Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 7/ November 1, 1994 / Page 5

Welcome to the Emerald City! Please Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain

by John Monberg (

A mile below the surface of the Gulf of California, a robot scans the ocean floor, instantly relaying the captured data via communication networks to scientists around the world. "The Internet is basically a space and time destroyer. It shrinks distance and time to zero," trumpets astrophycisist Dr. Larry Smarr. Computer/communication technologies can indeed create new connections between researchers, instruments and audiences. But access to these networks is far from equally distributed. As these technologies reinforce the strength of connections between members of wired communities, the gap between these communities and the social community as a whole widens. These technologies can act to create distance as well as to destroy it.

Article headlines and news stories often describe the new computer/communication infrastructure as an information highway, or superhighway, if the commentator is in a particularly technologically ebullient mood. This metaphor dominates public discourse and in important ways shapes popular perceptions and understandings of the purpose and function of this technology. Consequently it is worth thinking through the values that this metaphor carries with it. Highways require large amounts of public investment to construct, but are useful only to those who are able to afford individually owned private vehicles, powerful symbols of conspicuous consumption and the ability of drivers to separate themselves from the mass of outsiders. Expressways require high rates of speed, allowing little contact (hopefully) between motorists. Highways dominate the landscape that they exist within, forming immense uniform stretches of asphalt. Highways have been an economic boon to giant enterprises, spawning the largest oil, steel, auto, and real estate development corporations.

On a more profound social level, highways restructure the fabric and patterns of everyday life in metropolitan areas, intensifying the stratification of population by income and race. A drive on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago, for example, makes plain the isolation of residents of the Robert Taylor Homes (the largest public housing project in the United States) from the surrounding communities. Other Chicago area highways spoke out from the center of the city, allowing the largely white, upper-middle class access to employment in the city and housing and schools in the suburbs, unburdening themselves of the requirements of the non-affluent. Ivan Illich, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Kenneth Jackson, Marshall Berman and others have written critically of the ways neighborhoods are restructured to accommodate expressways, eliminating corner grocery stores, neighborhood taverns, green spaces, and other amenities which form the backbone of everyday life. Far from acting as a general tool for freedom, automobiles disenfranchise relatively large segments of the middle class, the young, the elderly and the rural from full participation in public life.

The asocial, apolitical ideology held by the architects of the communication systems, through which so much future social interaction will be mediated, provides fertile ground for advanced forms of "information capitalism."

How different would the public interpretation of computer/communication networks be if the guiding metaphor were that of the "information sidewalk"? In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs offers several chapters of keen observations on the uses of sidewalks. Sidewalks are near at hand, easily accessible by children, adults, the elderly, the disadvantaged. Sidewalks require no expensive vehicles, and a momentary lapse of attention is unlikely to lead to fatality. Functionally designed, sidewalks promote public safety, easy sociability, and the assimilation of children into adult life. Sidewalks are social spaces which create neighborhood characters and distinctive personalities. Most importantly, a vital sidewalk life promotes feelings of community, of connections, of lives lived in common,

"The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level--most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone--is a feeling for the public identity of the people, a web of public respect and trust, a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need."

Information highway proponents play a variation of the old shell game. Advocates of these new technologies, especially the heads of large media conglomerates and the research communities that are poised to reap substantial material benefits, describe a bright and shiny future, a vision glimmering with rich democratic possibilities. With practiced sleight-of-hand moves, the conglomerates use mergers, investment concentration, and privatization to drain remaining non-commercial vitality from public discussion. Let me be clear: despite the admirable efforts of public advocates demanding access for schools, communities, and individuals, these initiatives are likely to be honored only in rhetoric, not resources. Social spaces on the information superhighway will be expensive. We may, if we desire, choose an alternative technological route, but given the present political climate, these initiatives will have the limited effectiveness of the two a.m. public service announcement.

It is dangerous when the ground for social interaction is designed by, and has its roots in, a subset of individuals who disdain social interaction. Blithely unaware of history, complexity, conflict, or culture, computer scientists and communication engineers confidently make grand proposals about the future shape of society.

Common to the community of futurists and technical enthusiasts is the belief that technology can create a space where politics and social conflict can be transcended. They possess little understanding of social interaction, why people interact, the benefits and importance of community. The list of social aspects ignored is long. These include the heavy force of social solidarity--the need for belonging that serves as the ground and definition for all social interaction; the extent to which emotional energy is a motivation for and shapes the logic of social interactions; the function of cultural capital as a political resource, establishing hierarchies, and strategies connecting education, economic position, taste, and symbolic forms; cultural resources that ground frames of meaning allowing for shared understanding, as well as diverse interpretations; and the degree to which the structure of social interactions generate emergent cultural formations with typical characterizations and qualities.

The asocial, apolitical ideology held by the architects of the communication systems, through which so much future social interaction will be mediated, provides fertile ground for advanced forms of "information capitalism." Attitudes favor interpreting the world along the lines of rapid change, networks of individuals, finely-calibrated meritocracy, individualism, privatization, and a dismissal of collective goods. These attitudes provide little resistance to the erosion of the remaining public sphere.

