Growing Our Communications Future

by Karen Coyle
This is a talk given at the seminar on the Ethics of the Internet, sponsored by the University of California Extension and the School of Information Management and Studies, Berkeley, Nov. 18, 1995

Let me take you into the future...

The year is 2015. The Universal Network, or Unet, has been operating for about ten years. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) has access to high-speed, global communications. They also have access to digital television, huge libraries of information, and a gazillion chat groups where conversation runs to: tell me what you're wearing tonight.

It took a good long while to get the Unet up and running. The main problem was how to pay for high-bandwidth wiring for the nation's homes. The government didn't want to foot the bill, that's for sure. Some folks even thought that it could all be done with ISDN, until the World Wide Web came along and made ISDN look like a drippy faucet rather than a fire hose.

The trick was to get consumers to pay for the installation of a network that they hadn't seen yet. The obvious solution of starting off with an all-pornography network wasn't going to sit well with middle America. The religious right proposed LordNet, with prayers available in increments of $1, $25 and $100, depending on their desired return. This, however, didn't catch on.

The big irony was that at the beginning of the Net, when it was still the Internet, no one had figured out how to make money off it. Even though hardcopy money had long ceased to be the primary exchange of value, and most money was being transported as streams of ones and zeroes, people were floundering on the implementation of electronic Net cash. To make matters worse, Net cash was tied up in the encryption debate, so the same technology that would make the Net a neat, taxable revenue source was also what was going to turn it into a seething mass of criminal activity.

Fortunately, this was resolved in the year 2000. A horde of programmers hired in 1998 to resolve the "millennium problem" (that is, all of the millions of lines of code in existence that couldn't handle dates that began with anything but "one-nine") found themselves unemployed in January of the year 2000, and set themselves to developing a program that could encrypt numbers, but not letters. Thus, transactions could be sent that maintained the alphabetic portion of their message, but securely scrambled credit card numbers and Net cash.

The Internet, back in the 80's and 90's, had mainly offered dull government documents, the inept writings of graduate students and the professors they wished to become, and the sexual fantasies of 18-22 year old virgins. The new Unet is now a riot of entertaining and desirable fare. Big boys, like Disney and Time/Warner/Turner put out snippets of their films and have enticed viewers to upgrade their connection to digital movie quality. News programs have truly found their place on the Net, offering up-to-the second views of events happening all over the world, perfectly selected for your interests. One only has to look at the difference between the dreary network news of latter half of the 1900's and today's selection of individualized multimedia offerings to see how our lives have improved. It's amazing that we made it this far as a society when each evening we were presented with such depressing stories of war, crime and death. Today, you never have to encounter stories you don't want to hear.

Online shopping allows 3-D views of products and virtual walk-throughs of vacation paradises.

It's not all commercialism though - the Unet is quite dedicated to public service. For example, in 2012 a highly advanced tracking system was installed that would allow you to know the precise moment that the city bus would arrive at your busstop. And highway metering systems make it possible for commuters to choose the best moment to enter the flow on their way to work. The bus tracking system, however, failed to make enough money to pay for itself, so it was rightly concluded that people didn't need bus information or else they would have been willing to pay for it. This service was eliminated in 2014, but the highway metering is a great success, and is being expanded to major thoroughfares in the larger cities.

What makes the Unet such a perfect system is that the success of a product can be measured in precise increments. Each second of each day the producers know exactly how many viewers they have. They can weed out not only unpopular programs or resources, but even the unpopular portions of popular products and replace them with sure-fire audience grabbers. And they can tell immediately if their information is being viewed by the audience they want to reach: no use advertising a BMW to households with an annual income less than the price of the car, or sending stock market information to people without bank accounts.

Even the government is playing the game. The "Cost Recovery Act of 2007" required each government agency to bring in revenue based on its information offerings. So in Congress, copies of bills are available for a small fee. Ten percent of the revenue from a bill goes to the party of the sponsor of the bill, and five percent goes directly to the office budget of the sponsor. The remainder helps pay for general running of the Congress, such as the gourmet cafeteria, the Congressional health plan and, of course, their official email accounts.

