The Truth behind the Information Superhighway

This article is part of the PPSA Online Magazine
by John Johnson
Volume 7 Number 2 - Winter 1994

Let's forget the buzzwords that have become a part of our vocabulary for the past couple years. Let's leave behind the hype that the spin doctors for Microsoft have spoon-fed us. And let's talk about the future of an information exchange network in our country, and beyond that to the global implications.

Clearly we as a nation are poised to make some pretty major decisions about the future of the Internet. I will use that innocuous term to refer to a robust distributed computer network that allows the free exchange of information. Let me first say that by "free exchange" I don't mean that information isn't worth paying for. I simply mean that, allowing for certain reasonable access charges, the exchange of information is unfettered and in accordance with the First Amendment. I also take the position that these changes will have international implications, but that the United States is in the best position to lead the way in the development of this network. If America does it's best job at developing a network that benefits all Americans, it will in turn benefit the rest of the world.

One of the most notable events of 1994 -- with long-term effects on every aspect of our society -- was the discovery by the media, policymakers and general public of the Internet.

It was inevetable that many people would be confused and intimidated by this system of interconnected nodes. The terminology is itself confusing. Technically oriented people try to explain how the Internet really works, but they do it using hard to access terminology. They don't understand the basic phobia that many people have of computers, let alone this extension of that technology. Therefore, the media spreads the best watered-down and translated version of the internet that it can. Businessmen and policymakers, and the spin doctors that they sleep with, take it a step further. They try to determine where to go from here. Because we are certainly at the point where decisions have to be made as to the future of the Internet. The Internet was developed as a way to distribute processing for universities, and as a way to safeguard against the destruction of our military information network. It has become a lot more. It is now a forum for public discussion and a major form of communication for not only the government and universities, but increasingly moreso for business and the individual. The infrastructure is strained to handle the exponential increase in traffic that is taking place. The decisions that need to be made should be educated ones, and there are a lot of people doing their best to educate the public. All the major media sources, especially news magazines, have been running good articles. The problem is, despite any education, people who don't have hands-on experience with the Internet simply cannot understand the potential of this technology.

Take as an analogy video games -- another topic that many of the "older generation" cannot understand. It's not their fault. They didn't grow up with it. I am part of the generation that partially understands this phenomenon, but I admit, all we had when I was 13 years old was text adventures and a monochrome game called Pong. I have no hope of competing against my young friends with today's fast-paced video games. I have the ability to learn, but not without a concerted effort on my part. For the most part, my friends and I grew up in the 70's as a TV generation. Our parents grew up with some television, but they were influenced greatly by radio and music. Our grandparents, who are the age of many Congressmen, had no television as children and 50 miles an hour was considers driving fast. How can we expect this crossection of people to come to a consensus on this issue when their backgrounds are so varried. I guess that many will have to learn about this new technology, and others will have to rely on so-called experts. The "old-guard" who helped to develop computers in the 60's and 70's should not automatically be classified as Internet experts. Just as UNIX programmers refuse to admit the benefits of a user-friendly operating system for the majority of computer users, the "old-guard" may not have the best perspective for this issue.

The Internet isn't America Online, and it isn't Compuserve (to pick on two of the largest commercial providers). They only recently connected to the Internet and frankly, they don't do such a hot job. Bill Gates and his cronies; the CEOs of major commercial players in the Internet debate, seem to view the Internet as an improvement and extension of currently established commercial vendors. The Internet should not become an "improved" Compuserve. It should be totally seperated from any single platform, piece of software or commercial service. In a way, the great entrepeneurs of the 70's and 80's, like Bill Gates and Steven Jobs, are part of the establishment today. There is nothing wrong with charging for a service. Commercial providers like America Online and Compuserve allow their members access to information that they themselves store, and only recently have allowed their members limited access to the Internet. It isn't in the interest of the commercial information providers to have their members gain free access to information. That's the point. People who don't understand the Internet will turn to the CEO of Compuserve for advice on the Internet, and have to realize that the advice that they are given is coming from someone who has a vested interest (albeit shortsighted) in restricting information access on the Internet. You can't limit the Internet just because you don't understand it, or because you haven't been well educated. I guess you can, but the point is, people have to be made to understand the Internet's full potential before they make some of these pivotal decisions, and not base their decisions solely on information from the "computer establishment".

Who is the right person to ask about the Internet? I don't believe there is any single person who can be considered the pan-ultimate expert. But I do think that that decisionmakers need to consider the input of a wide range of people, especially Internet users. Those of us who have spent the last decade in college and online, have ideas that should be heard. Perhaps those best able to address the future of the Internet is the "video game generation", also refered to as "Generation X". They are growing up with the Internet and have a unique perspective on it's potential. There is some censorship on the part of universities and government institutions, however, people like me have come to appreciate the Internet in a way that people like Bill Gates, who, some would argue, thinks (at 300 baud) that the Internet is a big, profitable BBS, cannot or will not appreciate (for whatever reason).

