The 1980s called. They want their modem back.

Instant communication could, for all practical purposes, be described as the defining characteristic of the early 21st Century. We live in an age where we can access scientific literature from all over the world at the push of a button, keep up with the current intellectual debates via twitter and watch an army of cats playing a plethora of pianos on YouTube.  As a direct consequence of high-throughput data transfer, the rate of scientific discovery has accelerated to unprecedented levels via global collaborations involving large datasets, teleconferencing, email and shared manuscript editing. Of course, the cost of instant communication is that everyone expects you to communicate instantly. Not so long ago, going on a cruise provided the scientist with an opportunity to ignore the expanding inbox and enjoy uninterrupted contemplation (unless of course the seas are unkind. It’s hard to read a statistics paper whilst hanging over a railing enjoying your dinner in reverse).

Nowadays, recognizing that digital communication is at the heart of all science, satellite networks such as HiSeasNet provide research vessels with internet access even in the remotest parts of the ocean. You can now find yourself in the middle of an ocean gyre, hundreds of miles off shore fielding email requests from collaborators to comment on manuscripts or re-run computational analyses. But, the Land Internet we know and love is fast because information can be beamed at the speed of light down fibre-optic cables. Beaming your information into space and back is a different matter and transfer speeds less than 64-512kbs are common. The last time most people dealt with an internet running at such speed, Vanilla Ice was still growing his ridiculous hair and MC Hammer had just started making his extraordinary trousers.

As a newbie seagoing scientist, initial seasickness is soon replaced by data sickness, as you come to terms with the idea that you can’t just grab a reference or download a bunch of genes for multiple sequence alignment. After a while, clarity sets in and you realize that the fact that you can communicate electronically at all when there is no land in sight is a testament to just how awesome technology is.

There’s little doubt that globally availability of the high bandwidth we have  become accustomed to is both necessary and imminent. Sending people to sea is expensive and the increasing use of automated buoys, underwater vehicles and remote sensors shows a long-term move towards unmanned stations and devices beaming back information to scientists on shore. Once they figure out how to build automated DNA sequencers that can survive a storm, the amount of data being transmitted will increase exponentially and will undoubtedly create sufficient adaptive pressure to implement newer and faster communication at sea. Until such time, I am going to embrace the digital bottleneck and stand on the deck and look for charismatic megafauna while this post uploads.

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