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Goodbye (and Good Riddance) to the "Information Highway"

Citizenship, Architecture and the Internet

by Wade Rowland

© Wade Rowland

When I was a network TV producer, I used to worry a lot about the metaphors we used in the news. It was the habit of the hard-bitten pros in our newsroom to liberally salt their copy with sports metaphors in writing about politics: an election was a "race" or even a "horse race" if it got tight; a debate was a "bout" in which we looked for a "knock-out", and so on.

I worried that sports metaphors tended to trivialize politics and I still believe that's true. Metaphors create powerful images of the things they're used to describe, but they have a boomerang effect as well. They tend to remake whatever they're describing in their own image, if not in reality, at least in our minds. They stifle the imagination.

If the metaphor is honest and accurate, none of this is much of an issue, but, as in the case of sports and politics, a bad metaphor can cause real-life injury. It is not socially healthy for people to go around thinking of politicians as prize fighters or elections as sporting events.

Our loose talk of the "information highway" is another case of a weak and inappropriate metaphor and it has contributed to decidedly non-metaphorical grief in the corporate world of telecommunications. If you're imagining building a highway, you can also imagine putting up a toll gate and charging admission; you can imagine a linear world of content flowing to a destination where it is consumed in the shape in which it was delivered; you can imagine making a killing because you can control the highway and access to it. But that's about all you can imagine.

At this stage, a year or two after all the initial excitement about broadband "full service networks" and video-on-demand, it is difficult to know whether it was this misguided "highway" image that led early corporate misjudgements or whether the metaphor came later.The fact is, though, it revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of what digital media are all about. And it wasn't just business; governments got it wrong as well. Here in Canada the report of the Federal Advisory Committee on the Information Highway released late last year in Ottawa, talked a lot about fostering the production industry and mandating Canadian content and imposing regulations in the public interest.

The thing is, the digital world is not at all like the analogue, linear, time-based universe we occupy in Real Life and which has moulded our conventional media.In effect, the process of digitizing data gives it an extra dimension in which time is not a constraint and random access is immediate.Applying the conventions of a linear world in this environment is like trucking airplanes around on tractor-trailer floats. Yet, the broadband video-on-demand services currently being tested are really little more than an enhanced VCR: they give uses remote-control access to a selection of programming and provide VCR-like control (pause, fast-forward etc.) once the programs are rolling. Big deal.

It's a truism that, for one technology to displace another, it has to be ten times better than what it's replacing. Hence, the eight-track audio cassette failed to displace the vinyl disk because it offered only incremental improvements in usability. But the CD revolutionized the industry and wiped out vinyl because it offered random access, reduced size, better sound quality and greatly improved durability. Video-on-demand is merely a marginal improvement over conventional TV and VCR combos; it is the eight-track of digital services.

The Internet, on the other hand, takes full advantage of the possibilities of digital media, by allowing full interactivity and universal access. On the Net, anybody can be a content provider, and text-based search engines and hyperlinks allow true random access to data. The power and potential of the medium are immediately obvious to anyone who looks at it, and the result has been the explosive, unprecedented growth in use we've all been witness to. The Net will displace the video-on-demand model and it may well, in time, displace broadcast television.

We're already beginning to hear more talk about the Net as a bazaar, or digital agora, or virtual city, or a electronic megalopolis. In fact, much the lingo of the Internet resembles terminology used in architecture and urban design, the most utilitarian of the fine arts. With its home pages, corporate "domains", "multi-user domains" and communities of all kinds, there is a strong architectural flavour to the online world. It seems a good match-up: if architecture is often defined as "the art of organizing space", the Web designer's efforts to organize sites in cyberspace might be called Web architecture.

Conveniently, the two defining variables of a work of conventional architecture can also be said to define good Web design: suitability to human use through adaptation to specific activities; and communication of ideas and experience through form.

Architecture provides another notion useful in thinking about the on-line environment; that of public space vs. private space. In the official lexicon of urban designers, space devoted to streets, parks, squares, boulevards and so on is "public" space. But so is a mall concourse or the lobby of a hotel, in that they are ordinarily accessible to the public. It is a controversial definition.

At architecture schools, students bemoan the loss to private interests of what once was public space, as happens when construction of a shopping mall shifts the focus of a town or village from the town square or main street to the enclosed spaces of the mall. While the main concourse of a mall may seem to be public space, it is not - pamphleteers, buskers and boisterous teenagers all learn this lesson definitively when they are given the bums' rush by private security guards. Furthermore, the public has no control over the amenities or lack of same in such pseudo "public" spaces.