The Internet, as I refer to it, is based on a simple set of data transfer protocals. These protocals allow any "connected" computer or network or other system to exchange information without censorship on a globe-wide basis. All you have to do, other than pay a few bucks for the priviledge, is follow these simple rules. (Even a student with a free account at a university has to pay for this priviledge in an indirect way through tuition, so there is always a cost to someone.) The most important part of the Internet debate will be the framing of the debate. It should be understood just what the Internet is and what it isn't. What the Internet is, is an idea and an infrastructure -- not a piece of software, a dial-up commercial service that can only be accessed at a set fee with a certain brand of computer.

Easy and cheap access to information is the revolution of our lifetime. With the prices of very powerful computers dropping to the $1000 mark, we are at the point where we, as a nation, need to comission forward-thinking individuals to come up with improved and standardized protocals for data exchange on the Internet. This is a first step. This will not favor a certain platform or operating system, but will make market entry and Internet access easier. We have to realize that the potential of the Internet is greater than we can imagine, and pursue legislation, appropriation and, to some limted extent, regulation that will allow us to transform the Internet into the vast "Information Superhighway" that it can become.

Because of bandwidth limitations, the Internet is now a slow and tedious system to use. It isn't very attractive to people because it is hard to navigate and way too slow. We can make the Internet more attractive for companies to become involved with and invest in. E-mail is a great first step -- but it is only the tip of the iceburg. Those of us who are insiders have to understand the point of view of businessmen. Many of us have access to the newest computer technology. We must realize that the business world operates with relatively antiquated equipment and untrained personnel. Those who think that IBM, DOS and MS Windows (in it's present incarnation) are the wave of the future, have their heads burried in the sand -- for the lack of a better euphemism.

In the future, I forsee a global network that allows a free and easy exchange of information to every man, woman and child. Granted, that's a utopian view of things. To be more realistic, there have to be commercial drivers for this to work. I think there are. People will always pay for access to information and unique services, but corporations need to realize that cheap investments in providing free information on the Internet wil have big payoffs down the line. The forward-thinking companies, like those who provide free and usefull web pages, will have the edge in this new frontier.

Another major use of the Internet will be the electronic transfer of funds. It will take us a leap beyond the ATM machine and the credit card. Of course, with the benefits must come the appropriate regulations and security precautions. The potential for abuse is great, but not unmanagible -- and I believe that the benefits far outweigh the problems. If we have a robust and fast network in place, it will be a simple measure to make needed improvements.

Clearly, data transfer and information exchange are going to be crucial to businesses in the 21st century. Therefore, a great impetus is placed upon the commercial sector to provide the funds and the resources to develop a true "Information Superhighway". Those who take the greatest risk and lead the way will be able to help make the rules. It is in the best interest of the commercial sector to get involved. Those companies who drag their feet will be left behind.

The Government has a role to play in the development of this network as well. However, the Government shouldn't spend many billions of taxpayer dollars to do it all. A good infrastructure is needed and the Government can help to ensure that a good national backbone to the network is in place. The primary role of Government is to see that the "Information Superhighway" of the future is not limited or ruined by shortsighted businessmen. If the highway system in America had been built by major corporations, then there would only be decent roads between the cities of greatest financial importance to these corporations. Our elected representatives in Government have to realize this and prevent limitations to access to this new highway based on geographical and economic restraints. Within reason, of course. On the other hand, our representatives should take advice from the people and not just favor business and special-interest groups. Over regulation, censorship and other impedments to access of information can really cut short the potential of this great idea.

This isn't just a way for GE, Microsoft, Compuserve, AT&T and other big commercial providers to talk to each other. There will be corporate interests that will want to persuade the Government to turn the Internet into their private communications network. We have to have an ideal in mind from the beginning so this doesn't happen.

Our children will grow up with the Internet as a part of their daily lives. All aspects of their lives will be tied to this "Infobahn". They will use it for schoolwork, and home-based education will increase. Our children will talk to and see their friends in other countries and down the block on a frequent, if not daily basis. They will shop at home, play multi-user interactive video games, download music and send letters to Grandma. It will permiate every aspect of their lives. They will get their news, movies from it and it will become a great public forum for debate of timely issues and exchange of ideas. The hot political debate of the day will be carried out using a futuristic and intelligent version of usenet newsgroups.

At this point in time it is equally possible that only those who can afford it will have access to information. Rather than the reasonable, pay-as-you-go service structure, the Internet could become a censored system in which you can get only certain forms of information in a way that is even more expensive and messed-up than the cable companies are today. We must not let the freedom of speech to be encroached upon by only allowing access through lawsuit-worried corporate providers. The Internet must provide a positive atmosphere, bringing out the best in our society, without too much regulation and without evesdropping by Big Brother. It can go either way, and you and I have to decide what we want the Internet to evolve into, for our children and their children. The more educated we are, and the more vocal we are, the more likely we are to make a difference in this most important debate. We are the ones who hire the politicians who make the decisions, and we are the consumers who buy the goods. If we let our voices be heard, we might just be able to develop a system that can preserve free speech and provide the best, most competitive prices to the end-user. Don't limit your vision for the future of the Internet to what you understand today. There is a chance that this can turn out for the best, despite ourselves.

Last Updated 04/14/95.© 1996 PPSA