THE ``information superhighway'' has become the focal point of talk shows and humorists, thanks in part to Vice President Gore's recent policy speech in Los Angeles. But too little consideration is being given to the potential social and political impact of this evolving group of mechanisms that can connect each individual on earth to every other individual. The information revolution holds within it the danger of cementing American society - and the world - into a modestly sized upper class, composed of those with access to information, and a much larger underclass of information have-nots.
The data highway's brave new world of computer networks, telephone lines, and television cables offers a mail system, an entertainment system with thousands of choices, and an education and research tool. It is ``interactive,'' which means more than just home shopping; each consumer can publish information that can reach an audience almost as large as any newspaper's through ``bulletin boards'' along that region of cyberspace called the ``Internet.''
But many costs are implicit in each of these aspects of the information superhighway: the high price of equipment, the fees for subscribers, and the time it takes to learn the system (which involves mastery of a needlessly arcane language) and make the choices.
While Mr. Gore urged universal access for purveyors and consumers of information, the superhighway is fully open only to the elites. The affluent can pay for access to special television programming, telephone services, and computer programs that simplify the jargon, sort their electronic mail, and index the chaos of the Internet. The intellectual elite, though not necessarily wealthy, can compensate with their skills, mastering the complexities of a free ride into cyberspace and tapping into the Library of Congress archives as well, if they've a mind to do so.
A number of battles are raging over the new mechanisms for controlling information. One battle is between commercial and noncommercial interests. The other is a question of political control: Should all this be regulated or should it be subject to the marketplaces of dollars and ideas? If there are to be 1,000 or 10,000 or 1 million channels, should all of them be filled (in various languages) with sitcoms, games, cooking shows, shopping, pornography, violence, sports, tabloid news, and celebs, save for two ``highbrow'' public television outlets, offering a Rush Limbaugh talk show and an environmental documentary produced by the Sierra Club?
The government should not be permitted to regulate the system too tightly because of the danger of political control. But without some regulation, the information flow already is choked by commercial exploiters and political proselytizers.
On the ``noncommercial'' but unregulated Internet, commercial companies charge an entry fee to all those without university affiliations, electronic mail is open to unsolicited ads, and some public data (such as federal court records) are available only through fees paid to private monopolies. Even the federal government charges for election and census information that could be posted in computer databanks openly without charge. (One encouraging victory for public access to data: recently, a federal court cleared the way for the Securities and Exchange Commission's compilation of all corporate filings, named ``Edgar,'' to be placed in the public domain through New York University rather than through a private monopoly for a stiff fee.)
One of the best organized collections of information on Internet is run by the federal government. In one sense, it is a public service that makes the workings of the bureaucracy more transparent and therefore more accountable. But from another viewpoint it can be seen as ominous, as its name, ``Fedworld,'' suggests. To enter, the citizen must give name, address, and other personal data. Once the browser is inside, the content turns out to be largely documents and press releases designed to make the government look good.
What can be done now to protect against excess commercialization, government control, and the creation of an information elite and an underinformed underclass?
* Foundations and universities should do what is now done only in the Cleveland area: Make access to the Internet available without cost to any citizen by offering a series of local telephone numbers or toll-free numbers. Publicly funded universities should make their links to the Internet available to the general computer-operating public.
* Municipalities can do the same through public libraries and schools. Computer programs are available, without royalty fees, to demystify the process, obviating the need to master computer jargon and opening these information flows to a broader public, including those who do not have home computers.
* Limited federal regulation must ensure that the new information flows achieve a breadth of subject matter and public access. This can be done by mandating that existing public-interest channels (such as C-Span, public access, and ``public'' television) have priority in cable and other systems. The Internet must be fully funded and kept noncommercial. Legislation must ensure free access to all unclassified government data, and that it be put ``on line'' - made accessible to individual computer users.
* Funding must also be maintained for public television to minimize commercial influences on such programming. But the funding must be expanded. A public corporation should be created, funded by Congress but outside government control, to provide programming grants to individuals and institutions for artistic, documentary, and informational purposes.
* The social and political pitfalls inherent in the new technology must be discussed and debated before they become realities. Media must play the story of the ``information superhighway'' as more than a financial page contest, a ``gee whiz'' technology feature, or a humorous commentary on a new fad. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.