For a US information policy
For several years the hopes and warnings have been sounding as more and more people find themselves part of the ''information age.'' Now a far-ranging report for the National Science Foundation looks to a future in which household information systems could transform society as much as the automobile did. As the report concludes, close and continued watch on the process will be necessary to maximize the benefits and minimize the pitfalls.
Though the study centers on but one segment of the information explosion, it is striking enough to prompt a renewal of the call for a national information policy. Such a policy should not wait, as energy policy did, for some crisis to catch the country's attention. With information workers constituting about half the US work force -- and everybody using information in one way or another -- the constituency ought to be there.
An overall policy would cover, among other things, the proper use of government information, the responsibilities of private compilers and exchangers of information, the protection of personal information, the role of information in international trade, the question of sharing information with the developing world.
Underlying all these is what the report commissioned by the National Science Foundation calls the one fundamental trade-off: the question of control as information burgeons. Control of information has already loomed as a major element in many public issues, from the Vietnam war to the currently commemorated Watergate to predictions of future energy supplies and safeguarding of individual banking records. But the report, ''Teletext and Videotex in the United States,'' zeroes in on the home front. Who should be in control as more and more households adopt ''teletext'' (one-way information systems) or ''videotex'' (two-way information systems such as the Qube available in some cities)?
The two-way system has caused the main concern. The information and responses supplied by the user could provide files on preferences and behavior subject to ''new dangers of manipulation or social engineering.'' The time to consider what sorts of safeguards may be necessary is before hazards get locked in. There would seem to be a role not only for prudent government regulation but thorough education of users as to their own rights, responsibilities, and risks.
The reason for such care is to ensure that the promise of the new technology can be best realized. Lessons can be learned from Britain, which is at present the largest residential market for teletext, and from Europe, where use tends to be more commercial, and where some one million teletexts were in operation by this year. Projections of US use -- 40 percent of households with teletext by 1990, and with videotex by the end of the century -- are based on American consumers and suppliers moving forward as readily as the Europeans.
What might the results then be? Home-shopping -- and even a form of home production, with consumers specifying to manufacturers what they want produced. Information brokers -- someone who collates all the information and tells you the best deal on a used car. Increased participation in politics. New skills , career paths, and cottage industries. Electronic schooling for young people and retraining for adults. Blendings of homes and workplaces, with architecture affected by the presence of the machines. New networks of acquaintance based on skills and interests cutting across age and class.
It can all serve the expansion of thought as never before -- if sufficient thought is given now to forestalling the problems of progress.