early innovators of the MMOG was Archetype Interactive who conceived Meridian 59 using DOOM graphics technology from id and sold it to 3DO who coined the term “Massively Multiplayer” to market the innovative game.[3] It was Ultima Online that proved there was a market for online multiplayer games. Based on the popular Ultima game, its subscriber base grew to over 200,000 in over 100 countries. But Ultima Online was also the first to face a number of technical and community problems including synchronizing the game experience for all participants and establishing a system of player etiquette. In 1999, Sony Entertainment Online (SOE) opened up its Everquest universe online. It made national news when players started selling virtual items on eBay and established the validity of an online 3D role playing game. Motivated by Everquest’s success, Microsoft pushed up the release its Asheron’s Call on its gaming site.

Virtual worlds have morphed into a wide variety of environments and games for all ages. MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) emerged as one the biggest revenue producers of online games and are expected to remain so in the near future with on-demand games running a fairly close second. These games connect hundreds to thousands of game players in a virtual environment that often includes its own internal economy. The “fairies and elves” genre and particularly World of Warcraft reigned. At its peak it had upwards of 12 million subscribers sending in $30 million a month in subscription fees. But other games like RuneScape are challenging its dominance and sci-fi games like Eve Online and Planet Calypso have also prospered lately.

So what is the future of gaming in virtual reality or what the Xbox people are calling “living and persistent worlds“?[4] Nintendo released the WII on November 19, 2006 that was notable for a remote that could be used as a handheld pointing device. Gamers flocked to their sports package with games like tennis and baseball that could be played virtually using the Wii Remote as a racket or a bat. Microsoft responded with the Kinect in 2010 that could sense body movements. It immediately broke records by selling over 8 million units in its first two months. The Xbox One has an improved Kinect that reads its environment with a HD camera, taking in some 2 GB of photonic information every second with its Time of Flight (TOF) technology. Its algorithms allow it to register the details of each body it scans, gauging the direction and balance of the skeletal system, the energy of each motion, the force of each impact, and even monitoring the heart rates of each player.

The Xbox may not be living up to VR ideals of sensory force feedback and other forms of haptic connectivity, but the level of popularity suggests that successful gameplay is often achieved. Kinect provides a level of bodily interaction that have made games like Dance Central and microsoft kinectDance Central 2 quite popular. The Xbox controller, despite a relatively steep learning curve and limited body engagement, provides a number of options that once learned, adds levels of complexity that reward those who master them.

For a successful virtual engagement, it appears that what is most important is that a level of psychic/cognitive stimulation is achieved by participating in an artificial challenge or conflict that operates within defined parameters or rules, and results in an observable change or quantifiable result. In other words – a game.[5] As long as these conditions are being met we can expect a rich pattern of future innovation in this area.


[1] From Castronova’s “Appendix: A Digression on Virtual Reality”, in Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. p. 285.
[2] Anthony J. Pennings, “The Telco’s Brave New World: IPTV and the “Synthetic Worlds” of Multiplayer Online Games” for the Pacific Telecommunications Council Proceedings. January 15-18, 2005 Honolulu, Hawaii.
[3] Information on the first MMOGs from “Alternate Reality: The History of Massively Multiplayer Online Games”, By Steven L. Kent Sept. 23, 2003. Located at on November 28, 2005.
[4] Marc Whitten’s presentation on the technical aspects of Xbox One was broadcast live on Spike TV.
[5] For a great explanation of games and gameplay read Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman.




AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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