What does this have to do with the Net? Just that the on-line environment in which the Net operates needs to be clearly recognized as public space, like the "air waves" that carry broadcast signals. Real public space, and not the pseudo, shopping mall variety. There is no reason why the physical structures of the Net - the copper and optical fibre lines and the switching devices and digital coding machinery - cannot be owned and operated at a profit by private enterprise. But the space that is created when those lines are humming with data, the cyberspace, has to be acknowledged as public space.

Public space is what it ought to be, and public space is what it is in practice. The Net is, by definition, owned and controlled by its millions of users. It was designed and built to be that way (designed, in fact, to survive nuclear Armageddon), and the design works. No legislation is needed to accomplish this, thank you. Regulators need not apply. The public nature of the Internet is lodged irretrievably deep in its defining technologies. (Which is not to say it it is inviolate: democracy is always a process, never a static state.)

If we can begin to think of the Net as a new kind of "built environment" or human habitat, then we'll begin to better understand how to deal with it and profit from it.

We might be moved to ask ourselves, for instance: what is the role of government in running a city? The answer is, to provide the amenities that make people's lives easier and more meaningful; to help people do the things they want to do safely and conveniently. It is not to tell people how to live, or what to say or do. There is an analogous role for government in the on-line environment. Government should facilitate access, enforce the criminal law and provide public amenities not made available by private enterprise. There is a role here, perhaps, for a CBC or PBS, in providing useful on-line resources that would otherwise not be there.

There is also a clear on-line role for business within this metaphor. It is not to own or control the public spaces of cyberspace. It is to provide services the public wants and needs (at a profit) and to generally behave like good citizens, not despoiling the landscape or ripping-off the burghers. It also means sharing the wealth by re-investing a portion of profits in public and quasi-public amenities like useful databases, navigation aids and entertainment sites.

In the end, though, even architectural metaphors fall short of the mark in encapsulating the Net. Something is still missing.

When I was a kid I read a book about Relativity (One, two, three...Infinity by George Gamow) in which the author conjured up the engaging metaphor of Flatland to try to describe what a fourth dimension might be. The image somehow clicked with me, and opened amazing new vistas in my mind.

Imagine Flatland as a two-dimensional world drawn on a piece of paper. Its inhabitants would see pencil lines as impenetrable barriers, just the way we see walls. A visitor from the third dimension would cause astonishment and alarm by being able to traverse those pencil barriers simply be stepping over them, or, as it would seem to the Flatlanders, walking through them. Imagine that!

Similarly, a visitor to our world from a spatial and temporal fourth dimension would be able to walk through walls, in fact would be able to turn up anywhere he wanted in an instant. He'd be unburdened by time, unhampered by distance. He'd have random access to the universe.

I see that fourth-dimension dream of freedom from time and space coming true in a tentative and embryonic way in the digital world of the Internet. We can travel to the farthest reaches of the Net at light speed, and we have random access to anything and everything that it encompasses in its sheer, organic promiscuity. Just imagine. This is no highway. This is a sea-change!

© 1996 Wade Rowland

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photo of Wade Rowland Wade Rowland is one of Canada's most respected literary journalists. He has worked for the Winnipeg Free Press, the Toronto Telegram and both national Canadian television networks: CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and the CTV Television Network. Rowland writes and lectures extensively on the new media, ethical issues, and science and technology.

Rowland is the author of a dozen other books including Spirit of the Web, a popular history of communications technologies that was selected as Required Reading for 1997 by The Globe and Mail. Other recent books by Wade Rowland include "Ockham's Razor", published April 1999 by Key Porter Books, and "Galileo's Mistake: The Archaeology of a Myth" published October 2001 by Thomas Allen Publishers. He lives with his family near Port Hope and is a principal in the Internet-based corporation, Blue Cat Design.

Read bio of Wade Rowland.

Wade Rowland is available for lectures and readings. He can be contacted at the Blue Cat Design offices.

Learn about Wade Rowland's latest book Galileo's Mistake

Buy the quality paperback release of "Spirit of the Web" online. Read an excerpt.

Buy "Ockham's Razor" online at: Chapters/Indigo Bookstores. Read an excerpt.

Buy "Galileo's Mistake" online at: Chapters/Indigo Bookstores. Read an excerpt.

Other articles written by Wade Rowland:

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