The Road to the Future
Scientific American, Triumph of Discovery. Volume celebrating 150 years of the magazine Scientific American. Henry Holt. 1995

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By Gary T. Marx

With the merging of computers and telephones, information technology has significantly changed. In principle it is possible to have an electronic network connecting every individual and organization with a computer and a modem, transcending geographical, political, social and temporal borders. Instant communication at any time from anywhere is possible. If an individual is not available to receive a message at the time and place to which it was sent, it remains for later retrieval or may be forwarded. Databanks containing much of the world's knowledge, culture and entertainment could be drawn upon. Work, consumerism, and education could be carried out without leaving home. With the laying of fiber-optic wire it will soon be possible for computers to efficiently carry moving visual images and sound, in addition to data, the printed word and graphics.

When computers are connected to each other they constitute a network. The network may connect two or an almost unlimited number of computers. The Internet for example consists of thousands of computers globally linking millions of people. It was originally designed to tie military research sites and later universities into a high-speed communications network. This has spread to include commercial and private interests and to individuals without institutional affiliations.

In 1993 President Clinton announced plans to create the National Information Infrastructure, popularly referred to as the data superhighway. In fact there will likely be multiple intertwined roads, with the Internet serving as the prototype. The highway will involve computer networks, cable TV, interactive phone and still newer technologies.

In 1994 there were far more questions than answers about data highways. Grandiose claims by entrepreneurs wanting to get in on the action were in greater evidence than careful analysis. What we can say with certainty is that the familiar communication worlds we have known have been fundamentally altered.

Of course telephone networks permitted direct interaction among dispersed individuals. Cable television offered greater diversity. Video and audio recording devices permitted saving information for replay at a convenient time. But what is new and challenging about data superhighways is the scale, ease and efficiency of communication, enhanced interactivity and choice, and the break down of traditional concepts and borders.

The volume of inexpensive, instantaneous personal communication that can be sent or received is limited only by the number of persons having access to a network. Virtually any data base that is part of a network in principle could be available (e.g., the card catalogue of the Library of Congress, Wall Street transactions, encyclopedias, newspapers).

Traditional radio and television are mass media of vertical communication. They rely on a central provider. The information flow is one-way --offering standardized material to unconnected individuals at a fixed time. With the new technology the distinction between producers, distributors and consumers of information breaks down. Horizontal communication among dispersed individuals avoids central control (although there must be systems operators to route communication, they are not required to provide the information). Even tractional one-way communication such as entertainment or news can be programmed to appear at the user's discretion.

The distinction between the telephone, cable television and computer will no longer be clear. Communicating through a computer involves talking through writing and as such is a new form, although it is related to the telegraph. We are not certain how to think about it. Should e-mail for example be viewed as a post-card, a first class letter, or a telephone conversation? Is a posting on a bulletin board best seen as a form of publishing or simply a conversation?

Technology often outpaces social customs and the law. There is a lack of agreement about how best to think about the new networking. Among key social issues and questions:

  1. Access: will information highways be freeways or toll roads? Will the predominant form be like a public library in which all have easy access or will it become a commodity such as pay-per-view cable television? Will we see a new form of inequality between the information rich and poor?
  2. Carriers: who will provide the signals and services? This may be telephone, cable television, or entertainment companies, non-profit organizations, government, or various combinations.
  3. Uses: will there be balance among the various potential uses such as interactive means of communication for far flung citizens, education, public service information and discussions, shopping, and entertainment, or will the commercially driven forms predominate?
  4. Legal protections: will electronic communication come to be fully covered under the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizures? Will communications over a network be given the freedom of speech and assembly protections of the First Amendment, or will the providers of a service be entitled to censor messages and restrict participation? Can children be encouraged to use networks yet be protected from exploitative communication?
  5. Intellectual property: The ease of downloading and printing out whatever one encounters on a computer screen offers temptations for re-use and alteration not found with a book, or a face-to-face conversation. Should electronic communications and supporting software be entitled to the same copyright protections a book is given?
  6. Surveillance and privacy: There are tire marks all over the highway. Electronic trails create unprecedented possibilities for knowing where a person is, whom they are communicating with and what is being expressed, and what information they are accessing. This information has enormous commercial and law enforcement value, not to mention its appeal to the merely curious. Will systems be technically, legally and socially designed such that their advantages do not come at a cost of the destruction of personal privacy? Can systems be user friendly and inexpensive and yet secure?
  7. Information overload: the amount of available information and the number of possible communicators is staggering. Will clear road maps, stop signs and rest stops be available to prevent individuals from getting lost, feeling invaded and overwhelmed and tuning out?
  8. Implications for social interaction: will the new "virtual" communities and interactions that occur in cyber-space mean greater equity (e.g., race, gender, age and physical condition are not readily apparent on a computer screen), increased chances for social participation, reduced social isolation? Will such interactions be as satisfying as those in the world of face-to-face interaction? Or will social skills decline and interaction become more mechanical and emotionless as a result of being electronically mediated? In permitting the formation of narrowly specialized groups will there be increased fragmentation at the societal level? What will be the consequences of the blurring of traditional boundaries between work and home and the difficulty of nation states in controlling information flows into and within their borders?
Because these developments are still in their infancy we don't know how they will be defined or what form they will take or what consequences they will have. To judge from predictions about earlier technologies such as the radio and the automobile, there will be unanticipated effects and some current predictions will turn out to be groundless. But what is clear is that the nature of communication is undergoing qualitative changes that are likely to be as significant as the changes associated with the invention of speech, writing, the printing press, and the telegraph on which data highways depend and which they extend. The road to the future will not be paved with asphalt.

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