"We, the Online." Online Government in an Online Nation (Federal Information and Information Policy)(includes Related Articles on Federal Electronic Mail Addresses and Public Data Gophers)

By Quint, Barbara | Searcher, November-December 1994 | Go to article overview

"We, the Online." Online Government in an Online Nation (Federal Information and Information Policy)(includes Related Articles on Federal Electronic Mail Addresses and Public Data Gophers)


Quint, Barbara, Searcher


Around the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, I was channel-surfing one day and landed on C-SPAN, where two talking heads were discussing a new book comparing the French and American Revolutions. Why did ours work so well while theirs went through such terrors and vicissitudes? Well, if we eliminate the Atlantic, the author of the new book figured it was due to our faithless, unprincipled founding fathers.

Put down your muskets, patriots. That's what editors call a teaser.

Actually, the author categorized revolutions by the heat in the political philosophies underlying them. The American Revolution was "cool," while the French Revolution was "hot." By that he meant that the French Revolution was based on a philosophy that expected a lot from people, that thought of humans as noble savages ruined and ground down by artificial civilization, that considered bad government the only barrier to transforming the human condition. With this philosophy, anyone who opposed the Revolution became an enemy of humanity and suitable fodder for the guillotine.

On the other hand, the American Revolution was based on a philosophy that most human beings were no better than they should be, that society was permanently corrupt, that if you couldn't trust human beings to govern their own lives, you certainly couldn't trust them to govern anyone else's. With this philosophy, all the Revolution could hope to achieve was a government that let individuals do the best they could and stopped them from doing their worst. Rather than producing a Reign of Terror, this sort of benign cynicism produced an environment where many of die detested Hessian mercenaries excoriated in the Declaration of Independence ended up staying in the States after the Revolution. Live and let live.

So how stands the Republic 218 years later on the verge of the 21st century and in the middle of the Information Age? It doesn't stand, at least not always. It spends a lot of time sitting at computer terminals.

Uncle Sam and Data

The United States' federal government has had a long and central historical role in the development of the online scene we see today. The pattern of the federal government's involvement with modem information technology and database growth and proliferation stretches back to World War II and earlier. In 1951, the Census Bureau bought the first mainframe computer -- a Univac I -- to process data collection. As the nation's largest employer and the nation's largest data collecting institution, the federal government in the 20th century became the institution with the greatest interest in developing superior information handling technology. From the Agriculture Department's education and information programs for farmers, to the Defense Department's need for military intelligence and sophisticated weaponry, to the Commerce Department's collection of economic statistics, the post-World War II federal government built some of the nation's earliest major databases.

After World War II, the explosion of scientific and technical data from the public and private sectors led to direct funding of external research in information retrieval systems. The U.S. government helped build the sci-tech megabases searchers now take for granted. Chemical Abstracts Service was only one recipient of federal aid. Even abstracting and indexing services that did not rely on direct funding came to use the information technology and systems design built by U.S. research funding.

The earliest search services were built around U.S. grants. DIALOG started as a project by Lockheed Corporation to build a retrieval software for the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and NASA. The NASA Reconsearch service still uses an adaptation of early DIALOG software, as does the European Space Agency (ESA-IRS). The National Library of Medicine (NLM) funded Systems Development Corporation's ORBIT software, now the bases of Questel's ORBIT Search Service. …

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