In the electronic magazine InterText, I write a sporadic column that’s mostly used as a soapbox for my opinions on electronic publishing. Responses to the columns are intriguing: sometimes personalities from the early days of network publishing (only about ten years ago) appear out of nowhere to agree, disagree, or corroborate certain points – and I feel like I’m talking back to my elders. Sometimes I receive letters enthusiastically agreeing with me, and sometimes I receive letters emphatically disagreeing with me.
Overall, one thing strikes me about this correspondence: almost without exception it has been civil, considered, and worthwhile. Even negative responses – although not as gratifying as praise – cause me to rethink, reconsider, and often revise my positions and opinions. The process has been one of communication rather than the expression of dogma: a surprising fact considering the range of differences – geographic, ideological, and cultural – between myself and many of InterText’s readers. Pretty amazing what technology can do.
Which brings me to today’s topic: something terrible has happened.
I refer to the information superhighway. It snuck up on us. There we were, innocent netters, minding our own business, then BAM! suddenly the media portrayed us as part of an information culture we didn’t know existed. The front pages of newspapers, magazine articles, television commercials, talk shows, and the evening news describe us as the current info-literati: the elite group of technically-hip, wired and inexplicably arcane individuals who represent a future uberculture of "digital convergence." Sure, the technology might be cryptic now, they say, but soon computers, televisions, and telephones will merge into new species of "information appliances." Imagine high bandwidth connections to every home, every office, and – through wireless, satellite-linked networks – to every vehicle and coat pocket in the world. Imagine video phones, video conferencing, limitless online information, voice recognition, online medical records, wireless financial transactions, and other high bandwidth information applications ad infinitum. "Have you ever tucked your child in from a phone?" asks one AT&T television commercial. "You will." (How touching.) That is the future, they say, and it’s only a few years away.
I imagine some folks are excited about this. But I’m not.
Pause for a moment and think about who will provide these services and applications for the information highway and why they want to do it. The who are today’s media and technology conglomerates: entertainment and publishing empires such as Paramount, Columbia, Time-Warner, and Fox; technology companies such as AT&T, IBM, Apple, and Microsoft; and service providers like Viacom, Sprint, and (again) AT&T. The why is universal: money. The "digital convergence" provides these companies a shot at all the money currently spent on movie rentals, cable television, telephone service, directory information, and online services. Each of these companies wants a cut of your monthly service charge, plus additional per-hour costs for "premium" services. They have reason to believe even more people will use the information highway than use these services today. They’re probably right, and that makes the financial potential even greater.
It’s said the video store will be dead in 1998 and I tend to believe that. I also believe telephone books, newspapers, magazines, mail-order catalogs, reference works, the postal system, ATMs, and advertising will not survive until the year 2000 in their current forms. You won’t have to go to an ATM to conduct your financial transactions and you won’t have to use a library or a reference book to look up information. Similarly, you won’t have to consult a thick, unwieldy newsprint tome to get a phone number or do much shopping since you can order and pay for most things over your television. You won’t have to rely on actually laying hands on a newspaper or magazine to keep up on the news, and you won’t have to buy tickets to concerts or sporting events because you can attend them online in full stereo and living color. It will be simple, convenient, easy to use, and it will all come to you over the infobahn. The purveyors of this technology want you to believe its the greatest thing since squeezable ketchup, and there’s no denying the idea is simple and powerful: anything you might desire comes to you through the wire.
But wait – think for a second: there’s nothing new about any of these applications. We’ve been shopping, we’ve used phone books, we’ve dialed long distance, we’ve been to the bank, we’ve purchased concert tickets and we’ve rented movies.
And that’s the point. These are activities consumers are comfortable with. They’re part of our lives now and the companies lining up to bring you the info-highway understand that. They want to give you things you already know how to do, and they want to charge you for it all over again – in a sense, they’re re-inventing the wheel. Why? So they can bill you for roads (cable, connectivity, and the highway itself), new tires (upgrades), driver’s licenses (training on using your info-appliances), fees (a myriad of small charges for that together add up in a hurry), and, of course, taxes (the information highway is not an inalienable right, after all, and government will want a piece of the action). You think commercials are thick on radio and television now? Just wait. The information highway will redefine advertising.
Now, I’m among the many people who think that a highway is a poor metaphor for the impending digital service networks, so I’m not going stretch it much further. (After all, my oldest, slowest computer is presently directly connected to the Internet: I affectionately refer to it as my "speed bump" on the infobahn.) But the basic point is that these new digital services aren’t going to provide much that we can’t do already. They’re simply going to provide it in a new, slicker, somewhat faster and (at least for the first few years) more costly manner. It’s not that there’s anything precisely wrong with these sorts of commercial applications; they will no doubt be successful and popular, thus being "good" for consumers and businesses alike. Without getting into the multitude of privacy and access issues raised by the info-highway, let me make it clear I do not oppose the idea of high-speed access to a myriad of services, as much as I may detest the particular applications that are likely to dominate such services. I think most netters share my interest in reliable, high-speed access to the Internet.
Instead, let me return to the thoughts that began this article. Simply put, the information highway we have now – a twisty and bumpy two-lane road, if you will – is primarily a tool for communication. The information superhighway and all the glittery, attractive, futuristic services to come with it will primarily be a tool for consuming. It’s the difference between a funky coffeehouse and an installation of McDonalds. Instead of promoting active interaction between individuals and groups, the infobahn will instead devote most of its resources to corporate and business concerns and one-way communication from provider to end-user. It’s the next generation of television, and no doubt one day there will be studies showing how many hours a typical person spends each day on the information highway. But, like television, it looks like we’ll be encouraged to spend most of that time in passive receivership. The couch potato simply gets a bigger remote control.
What to do? All we can do for the moment is to constantly make known our opinions about communication versus consumption. To whom should we do this? Anyone who will listen. Tell the engineers and schemers out there building the onramps, offramps, and cloverleaf exchanges of the infobahn that you want more than Gilligan’s Island on demand 24 hours a day! When precursors of services you don’t like begin to appear on the Internet, make your feelings clear! Tell any reporters or media contacts that you might have. The important thing is to disseminate our opinions in the hope that they might be a force for change along this one-way road of consumption. Not all that long ago, consumption also meant "a progressive wasting of the body." How apt.
Electronic publications like InterText and TidBITS do everything they can to make sure the information highway isn’t just a one-way street, but it’s really up to those of us out here now, in the digital frontier, to make sure the potential of digital communications – and what’s special about the Internet right now – isn’t lost in the shuffle.
[This article is adapted from volume 4, number 2 of InterText, a long-standing Internet fiction magazine edited by Jason Snell <[email protected]>. Note that the issue available via FTP is compressed in gzip format – use gzip under Unix or MacGzip to expand it.]