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Lance B. Eliot, Feature Editor, Eliot & Associates
Taking a Drive on the National Information Highway
by Lance B. Eliot, Feature Editor
Are you ready for what has been variously called the electronic highway, the information superhighway, the digital expressway, or just plain cyberspace? If you have read any daily newspaper you have already been bombarded with wild and exciting predictions about the future of telephone, cable, and electronic information exchange. Back in the 1970's the word ``convergence'' would have suggested some Zen-like mind melding. Today the word convergence is used to denote the mixing of all forms of media into a digital hodgepodge that will soon be accessible via Dick Tracy-like wrist watches.
The rosy future also has some potential thorns. Will the segments of society that cannot readily gain access to the information highway be pushed further behind and become complete techno-illiterates? Will companies that provide paper-based products and services go by the wayside? Will the potential for techno-terrorism become more menacing as the ability to disrupt commerce becomes simpler via hacking into widespread computer networks? A recent survey by the Society for Information Management revealed that top information systems executives in our nation's major businesses are both elated and concerned about the proposed superhighway.
Where does the hype and reality begin and end on the creation, role, and regulation of the information superhighway?
In my own quest to discover the present and future of the emerging electronic thoroughfare, I have become involved in a number of industry and governmental activities.
I recently attended the information superhighway summit sponsored by the White House on January 11, 1994 in Los Angeles, California. At the summit I had an opportunity to hear and briefly meet one of the most visible spokesmen for the information highwayþVice President Al Gore.
As some readers may know, Gore helped coin the phrase`` information superhighway'' back in the 1980s. Since becoming our nation's vice president, he has been a vocal supporter of the National Information Infrastructure (NII). NII is a vision of the future of the superhighway and was sketched briefly in an administration white paper issued late last year.
Gore has been trying to determine the role of the federal government in the whole highway building process. Opponents of ``big government involvement'' often question whether the Feds even should be partaking in a discussion of the superhighway. Rather than governmental entanglements, such free-market thinkers argue that private industry alone should determine the direction and pace of the information highway construction.
Arguments countering the free-market approach point out that there is no such thing as a free market in today's telecommunications marketplace. Existing regulations both prohibit and promote a variety of technologies and uses of technologies. For example, telephone companies have generally been prevented from competing in the cable industry, while cable providers have had similar restraints related to the telephone business.
According to Gore, the Clinton adminstration intends to open competition in virtually all markets, yet do so in a manner that discourages monopolistic practices and guarantees certain societal desired options. One of the most important and unwavering societal options is the guarantee of universal access.
At the January 11th meeting, Gore made clear that the information superhighway must be available to rural areas and other out-of-the-way spots in our nation, and must be accessible by the poor and other societal members that might otherwise not have the resources to gain access to the electronic ocean. As part of his call for such access, he also pledged that by January 11, 2000, the superhighway will (should) be available to all classrooms, libraries, clinics, and hospitals in the United States.
Though the pledge seemed admirable on the surface, I had the opportunity during a panel discussion to address the issue of whether connecting to the superhighway is sufficient. Is it sufficient merely to have access to the information highway? Will teachers be trained on the use of such access and information? Will hospitals have access to useful information? Unfortunately, the sound byte quotable pledge still leaves many questions unanswered.
Furthermore, one could almost meet the pledge by buying a cheap microcomputer with a low-end modem, bundled with an electronic mail system package such as CompuServe or Prodigy, and ship the collection to every classroom, library, clinic, and hospital today. (I doubt that the cost would be much more than the money currently wasted on bloated government contracts or other questionable government spending.)
Gore's lack of specifics left many attendees with questions. When will it happen? Who will do it? Where will this happen? Will it be national in scope only, or should we also consider international aspects? How much will it cost?
A more optimistic interpretation might be that it is still too early to know exactly what the superhighway will be, and perhaps it is best that the government has not yet formed an exact opinion. Perhaps the general public's excitement will help bring additional support toward the superhighway movement, thus gaining ground for a glorious future.
Even President Clinton mentioned the superhighway in his State of the Union address (here it is in case you missed the brief mention):
We must work with the private sector to connect every classroom, every clinic, every library, ever hospital in America into a national information superhighway by the year 2000. Think of it. Instant access to information will increase productivity. It will help to educate our children. It will provide better medical care. It will create jobs. And I call on the Congress to pass legislation to establish that information superhighway this year. [address to Congress given on January 25, 1994]
For those of us in the information technology field, getting even a paragraph's worth of mention in the State of the Union address is certainly uplifting.
As a resident of Southern California, I can attest to the value of an information highway. In January we suffered a significant earthquake (fortunately, there was no damage to my home or office, though several friends and business acquaintances were hard hit). After our electrical power was restored to my area and the phone lines came back up, I logged onto one of the major email networks and instantly became part of a large-scale information pipeline that was trying to help people communicate in and out of the affected regions.
Since the quake, Los Angeles has seen a rise in telecommuting and telecomputing. Perhaps the tragedy will shake loose old notions of work and transportation, and promote the use of our current information horsetrails or lead to support for the futuristic information superhighway and the quest to make it a reality.
That is, if we can all agree on just what that reality will be. In the meantime, I will continue to participate in the superhighway movement and report to you as the road begins to take better shape. By the way, if you drive on the freeways in Los Angeles, you'll recognize my car by the bumper sticker that says ``My Other Car is Driving on the Information Superhighway.'' Honk if you see me!
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