Data Super-Overload?

Society's biggest need may not be more information delivered faster

EVER since Vice President Gore introduced the information superhighway metaphor in a speech last year, the idea has been the object of mordant puns, but limited consideration has been given to the project's long-term costs or consequences. Yet the very familiarity of the image may blind us to the plan's more troubling implications.

The National Information Infrastructure (NII), as the superhighway is formally known, refers to the Clinton administration's highly ambitious initiative to wire the entire country with 21st century telecommunications technologies - a universal, centralized network embracing telephone, computer, cable, radio and TV broadcasting, film studios, publishing, and consumer electronics. It promises more and faster dissemination of data; shopping, banking, working, and entertainment from the comfort of home; hundreds of TV channels customized to taste; and entire libraries accessible at the touch of a computer key.

For information industries, the superhighway represents an immense investment in anticipation of potentially enormous profits. The private sector plans to spend at least $400 billion in building the information infrastructure over the next 20 years. Information industries currently generate 15 percent of the gross national product (as much as health care) and are expected to become the nation's No. 1 business by the year 2000.

A high-stakes struggle for ``cyberspace'' is under way between two radically different visions of the electronic future, one an industrial paradigm promoted by information industries intent on maximizing profits, the other a citizens' paradigm advocated by computer network users intent on maximizing person-to-person contact.

While the corporate model is shopping, banking, video, and 500 channels on demand, the citizens' prototype is Internet, a rapidly expanding global network that includes more than 2,000 smaller networks linking 38 million users worldwide. The unplanned outcome of a Defense Department experiment 25 years ago, Internet has blossomed into a freewheeling phenomenon, a self-conducting symphony of millions of simultaneous conversations on thousands of topics in scores of nations. Its users see it as the village square of the electronic age, providing an ``information commons'' in which people widely separated by geography can exchange thoughts and ideas.

Soon after the September 1993 release of a Clinton administration task force report promoting the information superhighway, the Telecommunica- tions Policy Roundtable, a coalition of more than 100 public-interest and professional organizations, offered a response. The coalition cited several concerns about a corporate-built NII, among them the following:

* Corporate carriers might control content, reducing diversity in their single-minded pursuit of profit (as they have already done in existing mass media).

* Commercial messages may drown out true communication; interactive computer users may be greatly outnumbered by consumers passively ingesting processed ``infotainment.''

* Access may be restricted by affordability; advanced services would be available only to large institutionalized users who can afford to pay a high price. Poor and rural citizens may be under-served.

* Personal privacy could be compromised, since the little black control box atop each TV set could record and potentially make personal affairs available to governments and businesses.

In response to these concerns, the public-interest coalition calls for universal access to basic services, strict privacy guarantees, and a ``public cyberspace'' to ensure the noncommercial public a highway lane of its own.

Even before addressing these questions, however, it is worth asking whether we really need an information superhighway. For a culture already dazed by data but lacking any broader context that might give it meaning or usefulness, the prospect of yet more information threatens to further deepen our confusion. What we most need at this moment is not more data but more insight, not more information but more understanding.

Even the most discriminating consumers of quality information are beginning to turn off and tune out of the electronic and print media just to regain their bearings amid the deafening white noise.

``What wisdom have we lost in knowledge?'' wrote poet T.S. Eliot. ``What knowledge have we lost in information?''

Mr. Gore and other proponents of the information superhighway are not wholly insensitive to the concerns of public-interest groups. But the Clinton administration seems committed to the superhighway concept. Gore sees government's role solely as facilitator and referee. But he and other enthusiasts demonstrate a distressing naivete in their assumptions that an enterprise driven solely by the profit motive will sufficiently protect the public interest.

At their most alarming, scenarios for corporate control of the electronic commons are the stuff of ``cyberpunk'' science fiction, where a populace pacified by an endless one-way stream of images ceases to conduct any authentic life of its own. ``It'll never happen,'' say interactive computer users, pointing out that experiments with ``wired cities'' offering commercial interactive services have consistently failed to attract consumers, while spontaneous, decentralized citizen networks like Internet have grown like grapevines.

Indeed, the grapevine is perhaps the most appropriate alternative metaphor to the data superhighway. The less frenetic image represents a decentralized, self-governing network that offers universal access, widespread participation, and truly interactive communication one-to-one and many-to-many.

The free and democratic spirit of this culture can best be enhanced not by technologies that offer the passive consumer trivial choices between pre-programmed options but by technologies (and techniques) that help us become active participants in turning information into insights about how to live more wisely and well. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles 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.

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