The Real Time Economy


As a preface to the list of URLs pertaining to a real time economy here is an extract from the 1968 publication "A Systems Analytic Approach to Economic Geography". The language reflects the state of computer technology prior to the emergence of the personal computer. It is an early attempt to sketch the outlines of the emerging e-economy:

A key feature of present technology is the increasing use of energy to augment human brain power, via electronic computers. Automation and space technology are ramifications of this new development. Concurrently there is a great increase in the use of mathematics and statistics in the solution of spatial problems, as we try to grasp the nature of whole systems. Up to now, though we were conscious of the many interrelationships among the things we studied in geography, we necessarily had to ignore many of these factors because of our physical inability to take them into account. Some of these problems would have taken a lifetime to solve simply because of the time-comsuming arithmetic computations required. But the electronic computer is changing all this,and it can aid the evolution toward a particular optimal spatial pattern of economic activities.

At present, systems exist for the storage of economic flow (input output) data in a computer data bank. Geographical locations can be coded in such a way as to permit computer mapping and various other computer based spatial analyses.

But whilst this development is one which will greatly alleviate the problem of data gathering, (as more and more firms resort to management information systems to facilitate and expedite control of production, inventory, and sales), our concept of a data bank is still a pretty primitive one. The second generation of such data banks is already being developed, and this is an on-line real-time (OLRT) information system. On-line is a "term applied to a system in which input data are processed as they are received," instead of periodic collection and processing. Real-time is the capability to receive data, process them, and return results to the source in a time commensurate with the response needed by the generative source. The information system which most strikingly illustrates an on-line real-time capability is the one which controls the various space voyages launched by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Real-time in this instance, especially during the launching and landing phases, is measured in nano-seconds.

But OLRT Systems are now contributing to the control of business organizations. For example, here is a quotation form the Scientific American:

"Probably the most extensive and advanced use of a real-time system in industry today is that of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Its tele-computer center in Pittsburgh is becoming the nerve center of the corporation. The center started operating in 1962 as an automatic switchboard for messages in the teletype network that serves all the Westinghouse divisions. Today this system, in continual communication with about 300 plants, field offices, warehouses, distributors and applicance repair centers, is taking over the functions of inventory control and order processing ona vast scale. It has also begun to take a hand in production control and is steadily moving into new fields. The improvements in the company's operations have been dramatic. By directing shipments to customers from the nearest warehouse that has the ordered item in stockthe system has speeded up deliveries and reduced transportation costs. It provides salesmen with information about the availability of products and about prices within minutes. It updates sales statistics continuously. It automatically requisitions replenishments when inventories fall below a given level. The data captured by the computer from the messages it is continually receiving and transmitting give the management a growing fund of timely information."

One cannot help wondering whether what is good for Westinghouse is good for the total space-economy.

It does seem clear, however, that if we are to consider data banks at all, then we should seriously evaluate the feasibility and the implications of the OLRT information system on a regional and a national scale.

Such a capability would add significantly to the time-dimension of our spatial studies. We would be enabled to effectively probe the dynamics of our space-economy - the everchanging spatial pattern stemming from continuous variations in the direction, volume and nature of flows.

But, it may be objected, information systems may be fine for giant corporations such as Westinghouse. What about the majority of firms which may not economically aspire to such a system?

Here, again, a new development may be observed which seems to offer a solution to this very real problem. This is the computer utility. This new technology is essentially an OLRT capability plus a time-sharing capability. Time-sharing takes advantage of the speed with which a computer performs its operations. When a person communicates with the machine from a teletype console, his speed of input is vastly inferior to the speed with which the machine obeys his instructions. Thus it spends a great deal of time (relatively!) just waiting for the next instruction. In a time-sharing system, the computer cycles among many users, giving its undivided attention for only a few seconds or often less than a second. But the cycling is so rapid, that each user has the impression that he is the sole user of the machine.

Parkhill discusses the computer utility as

"a general purpose public system, simultaneously making available to a multitude of diverse geographically distributed users a wide range of different information processing services and capabilities on an on-line basis. As in any utility, the overhead would be shared among all users, with each user's charges varying with the actual time and facilities used in the solution of his problems. Ideally, such a utility would provide each user, whenever he needed it, with a private computer capability as powerful as the current technology permitted but at a small fraction of the cost of an individually owned system."

Complementary with this development is the tendency for accounting firms, which "keep books" for many small firms, to introduce computer based information systems. To facilitate their operations, onemay antici pate a trend toward standardization of invoicing forms among participating firms in order that they will be computer-compatible.

When our primitive, isolated data bank has evolved into a full-fledged, complex OLRT information system, we may expect a rather different man/computer relationship. It may be argued that this difference is in degree only, but we think that it will be a difference with a special significance. Some geographers might label it the "second revolution" in their discipline.

Let us try to elaborate. At present, we tend to use the computer as an extremely rapid, and extremely efficient, calculating machine, and draftsman. But the data we use are periodic, and subject to long delays in updating. The maps, no matter how sophisticated the analytical tech niques employed, are static.

Yet another development is a graphic display device, the cathode ray tube (CRT). Given a time-series of spatially defined data (e.g. a series of digitized weather maps), perhaps transformed to a continuous surface, one can run this information sequentially through an appropriately programmed computer and display the results on the CRT. On the screen may be viewed a moving image representing changes in the climatological situation, or in the economic landscape over time. Such a dynamic image (which could be video-taped for repeated viewings) would provide further insight into relationships underlying the observed differential rates and directions of change.

An OLRT capability, in conjunction with the above CRT capability, would enable one to observe spatial changes as they were happening. This, we submit, is a difference in degree, which may lead to a difference in kind insofar as control of the space-economy is concerned. It would seem that such a continuous involvement (requiring as it must virtually continuous man/computer interaction) may lead to a mode of thinking quite different from that evolved in an environment kept at arm's length, so to speak.

But continual up-dating of data is very costly, and is it necessary? What constitutes real-time in one activity may lead to redundancy in another. Should data be reported daily, weekly, monthly, or hourly? The answer will depend upon the process speeds involved. Much research would be required to answer this question, using OLRT systems.

And how does a mere human cope with the problem of interpreting such a continuing flood of information? The solution to this problem may lie in some form of pattern recognition methodology. As we turn more and more detailed analysis over to the machine,we perhaps must devote equally increasing amounts of research effort to the development of modes of information display which the human brain can grasp. As humans, our strength appears to lie in the recognition of form and concept. Perhaps we have much to learn from the artist in this regard.

For a review of the context of the real time economy read a description the emerging digital environment.

Go to Space-Economy Page
Go to Web Links Page
Go to UWO Geography Home Page