Section B:
The Information Superhighway
Are you too tired to go to the video store but you want to see the movie Beauty and the Beast at home? Want to listen to your favorite guitar player's latest jazz cassette? Need some new reading material, like a magazine or book? No problem. Just sit down in front of your home computer or TV and enter what you want, when you want it, from an electronic catalogue containing thousands of titles.
Your school has no professors of Japanese, a language you want to learn before visiting Japan during the coming summer holiday. Don't worry. Just sign up for the language course offered by a school in another district or city, have the latest edition of the course teaching materials sent to your computer, and attend by video. If you need extra help with a translation assignment or your pronunciation, a tutor can give you feedback via your computer.
Welcome to the information superhighway.
While nearly everyone has heard of the information superhighway, even experts differ on exactly what the term means and what the future it promises will look like. Broadly speaking, however, the superhighway refers to the union of today's broadcasting, cable, video, telephone, and computer and semiconductor industries into one large all-connected industry.
Directing the union are technological advances that have made it easier to store and rapidly transmit information into homes and offices. Fiber-optic cable, for example — made up of hair-thin glass fibers — is a tremendously efficient carrier of information. Lasers shooting light through glass fiber can transmit 250,000 times as much data as a standard telephone wire, or tens of thousands of paragraphs such as this one every second.
The greatly increased volume and speed of data transmission that these technologies permit can be compared to the way in which a highway with many lanes allows more cars to move at faster speeds than a two-lane highway — hence, the information superhighway.
The closest thing to an information superhighway today is the Internet, the system of linked computer networks that allows up to 25 million people in 135 countries to exchange information.
But while the Internet primarily moves words, the information superhighway will soon make routine the electronic transmission of data in other formats, such as audio files and images. That means, for example, that a doctor in Europe who is particularly learned will be able to treat patients in America after viewing their records via computer, deciding the correct dose of medicine to give the patient, or perhaps even remotely controlling a blade wielding robot during surgery.
"Sending a segment of video mail down the hall or across the country will be easier than typing out a message on a keyboard," predicts one correspondent who specializes in technology.
The world is on "the eve of a new era", says the former United States Vice President Al Gore, the Clinton administration's leading high-technology advocate. Gore wants the federal government to play the leading role in shaping the superhighway. However, in an era of smaller budgets, the United States government is unlikely to come up with the money needed during the next 20 years to construct the superhighway.
That leaves private industry — computer, phone, and cable companies — to move into the vacuum left by the government's absence. And while these industries are pioneering the most exciting new technologies, some critics fear that profit-minded companies will only develop services for the wealthy. "If left in the hands of private enterprise, the data highway could become little more than a synthetic universe for the rich," worries Jeffrey Chester, president of the Center for Media Education in Washington, D.C.
Poor people must also have access to high technology, says another expert. "Such access will be crucial to obtaining a high-quality education and getting a good job. So many transactions and exchanges are going to be made through this medium — banking, shopping, communication, and information — that those who have to rely on the postman to send their correspondence risk really falling behind," he says.
Some experts were alarmed earlier this year when diagrams showed that four regional phone companies who are building components of the superhighway were only connecting wealthy communities.
The companies denied they were avoiding the poor, but conceded that the wealthy would likely be the first to benefit. "We had to start building some place," says a spokesman for one of the companies, "and that was in areas where there are customers we believe will buy the service. This is a business."
Advocates for the poor want the companies building the data highway to devote a portion of their profits to insuring universal access. Advocates of universal access have already launched a number of projects of their own. In Berkeley, California, the city's Community Memory Project has placed computer terminals in public buildings and subway stations, where a message can be sent for 25 cents. In Santa Monica, California, computers have replaced typewriters in all public libraries, and anyone, not just librarians, can send correspondence via computer.
Many challenges face us as we move closer to the reality of the information superhighway. In order for it to be of value to most people, individuals need to become informed about what is possible and how being connected will be of benefit. The possibilities are endless but in order for the information superhighway to become a reality, some concrete steps need to be taken to get the process started.