Commercialization of the Internet

Much is made of the technical characteristics of "unlimited bandwidth" that will allow access to unimaginable volumes of data. Reference is often made, almost in the manner of a ritual mantra, to the "Library of Congress on the desktop." Despite these technical characteristics, information will never become "too cheap to meter." Due to the scale and capital intensiveness of the information infrastructure, charge-back mechanisms will be devised so that investments will payoff, or investments will not be made in the first place. Far from being free and plentiful, "infotainment" products will be expensive--economic actors must create scarcity to reap profits high enough to justify their investments.

Already the rapid increase of new users on the Internet is creating gridlock. This effect is exacerbated by new commercial enterprises which provide gateways into the Internet, increasing the number of users but not correspondingly increasing the amount of or capacity of desirable information. The "commons" that can exist for a smaller community whose members uphold norms of reciprocity and fairness is devastated by the throng of new users not socialized into "Net Culture."

Emerging Interactive Commercial Networks

The tendency toward monopoly is already clear at this early stage of development in the industry. Although pitched as a competition of phone companies against cable companies against utilities, in reality the lines between industries have blurred. Every cable consortium is partnered with a telephone company, and an umbrella group linking all of the major cable systems has formed. Companies with information products--whether multi-media, video games, movies, syndicated television shows or news--merge with hardware manufacturers of the network, switching, production and distribution equipment. The phone company U.S. West has made a $2.5 billion investment in Time Warner, which is spending $5 billion to upgrade its telecommunication infrastructure. Time had already combined its extensive magazine base with the movies and entertainment products of Warner Brothers and stakes in HBO, Turner Broadcasting, Hasbro toys and the Six Flags amusement parks. A takeover of NBC is under negotiation.

Control over information will be expressed not so much through government censorship but by commercial pressure. In some communities, access requirements for cable television separate the production of content from the ownership of broadcast stations, and common carrier restrictions and universal access requirements apply to the control of the telephone system's information products. Thus, the new media conglomerates use technology to outflank existing legal protections. Monopoly control over the single wire into the household enables these corporations to charge high-end access fees to shut out competition or content which is unwanted. Universal access will become very expensive.

Absence of Public Participation

If public participation is to have an effective role in the shaping of the national information infrastructure, it is important to begin now. The field is still relatively fluid. Questions remain unanswered: More than a dozen significant pilot projects are underway, and corporations are beginning to invest the tens of billions of dollars that will lead to the creation of the several hundred billion dollar networks. By the time wide-spread interaction begins to create social awareness of the consequences these systems will have, it will be too late to act. Democratic participation is needed in the design stage, before technological momentum, sunken costs, and powerful constituencies solidify these networks.

Unfortunately, public participation is far from robust. Speaking bluntly, Gordon Clark, the policy analyst responsible for the Office of Technology Assessment's study of the National Research and Education Network Program, recently resigned his position because, "No really significant policy debate is taking place in Washington on the future of the national data superhighway."

Limited public investment and direction will create a national information infrastructure that is functionally equivalent to an electronic shopping mall. It is technically possible to create a vital, participatory public sphere, but it would require sustained commitment, vision, and investment. By removing the link between advertising and access to the media and by subsidizing community groups to create voices at the grass roots level, the social spaces needed for a vibrant, egalitarian, public sphere could be greatly enlarged. Individuals would more easily understand their world, their connection to their community, and the government and corporate actions that shape their lives.

Structuring Social Discourse, Structuring Society

Political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg has argued that elite groups only relinquish power when it is necessary or furthers their interests. During the nineteenth century, the necessity of raising large, mass-conscripted armies resulted in the funding of public education and the expansion of voting rights. In the post World War II era, the vulnerability of industrial production on a mass scale to labor unrest lead to the negotiation of a social contract that enlarged the share of wealth controlled by the middle class. The adoption of information technology alters the global division of labor, again renegotiating the social contract. As Robert Reich has recognized, the haves and the have-nots no longer remain so closely tied to a common fate. Employment patterns and living patterns are already stratified. Cultural patterns will be skewed to a more profound degree by new communication technologies: advanced target marketing technologies, specialized news services, and the "infobots" on the horizon intensify the differences between the communication and resource haves and have-nots.

At the center of German philosopher and social critic Jurgen Habermas' intellectual work stands "[t]he conviction that a humane collective life depends on the vulnerable forms of innovation-bearing, reciprocal and unforcedly egalitarian everyday communication." We may choose to create, maintain, and expand such settings if we desire, but if the information superhighways are left to the commercial giants, public life will become yet more gray, empty, inequitable, and irrelevant. ¤


John Monberg is a graduate student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He uses approaches from cultural studies and critical theory to study the formation of information technology based public groups.

Copyright © 1994 by John Monberg. All Rights Reserved.

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