Being a clever bunch, the Congress-critters have been able to re-align their politics toward revenue development. Popular bills are... well, very popular, and a good, juicy bill can turn around a flagging party. Today, no one would be caught dead writing a bill entitled "Act to Extend Yam Surplus to American Samoa" or "Intrastate Truck Transportation Technical Correction Act of 2006". Bills that sell best are those that appeal to large interest groups, especially those with money and the time to lobby. Seniors with pensions are doing quite well and a number of bills have been passed in their favor. Of course, other groups, like children and the unemployed, have pretty much fallen off the Congressional map. You can't expect the Congress to represent people who don't contribute to the government.

Essentially, everything on the Unet is now making money. And consumers are upgrading their equipment and their online connections almost faster than companies can lay the fiber or role out the new products. Thanks to the Unet, the average credit card unpaid balance has risen 300%. The Unet is a success, and the economy is safe.


OK, all of this sounds a bit silly, doesn't it? But it's all based to some degree on reality.

The Clinton administration did promise us a National Information Infrastructure in their 1994 NII platform. That same platform made it perfectly clear that this upgrade to our telecommunications system would not be created with federal money, but would be left to a competitive marketplace. The government's role would be to eliminate regulations that hindered the commercial development of these new technologies. It would also need to strengthen domestic copyright laws to prevent piracy and protect the integrity of intellectual property. In other words, make it possible for the information society to become the information economy.

But this information economy could have a greater impact on our society than we are anticipating. To begin with, while most people are focusing their concern on how we will wire- up our nation's homes, few people are looking at what the market economy will do to the actual information availability, not to mention content and quality. There is very little commercial incentive to provide information to low income or minority segments of our society - the profit margin is just too low. So we are more likely to have information that benefits car owners than public transit users. And we have already seen that government is moving toward a revenue model for its information, where information gathered and organized with our tax dollars is sold back to us at money-making rates.

Yet, the administration's NII plan promised us the following:

This is already in contradiction with what's happening today, much less in the future.

The Clinton administration is responding to a particular problem - economic decline and a flagging marketplace. Information industry is expected to bring us out of this "recession." Social good is not part of the package, unless it comes about as a by-product of the economic growth. A good example of this is the recently proposed change to the copyright laws. This law is being amended to give additional protection to intellectual property in the electronic world, which is considered necessary for the online marketplace. But in doing so, it also essentially eliminates the possibility of free lending of electronic works. When members of the Dept of Commerce task force that proposed the rulings were faced with the accusation that this could practically eliminate the public library as we know it in the digital future, they replied, "Saving the public libraries was not in our charge."

I'm not trying to imply that the commercial marketplace is evil. I am saying that it has primary interests other than those of free speech and democracy and it would be even unnatural for us to expect it to put these before profit. There are profound moral questions that arise relating to communication and these will not be answered by a free-market. Like the effect of copyright laws on free access to information in libraries, we might find that what seems like a straightforward decision has great implications for non-market aspects of our society.

It isn't just a matter of laying new wire and moving into new markets. Communication is the very stuff of society. It's what we have built our civilization on. If you look at the social role of telecommunications system, rather than its technology or its market, you can come up with a set of requirements. I'll lay out some examples here:

What I'm talking about here are moral decisions. And there is room to make them. The technology itself is very flexible. If we lose freedoms because we haven't grown a communications system that supports them, it will be extremely hard to recover those freedoms in the future, especially since any negotiation would have to go over the very telecomm systems that may be denying free speech. No, we have to build it in from the beginning, like a kind of Bill of Rights for the cyber-future. Rather than letting the technology determine what culture we can have, we need to decide what culture we want the technology to support. And that means we've got to do it now, before this technology is in place.
©Karen Coyle, 1995
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
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