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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:
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