AGT Public Forum: Information Highway, or Hypeway?

October 4, 1995 (7:00 - 9:00 pm)

Anne Branscomb, William Melody & Jerome Durlak

Speaker Notes

Belief Systems and Learning

Dr. Melody prefaced his talk with a quote, (I didn’t get the source), which states that improvements in communication make understanding more difficult. He describes the Internet as a means by which we have expanded data and sources of information by an order of magnitude, however, have we expanded our magnitude of knowledge and wisdom? He suggests that instead, we are preoccupied by the huge morass of information rather than building or constructing knowledge and wisdom. Melody suggests an analogy with economics, in which we understand the 1995 economy less in 1995, than we did the 1950 economy in 1950. With more research and better methodology, etc., we should better understand the economy, but this is not the case. Melody’s opinion is that as we improve communication, we are more and more confused and unwilling to plan and solve problems.


Dr. Durlak describes the social impact of technology in the next ten years, with the conglomeration of existing media (i.e., film, print, radio, and television). He asks, What are our needs? How can we use technology to meet these needs? How can we organize technology to meet our needs? Durlak suggests that the Press (print, radio, television) as the traditional givers/conveyors of information are not well-trained or educated enough to effectively meet the public’s need for information. Durlak envisions the Information Highway as a liberating media, which will enable the public to become information providers, as well as users. The question arises whether the public is ready to make the intellectual, developmental, emotional or cultural shift from being passive consumers of information, to being active producers of information.


Durlak describes what might derail the Internet. The first are economic interests, consisting of cable, telephone, and media giants who are greedily trying to cash in by charging high connectivity rates, rather than making connectivity affordable to the masses. A second derailer might be the commercial and entertainment market. Durlak states that sixty percent of sites are commercial, and that the public has to take control of the Net soon, or else we might end up with a commercial network. Like Branscomb, Durlak points to the Hype that surrounded television as the next great educational device. We now have a commercial television network, on which content is controlled by commercial interests. Durlak suggests we still have the opportunity to control the development of the Internet as a medium that will meet the public’s needs. He suggests we have to become producers of information rather than passive consumers. The difference between the introduction of radio and television, and the Internet, is power and control. Broadcasters and television companies have controlled the flow, content and amount of information, and consumers have been passive observers. With the Internet, every individual has the potential to become a publisher of information artifacts (text, video, audio, graphics). Durlak believes that the Internet has the potential to be different from television and radio as long as commercial interests do not make it too expensive, and governments resist trying to over-regulate it.


Branscomb speaks about FAQ’s, which explain rather clearly the Internet’s etiquette and sanctions for interaction protocols. She suggests that the Internet runs quite efficiently with Frontier Justice, in which users enforce ways to act, talk and behave online. Branscomb points to the problem in trying to apply realworld laws and jurisdictions to the interactive, electronic exchange of information. First, those attempting to apply those laws are often unaware of the culture and etiquette that already exists. Second, people on the Net have been rather effective at establishing their own morays and rules, and are therefore resistant to outsiders laying claim to this jurisdiction. It is rather interesting to consider how interaction is controlled and monitored by more experienced users, and that newbies are educated in the appropriate ways to interact. It would be fascinating to further study the development of this complex social organization.

Language and Perception

Branscomb describes five different views of the Internet. The first, the Superhighway, is a technology-driven view, with high power exchange of asynchronous information. The second is a Marketplace view put forward by economists, which points to the plethora of products and services available through the Internet. The third views the Internet as an Electronic Cafe, which is the socialists meeting place of the minds. The fourth view is of an Electronic Agora, where all people can speak, be heard, and vote in an electronic democracy which brings together the interactive exchange of many voices. The fifth view regards the Internet as Cyberspace, where console cowboys ride off into the electronic sunset. Cyberspace is an electronic anarchy, which is jealously guarded by the first cowboys, and conquistadors are not welcome. The five different views presented by Branscomb could be considered as a way to examine the development of the Internet culture, personality, language and community. Those who hold a particular view, or several, have acquired or developed a language with which they represent the purpose or goals of interaction on the Internet.


An issue for Universities, as identified by Melody, is that they are focusing to much on the supply side, rather than the demand side of a simple economic equation. Universities are investing a great deal of resources in infrastructure, but are not focusing on how students and faculty are going to be better served by this form of communication. There is so much information out there right now, and this will elevate the role of intermediaries who will organize all of this information. Melody believes that the role of librarians will be to filter and organize all of this information in order to make it accessible to the rest of us.


Dr. Branscomb described roadblocks to the Global Infobahn, such as the notion of a “wired nation”, which she related to the hype of television as a panacea for educational ills. Problems with this notion are that the Information Highway is being promoted based on distractions, “watch, play, bet, buy”. Another roadblock is poor Human Factors. Currently the Internet is plagued by incompatible interfaces, copyright, and a lack of Road Signs. In order to travel the Information Highway, one has to be able to read egyptian hieroglyphics, which is preventing a major portion of people from getting on the road. Another roadblock is Tort Liability Negligence. A huge reliance on computers for information exchange is leaving us vulnerable to using computers as a scapegoat (i.e., its the computer’s fault...).

Branscomb’s particular area of expertise lies in the Law, and how it relates or doesn’t relate to activities on the Internet. She brought forward issues of Crime or Tort, Invasions of Privacy, Anonymity, and Pornography. What level of criminal intent should be attached to misbehavior, when to some it amounts to a childish prank? How do we guard ourselves against intrusive behavior? How do we filter out junkmail from commercial interests on the Net? And, How do we maintain the autonomy of adult users who should be able to discuss anything they want, and also protect children and users who don’t want to be exposed to certain topics? Human performance or activity on the Net falls under scrutiny because there are no clear laws for acceptable behavior.


Melody suggests the Internet represents the Pyramids of the 20th century, in that we are wasting billions of resources constructing it and we are not sure what we are going to use it for. He touched on the issue of the Service Economy of the Future, in the Information Age. Currently, there is high unemployment, with many people facing underemployment. He appeared to be suggesting that the Information Highway might widen the gap between those who are employable, and those who are not. He promotes the need for changes in government policy and guidance in the future. It is too late to get off the Information Highway, but it is not too late to drive the train.

Branscomb also points to the problems with interfaces to the Internet, and suggests that we have to develop more transparent tools in order for the common person to have access to the information riches.


Branscomb suggests that Technopeasants have to take responsibility for the Information Highway (Dumit, 1992). She appears to be pointing to the current trend towards business interests taking control of this new medium, and suggests that if we are going to benefit from the Internet, we have to take control of its content, its rules, and its traffic. Both Melody and Durlak voice similar concerns over who controls the Internet, and that the general population has to take action before commercial and or government interests take this opportunity from us.

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