Techno-Speak - By Any Other Name

I USED to understand techno-speak. I could tell the difference between an ABM and an ATM. Then technology changed. ATM doesn't mean Automated-Teller Machine anymore. Real techno-speakers know it stands for Asynchronous Transfer Mode.

And anyone worth his silicon knows that is ``a hybrid circuit-switched and packet-switched networking scheme that performs well in real-time applications but lacks TCP/IP's software base.'' (Leave it to Byte magazine to give us a taste of things to come.)

You don't want to know what TCP/IP stands for. But you might be interested in ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network). That's what's competing with ATM to replace the Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) we have today. That battle should be a real dust-up unless ADSL (Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line) tips the balance towards ATM.

POTS companies, called Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs), are testing ADSL and everything else. That's because RBOCs, like Bell Atlantic, want to merge with cable TV (CATV) companies, like TCI. I have no quarrel with a merged RBOC-CATV - if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approves - since it may spur on interactive television (ITV). But what will they say at AT&T and BT (which owns a piece of MCI) - not to mention CBS, ABC, and NBC?

No, they'll all plunge into this murky alphabet soup, challenging CATV, whether it uses today's standard, NTSC, or tomorrow's, HDTV (high-definition TV). IBM is jumping in too, as are HP and DEC (Hewlett-Packard and Digital Equipment), because everyone wants to make TV ITV.

What's happening here is a new kind of literacy. Vice President Gore says he's concerned the new technology will create an information elite. I worry that children won't remember that real nouns and verbs used to go between all the capital letters.

Scratch the surface of modern living and you find an acronym. Remember when cars had anti-lock brakes? They're ABS-equipped today. My vehicle has a driver's-side SRS. You have to read the manual to find out it's an airbag.

To go shopping today is to swim in acronyms. Even if you know about those little lines plastered on the side of most retail goods, it's passe to call them bar codes. They're UPCs. Grocers want to improve service through ECR (efficient consumer response).

Even the experts have trouble keeping up. ``There are so many acronyms that they do conflict with one another,'' confides Melvin Kranzberg, professor emeritus of the history of technology at Georgia Institute of Technology. ``I'll use one and then I realize it's an outmoded term.''

This is not the first time gadgetry has changed the way we communicate. Technology grows in spurts, says Brian Stonehill, who directs the Media Studies program at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. ``We're right in the middle of the greatest growth spurt we've ever had. So we need new terms. And they're always the wrong terms in the beginning.''

The last time man faced this change, he dreamed up names like ``horseless carriage'' and ``wireless'' to describe the machines he didn't understand. It took awhile for ``automobile'' and ``radio'' to catch on. This time, though, the words may disappear completely. The signs are ominous. After coming up with the catchy ``Information Superhighway'' to describe future communications, Mr. Gore renamed it the NII (National Information Infrastructure) and put in charge an advisory board called the IITF, chaired by the head of the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration).

* Send your comments on this column to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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