From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com> (83)
Subject: What highway?
[The following came to me in the University of Toronto alumni magazine.
It is republished here with the gracious permission of the editor, George
Cook, and the author.]
Gale Moore, "Highway to Where? The real questions are social not technical".
I RECENTLY RETURNED FROM A THREE year adventure: I lived in the future.
What is it like? I arrive at my Toronto office, unlock the door and hear
a cheery greeting. There's Gerald, in Ottawa, on the television monitor on
my desk - I've left my "electronic door" open - who wants me to attend a
meeting in Waterloo at five o'clock. I comment on the fact he's wearing a suit
and he tells me about a visitor he's expecting and leaves. At 4:45 my
electronic assistant reminds me of the meeting. A few clicks of my mouse and
I am with John in Waterloo - Gerald has already arrived. We see and hear
each other and work on a document that we share on our electronic whiteboards.
The meeting over I prepare to leave for the day. It was cloudy earlier, so I
glance out my "video window" a dynamic view of the campus - it's raining. I
grab my umbrella and head for home.
How was this possible? I was a member of the Ontario Telepresence
Project, a research group that created an audio/video communication environment
designed to respect our belief that communication is an inherently social
How good was it? When the project ended this January I experienced what I
can only describe as "video withdrawal". We still had unlimited telephone
and e-mail connections but they weren't enough. By February I was on a train to
In contrast I recently returned from the American southwest where simply
using the telephone was an exercise in frustration. I lost several dollars
without making a single connection. Undoubtedly American technology was not the
culprit. Deregulation policies that have led to fragmentation of services
were the more likely suspect. Clearly I was off the Information Highway and
back on Route 66. I wondered: was this a glimpse of Canada's future as we head
down the same path?
Reflecting on these experiences and others over the past few years
reinforced my belief that the most important issues we need to address as we
race to embrace the Information Age are social, not technical. As grave as the
dangers are that come from technology, the products - be they bombs or
computers - are real and visible and provide us with an object on which to
focus resistance. The realm of the social, on the other hand, is less
tangible, often invisible and we frequently use metaphor to describe social
relationships. The metaphor then frames our understanding and constrains our
vision of the future. The Information Highway is a case in point.
Communication and collaboration were the primary interests of the early
users of the Internet and it evolved into a relatively democratic set of
communities. But like other alternative communities that have emerged in
large cities - Toronto's Yorkville in the 1960s is one example - the Internet
settlements attracted attention, "tourists" arrived and the market potential
By 1959 Daniel Bell, the Harvard sociologist, had already identified
information as a commodity in post-industrial society and the Internet is
information. Not surprisingly the Internet became a market and the
Information Highway was the new metaphor. Speed, competitiveness and the
transfer of "goods" all contribute to the metaphor. It plays to our fears
of being left out (no on-ramp) or, worse, wiped out (road-kill) and we
forget how the construction of superhighways destroyed communities in the
past. So if you're surfing the Net, get ready to pay more for your surfboard.
Lest this read like nostalgia for the brief golden age of the Net there are
serious reasons for concern about the ways in which this metaphor limits our
view. Here are two.
What is good about the Internet should be a public good, otherwise we are
creating a new category of the disadvantaged. Where are the discussions
about universal access or privacy for the individual amid the scramble for
market share? And what about the implications for employment?
Second if you have spent any time on the Net you will know not only how
much information there is but how hard it is to find a specific item. And what
might you be missing by not looking in more traditional places? All information
is not created equal and it is what we actually do with information that
transforms it. Thinking, reasoning and evaluating are where the emphasis
Looking to the future we must be Janus-like - facing both ways, making
sure that we do not lose what we will come to understand too late that we value
highly. There are market interests driving the Information Highway. We have the
technical means to any endbut where are we going? Tolstoy posed the fundamental
question: "What shall we do, and how shall we arrange our lives?" We are all
responsible for the answer.
Dr. Gale Moore was head of social sciences for the Ontario Telepresence
Project and is currently research and education specialist for the social
sciences at the University of Toronto Library. She may be contacted via e-mail,
Originally published in <t>University of Toronto Magazine</t> 23.1
(August 1995): 48.