Info Superhighway: Metaphor in Concrete

Many deplore lame imagery, but this label is here to stay

EVEN before we know what it looks like, we have a name for America's electronic future.

Everybody knows it's the ...

``Information Railroad,'' says labor activist Rand Wilson.

``The Electronic Ocean,'' says Tom Henry, a partner of a small software firm.

``I would call it the Information Environment,'' argues Esther Dyson, a member of a White House advisory council.

Such labels are nice, but it's a lost cause. Everybody knows America is roaring down the Information Superhighway. Metaphorically speaking, it's a one-way trip.

There are Information Superhighway toll booths, rest stops, median strips, and dead ends. National Public Radio's Robert Siegel took journalists to task recently for stretching the image too far in writing about info-highway ``potholes'' and ``access ramps.''

Mr. Siegel admits his own complicity, having written about traffic that's not ``bumper-to-bumper on the Information Superhighway.''

(This writer, it must be said, has also detoured through his share of digital off-ramps, potholes, and other low points of journalistic imagery.)

The metaphor is so fixed in public consciousness that it won't go away. Highway imagery is on the tip of every computer expert's tongue, even when the conversation is about something else. ``Computer crime is to computers as road-kill is to automobiles,'' one security expert said in a recent interview.

Even Vice President Al Gore Jr., who invented the term, seems to be wearying from the metaphorical onslaught.

In Los Angeles last month, he deviated from a prepared speech to explain how he never expected to have worried businesspeople run up to him and voice their fears of being left at the curb of the Information Superhighway.

Maybe that's why the White House decided to call its info-highway initiative the National Information Infrastructure (NII). No one, they must have thought, can spin a metaphor out of a boring word like ``infrastructure.''

Well, no one but Paul Callahan, a senior analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. ``When people talk about it, they really focus on the pipes, the raw plumbing, the pavement on the highway,'' he says. But in his view the hardware isn't the issue. ``What's really important is how much the communications industry is turning into a software business.''

FOR some people, the highway image doesn't work at all.

``This idea of the Information Superhighway has some good connotations and bad ones,'' says Pat Gelsinger, a vice president at Intel Corporation, a leading manufacturer of computer chips. ``The one I dislike most is that it's painted as this great thing that we're going to do in the next five to 10 years. These are products that work today.''

Another problem is that our electronic future is really more a network of electronic routes than a single highway.

``What we have now is five superhighways that don't talk to each other,'' says Ms. Dyson of the White House's NII advisory council.

Still, the superhighway lives on.

It evokes freedom and nostalgia. ``The highway to Americans brings back the image of the 1950s and cars with fins,'' says Mr. Henry of SandPoint Corporation in Cambridge, Mass.

It's also easy to understand.

``We have this need to poeticize and make interesting what we're talking about,'' says Dennis Baron, a University of Illinois English professor. ``It helps us conceptualize things that are hard to conceptualize.'' The Information Superhighway made Professor Baron's latest list of the year's best words.

Even those who worry about the implications of the info-highway have made their peace with the metaphor.

``It has got a richness that I like,'' says Steven Miller, a member of the national board of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. Bad things happen on a highway. ``The big interstate trucks sometimes run these little guys right off the road,'' he adds. Sometimes, politicians build highways right through neighborhoods, destroying them.

``The highways transformed our social, cultural, and environmental landscape,'' he says. ``We've got to remember that the Information Superhighway, if done as ubiquitously as it is threatened to do, will have the same impact.''

With this headlong rush into a pre-translated future, only a committed few are going against the flow. ``I'm trying to popularize the image of a railroad instead of a highway,'' says Mr. Wilson, the Boston-based labor activist. ``If you think of the robber barons .... it's a much more fitting metaphor.''

Is the Information Railroad catching on? ``It'll take a while,'' he concedes.

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