Who Has a License to Drive the Information Superhighways?

Update – 2 March 2015: The promised part 2 of this post is now published!

The former U.S. Vice President Al Gore coined the term, “information superhighways” to describe the Internet. It was a great political slogan, and Gore was certainly one of the most internet-friendly U.S. political figures (and one of the first). But that doesn’t mean the term has legs.

A superhighway, for example, has a speed limit – well, just about everywhere except Germany, that is. Does Internet have one? I suppose it might, purely in terms of capacity – but not for the kinds of reasons that motivate automobile speed limits. In fact, we limit driving speed for safety – but on the Internet, the faster the better, and speed limits are seen as an impediment to efficient operation, not a safety regulation.

To drive on a superhighway, you need a driver’s license. Are we willing to pass an examination to drive on the Internet superhighway? Should we be? Personally, I think not.

In many countries, superhighways have tolls that pay for their maintenance and provide a profit to a concessionaire. We do pay our ISP’s, but in general, we don’t seem to think they provide good maintenance of our routes. And now, they are wanting to control what makes, models, and colors of car can drive on their highways.

In short, the traditional model of superhighways includes some sort of pay-per-distance, the need to be licensed to use it, and other forms of legal and social controls, that in general, Internet users have been reluctant to accept.

Why is it that we think it’s OK to have our cars registered with the government, our drivers’ licenses issued by the government (which can then track us thanks to both), and to have a whole raft of laws affecting how we drive and how fast, that restrict our “freedom” of movement – yet we are not willing to have analogous controls for navigating the world’s info-paths?

My best guess has two components:

  • The Internet is NOT a system of superhighways – it has a meta-existence that only a few roads have ever known (The Silk Road, Route 66…)
  • The Internet functions in the realm of ideas – and we do not take well to “thought control.”

In this post, I’ll deal with the first component.

Infrastructure or Place?

Internet is a word that carries a big charge. The word describes a global infrastructure, comprised of cables, protocols, wireless transmission, satellites, what-have-you. In this, it is similar to a network of interconnected superhighways, and thus Al Gore’s analogy.

Sometimes, the Internet seems to be a place where we go – when we are “on the net” we think of ourselves as involved in some sort of communal activity, in a virtual community, where we are (virtually) gathered together, whether to accomplish a task, shop, share ideas and debate, or simply gossip and exchange details of our lives.

More and more, however, with the advent of mobile connectivity, we don’t “go” there – we are simply “plugged in” all the time. Always on, always connected, all the time, everywhere. Internet, and the world it opens before us, is thus a constant accompaniment to our lives.

In this sense, there is a meta-dimension to the Internet that doesn’t even take the physical infrastructure so necessary to its existence into account. We represent it as a cloud – soft and cottony on the outside, foggy on the inside – in short, something vague, nebulous – in which wonders take place. It is almost a transcendent magical realm. When I use the term “magical” I don’t mean supernatural, I mean simply that we rarely think about how it happens that all this info-stuff arrives in front of us – we just interact with it, and we interact equally well, equally willingly, with machines and people, often not really knowing which is at the other end of our interaction. As the “Internet of Things” develops, this ambiguity will increase.

And Society is Changed…

Physical superhighways have changed our lives and how we interact. They made personal travel (in personal automobiles) fast and comfortable. The fact that many of them do not have tolls also makes them more accessible to more people. They made it easy to transport goods across continents. They have thus improved transport, and, like the Internet, communications.

But they have also cut communities in two, turned idyllic country homes into pestiferous hell-holes of noise and polluted air, and thus cut people off from each other, and from the environment – an accusation that is also sometimes leveled at the Internet.

The mythic roads, like the Silk Road, earned their mythical status from the social and economic interactions that developed along them. Certain stops along the way became well-known as welcoming, luxurious, or quirky. Others became notorious – for thievery, debauchery, etc. Superhighways, though, have no real stopping points. The artificial “rest areas” with plastic fast food alongside the gas pumps are not “places,” they are “facilities.” The idea of a superhighway is to get from point to point as fast as possible.

The idea of the Internet, on the other had, is to erase any sense of “getting there” at all. It is ubiquitous and asynchronic. We don’t “go” anywhere, we just “are.” This changes the relationships that we have with others, whether face-to-face or virtual. The youngest of our three children, now nearly 21 years old, craves constant contact with her friends. It is irrelevant to her if that contact is in person or via the net. For her, the virtual contact is identical in quality to the physical contact, and she flows easily, gracefully, and continually back and forth between these worlds, without even thinking about it. My conversations with other parents indicate that they experience the same thing with their children.

This idea of seamless transition (or “handoff” as it’s known in the world of cellular communications) is not at all analogous to a superhighway, where we “get on” and “get off” at each end of our journey, and change our driving habits based on what kind of roads we must take for the first and last kilometers of our journey.

Just as we don’t need a license to breathe, we don’t need a license to exist in this sea of connections. It’s as natural as breathing. Well – maybe not for all of us, but for a younger generation that has never known a world without it – it is the amniotic fluid, it is the air they breathe, it is the food they eat, and the language they speak.

Cables, routers, protocols? Oh – that’s for engineers. Don’t talk to me about that – just make sure it keeps working!

An upcoming post will continue this theme – in the realm of ideas.

Author: Ray

Ray Gallon is president and co-founder of The Transformation Society (www.transformationsociety.net), a research, training and consulting company focusing on building learning organisations that can manage complexity and the digital transformation. He has over 40 years as a communicator, first as an award-winning radio producer and journalist, then in the technical content industries. His management experience includes a stint as program manager of WNYC-FM, New York City’s public radio station. Ray is a self-described "humanist nerd," and has always been interested in the meeting point between technology and culture, and has used his broad experience to advantage with companies such as IBM, General Electric Health Care, Alcatel, 3M, and the OECD, as well as in smaller companies and startup enterprises. Ray recently helped co-found the Information 4.0 Consortium (www.information4zero.org) and serves as its current president. Ray is a university lecturer and a keynote speaker at events throughout the world. He has contributed articles and chapters to many books and periodicals and is the editor of the recently published “Language of Technical Communication” (XML Press).

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