Masthead CMC Magazine November 1, 1995 / Page 5


Highway to Where? The real questions are social, not technical

by Gale Moore (

This essay first appeared in the University of Toronto Magazine, August 1995. It is republished here with the gracious permission of the editor, George Cook, and the author.

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. With 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 process.

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 Ottawa.

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. 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 these interests 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 was identified.

In 1959 Daniel Bell, the Harvard sociologist, identified information as a commodity in post-industrial society. The Internet is information. Not surprisingly, the Internet became a market and the Information Highway became 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 the areas where the emphasis should lie.

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 which we value highly. There are market interests driving the Information Highway. We have the technical means to any end but 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. [CMC TOC]

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.

Copyright © 1995 by Gale Moore. All Rights Reserved.

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