Pit Schultz on Sun, 5 May 96 18:21 MDT

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nettime: The Information Hypeway: A Worst-Case Scenario

The Information Hypeway: A Worst-Case Scenario

       Jeff Johnson, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility

     Like most new technology, the Information Highway is being
     promoted by those with a large financial stake in its success.
     Thus, we hear almost exclusively about the benefits the
     Information Highway will bring us, most of which are hyperbole,
     naivete, and lies, and very little about the problems it will
     bring or exacerbate. Furthermore, the promoters are banking on a
     *particular* vision of the Information Highway -- namely that it
     will be a conduit between big business and consumers -- and are
     working to make sure that alternative visions are marginalized.

     My purpose here is to present a worst-case analysis of the
     Information Highway, to counterbalance the hyperbolic corporate
     press releases that masquerade as news in the mainstream press.
     While an Information Highway designed to meet social needs rather
     than to guarantee corporate profits might be possible and
     beneficial, that -- I am becoming convinced -- just ain't gonna
     happen. I focus here on the *negative* aspects of the coming
     Information Highway because that is what is missing from the
     public discourse.

     First, let's clarify one thing: the Information Highway will not
     be a single entity, though the name suggests otherwise. Rather, it
     will be a collection of many different component networks --
     local, national, one-way, two-way, point-to-point,
     center-to-points, wire-transmitted, wireless -- providing a
     variety of services. Furthermore, most of these networks will be
     disconnected from each other, at least initially and probably for
     a long time.

     Nonetheless, certain components and services *will* dominate. Just
     as commercial TV and radio now completely dominate the American
     broadcast media, with public stations having nearly insignificant
     audiences in comparison, the dominant component on the Information
     Highway will be a highly commercial, top-down, "pay-per" system
     for delivering infotainment to consumers, and, of course, taking
     their product orders. Most people won't even *know* about
     alternative components, e.g., civic networks operated by
     non-profit organizations, much less subscribe to them.

     To see what the future Information Highway will be like, one need
     only look at various service networks that
     telephone/cable/entertainment/merchandising conglomerates are now
     testing in various cities around the U.S. For example, executives
     from Time-Warner, Inc. are proudly showing a video about the "Full
     Service Network" currently being tested in Orlando, Florida. The
     video shows happy suburban families using their set-top boxes to
     play games, watch movies, browse electronic magazines, and order
     pizzas and bedroom sets. This supposed "Full Service Network" does
     not provide e-mail, bulletin-boards, or person-to-person
     communication of any kind.

     Projecting forward from the "Full Service Network" and its ilk, I
     now provide, in more detail, the salient features of the
     Information Highway as most Americans will experience it in, say,
     ten years.

     The Information Highway will be controlled by the Fortune 500, who
     will design it as a vehicle for consumption and delivery of
     advertising. It will treat us as consumers to be targeted rather
     than as citizens to be connected. Consumer choice will be greatly
     limited by monopolies, both horizontal and vertical: a few
     companies will control not only the network but also most of its
     services. The concept of "common carriage," wherein transporters
     have no control over -- and no stake in -- what is transmitted to
     whom, will have disappeared. In most markets, carriers will
     control content, shutting out small businesses and individuals as
     information providers. Fortune 500 domination also means that
     access equipment will be obsoleted quickly, requiring subscribers
     to replace or upgrade it frequently to remain online.

     The Information Highway will *push* information at consumers. In
     theory, a well-designed Information Highway could allow a shift
     from our current push-oriented marketplace. It could allow
     providers -- companies and individuals alike -- to put information
     "on the net," allowing seekers to *pull* it out as needed. Buyers
     could conduct searches for products and services of interest,
     compare alternatives, and initiate transactions. In short, an
     Information Highway could provide a close approximation to a true
     marketplace such as has existed until now only in economics
     textbooks and, in limited form, street bazaars. There would no
     need for advertising as we know it today other than the passive,
     "yellow pages" variety, which means that there would be no need
     for businesses to collect, share, and abuse data about households
     and individuals in an attempt to target advertising. But, alas, a
     pull-oriented network isn't what we'll get. Big business isn't
     interested in free markets, but rather wants *captive* markets:
     consumers who buy based on habit and lack of information about

     Captive markets is therefore what the Information Highway will be
     designed to deliver. The current push-oriented marketplace will be
     replicated, with much enhanced capabilities, on-line.

     Even the World-Wide Web is not immune. The Web was originally
     purely pull-oriented: people surfed the net, viewing and/or
     downloading information as desired. However, as the Web is
     commercialized, push-mechanisms are being added. Many corporate
     Web-sites now require users to register in order to gain access.
     Registering in order to "visit" a Web-site gives the host your
     e-mail address as well as an indication of your interests --
     exactly what they need to begin barraging you with advertising.

     But adding consumer-data-capture to the Web is only the beginning.
     In the glorious future, the data-gathering potential of electronic
     transactions will be exploited to the hilt. Most of what we do
     using the Highway will be recorded and analyzed for use against us
     later, e.g., targeting us for advertisements and sales calls,
     determining our insurance rates, judging our eligibility for
     employment. The market for consumer data -- already brisk -- will
     grow significantly. Many services on the Information Highway will
     be "Bait and List" fronts, which lure customers by providing a
     token product or service but make their real money selling lists
     of customers to other companies. The Code of Fair Information
     Practices, a Seventies-era set of privacy guidelines for
     electronic data records (see sidebar) is already seen as a
     hindrance to business. It will be ignored.

