Taking The Scenic Route: The Internet and the Information Superhighway

The concept of a national information superhighway has been around for at least a decade, but with the installation of the Clinton administration the rhetoric on the subject seems to have exploded. Computer, telecommunications, and broadcast technologies are converging into a single integrated complex that will allow an individual to access anything from on-line databases to the latest movie from his or her couch. According to television ads by the phone companies and cable networks a brave new world of communications is dawning.

The metaphor of the superhighway is apropos on two levels. First on the level of technical achievement where the building of the information infrastructure is in many ways analogous in cost and in engineering to the construction of the Interstate Highway system. An information superhighway has the same potential for social transformation that the Interstate highway system had. In addition, just as the Interstate system was looked on as a more efficient replacement to the network of state highways and two-lane back roads, the information superhighway is looked on as a major improvement on that already existing web of computer networks known as the Internet.

Understanding the Internet's history might be useful in understanding how the information highway should be structured and how it might be used.

This network of networks, which connects hundreds of thousands of computer terminals and millions of computer users world-wide, began 30 years ago with a very different purpose.

The driving rationale behind the development of the ARPANET, Internet's progenitor, was national security: the Defense Department's concern for maintaining the military's ability to communicate in case of nuclear engagement. The major design constraint in the face of this threat was to create a communications system that was non-hierarchical and geographically dispersed. Originally the ARPANET was intended to be restricted exclusively to defense agencies and defense contractors.

Immediately, however, ARPANET began to grow, and to change. There were several factors. First was the simplicity and elegance of the technical solution derived by computer scientists to the problem of linking widely dissimilar computers: the "gateway" concept. Second was the cultural clash between the defense establishment that commissioned the network and the academic researchers who actually built it. A basic tenet of what has been called the "hacker ethic" was the free flow of information, unimpeded by hierarchy or bureaucracy. The cooperative effort needed to successfully debug the system fostered discussion of problems and solutions on the network and gave rise to on-line discussion groups. Thus began the transformation of the conceptualization of the network from a restricted-access data-transmitting tool to a medium for social interaction.

Once the ARPANET system was built, its frustrated builders created a parallel network, USENET, to circumvent the exclusivity that prevented them access to their own creation. The advent of USENET marked the beginning of the end of the military's control of the computer network that was to become the Internet.

The Internet continues to grow at exponential rates, its growth fueled by the intellectual and financial "freedom" of the original system, the twin legacy of the hacker ethic and government subsidization. Today the tremendous popularity of the medium has set the stage for another clash of institutional cultures. The Internet has caught the attention of private enterprise, notably the telecommunications industry.

It is almost inevitable that within the next decade there will be a trend toward the commercialization and privatization of the Internet. The question is, how far will this trend go?

If the information superhighway is based, as many of the commercial interests involved want it to be, on a model similar to the telephone system, the costs associated with access to the data stream would skyrocket. But there are factors that give rise to the hope that the chaotic diversity of the Internet as it is today will not be completely obscured by the profit motives of large commercial interests.

Unlike the telephone system, which was for-profit from the start, the Internet was allowed to develop a substantial constituency before the private sector challenged the economic model it was based on.

To this point, the Internet has been self-regulating and egalitarian within the limits of technological access. The cultural legacy of the hacker ethic—the free flow of information—is promulgated to new members of the electronic community as they enter. This will provide, at least for a time, an ever-growing base of opposition to the "commodification" of information. The second indicator of hope is the military's historic failure to contain and control the use of ARPANET.

While it seems inevitable that commercial providers will charge for some services and access, a method must be found to insure that access to information is not based solely on ability to pay. The Internet has grown into an interesting, colorful web; it is not unreasonable to hope that it will not wither and die with the advent of the information superhighway but continue to provide access to cyberspace via the scenic route.

Last Updated June 01, 1994