LET'S MAKE SURE THE INFORMATION HIGHWAY IS MORE THAN A DATA TOLLWAY!
By Professor William Buxton
The University of Toronto
For five years now, I've been living on the information superhighway. It used to be lonely out here, but no more -- the road has become crowded with sightseers.
They're fascinated by the information highway! Indeed, not since the constitutional debate has a subject concerning our future so dominated national discourse. It's being explained and debated in newspapers and magazines, and on television and the radio. The only number exceeding the media outlets where the information highway appears is the diversity of views on what it's all about.
What it's all about is not technology. Rather, it's about people and communities. The issues connected with the information highway are inherently social, and must be discussed as such if we are to avoid having the tail of technology wag the dog of society.
It has been pointed out that technology itself is neither good nor bad. But it is decidedly not neutral! It is how we design, manage and use it that makes the difference. What we are doing today is making choices that will shape the social ecology in which our children will live.
Who is making these choices? How do we know whom to trust? And which versions of the future should we believe? Let me emphasize the urgency of these questions. Because of the scale of today's technological initiatives, their very inertia will make it difficult to change them after the fact. In simple terms, we are only going to get one kick at the can, and we'd better get it right the first time. My view is that we are at great risk of not doing so.
First of all, the term `information highway' is misleading at best. It implies that what is being delivered is information. But information is that which informs, helps us learn and serves as the basis for decision-making. Information is not something that is spooned into us, or that we absorb like a sponge. It is acquired through experience, experimentation and -- yes -- mistakes. From this perspective, what is planned from systems being deployed by the major cable and telephone companies hardly warrants the term `information'.
Second, this is no highway. In reality, what is being proposed by the communications conglomerates is a tollway, with all of the inhibitors to free exploration of the community that the term implies. So let's not mince words: What is being so widely hyped is more honestly described as a `data tollway', not an `information highway'.
If people believe that educational and useful services should be of primary concern, then they have reason to be worried. Whether regulation will ensure these type of services is a moot point. In both the U.S. and Canada, government is increasingly taking a "we'll stand back and not get in the way" attitude. Consider that Rogers Communications Inc. successfully bid more than $3-billion for Maclean Hunter Ltd. (a takeover expected to generate little opposition from the federal government), and that Stentor, an alliance of Canada's major telephone companies, will spend $10-billion on the information highway over the next 10 years. Unless carefully targeted, government and individual initiatives run the risk of being buried by huge commercial interests.
Discussions of new public technologies are dominated by the term `interactive television', implying that some inviting gateway to beneficial services is being offered. Such was the case earlier this year, when the U.S. company Oracle showed what it is going to make available to "millions of homes" over the next year. But what was shown was a limited form of interaction that permits you to "select", not "create."
What this means is that you can choose from among 500 channels of TV, but you cannot create your own information. In short, it is simply a fancy remote control which does little, if anything, to support notions such as distance learning, telemedicine or telecommuting. Terminology is being abused in order to mislead the public. To reap the true benefits of the technology, the second-rate interactivity offered by Oracle and its kind must be resisted.
The opposite extreme on the interactivity scale is the example of Internet, which supports a wide range of information creation, exchange and sharing, such as E-mail, bulletin boards and discussion groups. In between these two extremes lies services such as the proposed Canadian all-news cable headline service, `Headline'. It's one of 48 applicants to appear at recent hearings before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the CRTC, for a licence to operate a specialty cable channel. Between six and eight licences are expected to be granted.
If it gets a licence, `Headline' will be more than just a channel changer. It will break from the conventions of television to allow viewers to probe more deeply into subjects and issues of interest. They will eventually be able to select news topics from a menu on their television screens, then access background stories, sidebar material and special interest information.
That could at least be a precursor to authentic interactivity -- where users are more than "viewers"; a future which brings to television the "op-ed" and "letters to the editor" type of services currently found in newspapers, crossed with the discussion typical of current electronic bulletin boards."
Services and functions offered on the information highway could bring dramatic social benefits with minimal negative impact. They can help educate, generate jobs, improve the delivery of government services and make it easier for the disenfranchised to participate in society.
There are three criteria that must be met in order to achieve true success: physical access, economic access and cognitive access. Physical access involves the provision of the terminal equipment and the connection to the network. It is the most likely to be provided.
Economic access is mentioned less often, but it is critical. One doesn't need a Ph.D. in communications theory to recognize that near universal affordable access to the telephone forms an important part of Canadian life. So it will be with access to services on the emerging networks.
But who decides what is "affordable?" Have those setting or regulating tariffs really done the research to understand the parameters of their decisions? I think not. Let me provide a simple example that illustrates the importance of this issue. Technologically, there is no significant difference between the telephone companies in Europe and Canada. I can literally take my handset from Toronto, plug it in in Paris, and it will work. What is different is that in Canada I pay a monthly flat rate for local calls, whereas in Europe I pay extra every time I make a call, and the amount increases by how long the call lasts.
The reason that this should concern Canadians is that with the changeover in technology in deploying the information highway may come a switch to a European tariff model. This is something that the North American phone companies have wanted for a long time. I'm not convinced that this is in anyone's long-term interest, including the phone company's.
Finally, there is the most neglected but perhaps most important aspect of access: cognitive access. What I mean by this is that it is not enough to have a terminal, network connection and economic means. If you don't know how to use the system, you are just as cut off as you would be if you had no electricity.
In a society where people with Ph.D.s have trouble dealing with the technological gadgets surrounding us, I really question the degree to which reasonable access can be provided within what might be called "the threshold of frustration," or the "complexity barrier." This issue is amplified further when we consider the additional problems of the aged and those with learning disabilities.
The bad news is that current practice provides little cause for optimism in terms of increasing the range of services and functionality that do fall within the range of human capability. The good news, however, is that this is one area where Canada is a leader, and has the potential to make a real contribution. I believe we can reap substantial benefits -- social, cultural and economic -- if we invest less in the study of the asphalt that makes up the information highway, and more on the controls of the vehicles that are to pass over it.
At the moment, things are greatly skewed in favour of the asphalt.
(William Buxton is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto. He works half-time as scientific director of the Ontario Telepresence project, and the other half as a consulting research scientist at Xerox PARC, Palo Alto, California.)
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