     One result of all this collecting and trading of consumer data
     will be that advertising on the Information Highway will be
     ubiquitous and in-your-face. You think you get junk mail now? In
     the glorious future, *stupefying* amounts of unwanted junk mail is
     headed your way!

     Not only will privacy be rare on the Information Highway, freedom
     of speech, freedom of assembly, and other constitutional rights
     will be severely restricted there. Doctors discussing anatomy will
     be arrested for posting "pornographic" information. Network
     operators will censor private e-mail and bulletin board postings.
     Instead of treating cyberspace simply as a new communications
     medium to which the U.S. Constitution extends, policymakers will
     regard it as special territory in which the Constitution has
     limited applicability. On the Information Highway, your rights
     will be governed by a "Constitution-Lite."

     The Information Highway will be bad for democracy. The popular
     term "electronic democracy" suggests that the Information Highway
     will enhance democracy by allowing citizens to communicate with
     elected representatives and participate more effectively in
     government policymaking. In some fantasy world, perhaps, but not
     in this one. For example, without e-mail, discussion groups, or a
     means of entering text, the Time-Warner "Full-Service Network"
     can't possibly support participatory democracy. Most of the hype
     about "electronic democracy" is really just about rapid electronic
     polling, which networks like Time-Warner's can support. But
     polling is just "acclamatory democracy," a degenerate case of
     democracy. True democracy involves discussion and deliberation and
     is slow *by definition*. It requires debate, not just clicking on
     For or Against buttons. Furthermore, it requires opportunities for
     citizens to influence important issues. Instead, the Information
     Highway will give us more opportunities to vote on issues such as
     whether or not the First Spouse should dye his or her hair.
     Instead of democracy, we'll get Oprahcracy.

     The Information Highway will be bad for your children. The threat
     doesn't come from pornography on the Internet -- that particular
     danger has been badly overblown. For most Americans, the
     Information Highway won't be the Internet anyway, but rather the
     services available through their set-top box. Those services will
     subject children to a mind-numbing barrage of advertising -- some
     of it masquerading as entertainment or educational material --
     designed to train kids to be consuming machines. There will be no
     escape from it, even in places that were once sanctuaries from
     commercialism, like libraries, schools, and churches. Suggestion:
     If a company proposes to connect your child's school to the
     Information Highway, ask first what's in it for the company. Ask
     how the service will be financed. Chances are, advertising -- to a
     captive audience of children -- is part of the plan.

     It should be no surprise that the Information Highway will turn
     out this way. Consider television. In the Fifties, when the
     corporate push to get consumers to buy TVs was in full swing, the
     press was awash in glowing predictions about how television would
     benefit society. Instead, we got Gilligan's Island, Beavis and
     Butthead, O.J. Simpson, and TV news designed more to sell tires
     than to inform, interlaced with 12-15 minutes of commercials per
     hour of airtime. Some people complain about this, whining that "TV
     could be so much better, if only the 'content' were improved." No,
     it couldn't. TV was developed and marketed by commercial
     interests. The content on TV isn't the programs; they are just the
     *bait*. The real content is the commercials. TV *had* to become a
     wasteland of drivel, violence, sexploitation, sensationalism, and
     advertising because its purpose was not to educate or inform, but
     rather to sell product. The Information Highway will be no

     Some people who lament the failure of TV to live up to its
     "potential" believe that computerizing TV -- making it interactive
     and turning it into everyone's portal onto the Information Highway
     -- will rescue TV from the wasteland. This view is naive in the
     extreme. TV won't be computerized, computers will be TV-ized.

     Theoretically, there is an alternative to this vision. An
     Information Highway could be open to all, especially small
     businesses and individuals who want to *provide* information. It
     could be pull-oriented rather than push-oriented. It could support
     forms of exchange other than product consumption. It could provide
     public-services as well as private ones. It could allow us to
     preserve our privacy if we so desire. It could enhance
     communication within neighborhoods. It could connect us rather
     than targeting us. In short, it could be more like the Berkeley
     Community Memory Project, the Seattle Community Network, or the
     Santa Monica Public Education Network -- all of which were
     developed by local citizens for the benefit of their community --
     and less like the Time-Warner "Full-Service Network." An
     Information Highway composed of parts such as these would

     generate more total value when summed across the entire economy,
     yielding a higher gross national product and better standard of
     living, than the corporate dominated Highway I have foreshadowed.

     But the Fortune 500 don't care about the *general* well-being or
     the summation of all generated wealth; they care only about their
     own well-being and wealth. So they will push for an Information
     Highway that delivers much less public benefit but maximizes their
     own expected benefit. And that is what they -- and we -- will get
     unless we very *clearly* indicate, by refusing to allow it into
     our homes, by being vocal critics, and by working in our
     communities to develop alternative information networks, that a
     corporate-dominated Information Highway is not acceptable.


Jeff Johnson is a software designer in California's Silicon Valley. From
1991-94, he was Chair of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
(CPSR), a Palo Alto based organization that examines the impact of
technology on society (cpsr@cpsr.org). This article is based on a talk Dr.
Johnson gave at the Association for Computing Machinery's 1995 Conference on
Computer-Human Interaction. The views expressed are his own.

[reposted on nettime with permission by the author]

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