Going on Line: The Information Superhighway

By Wall, James M. | The Christian Century, February 2, 1994 | Go to article overview

Going on Line: The Information Superhighway


Wall, James M., The Christian Century


AS A CHILD Vice-President Al Gore watched his father preside over a Senate committee that established the interstate highway system. Four decades later Gore is the Clinton administration's point man for the information superhighway, a concept strongly endorsed by the president in his State of the Union address. Clinton asked Congress to pass legislation to help "connect every classroom, every clinic, every library, every hospital in America into a national information superhighway by the year 2000."

Gore told the New Yorker's Ken Auletta that he was present at a meeting of the Senate Public Works Committee chaired by his father "when they voted to make the signs green on the interstate system." Gore also recalled that the 50-mile trip his family used to make on a two-lane road between Carthage and Nashville, Tennessee, before the creation of the superhighway system, was slow and tedious. Now the vice-president is in a position to do for the national information system what his father once did for transportation.

The information superhighway is in its early stages: now we have numerous small highways that carry data and messages over a variety of systems which still have traffic jams and confusing intersections. But it is apparent that the system has the potential to provide a new kind of social connectedness--as well as a new kind of social isolation. Just as the automobile both allowed people to stay in touch over long distances and also helped fragment communities and families by sending everyone in different directions, the information highway could be the source of a new sense of local and national community or a way of separating users according to their access to technology.

Howard Rheingold's recent book, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, describes various "communities" whose members gather around their individual computer screens and talk with one another, creating a sense of community once found in small towns and neighborhoods. Rheingold writes of his timid beginning on the "electronic frontier," typing a hesitant "Hi" on screen, and how he moved on to have a deep sense of connection to people around the world.

Even in its early stages, the information highway connects individuals on the basis of common concerns and interests. Information is sought and shared. Strangers become friends, and according to Rheingold, face-to-face meetings sometimes follow. Rheingold recounts a poignant tale of parents with a sick child asking for help via the computer network and receiving both practical advice and solace. (Another report indicates that, as has been the case with every medium of communication, explicit sexual conversations and images are also being shared through the networks--a troubling development, given that children can easily tap into the medium.)

The interactive mode--with both its positive and not so positive elements-is only one factor in the information revolution. Of enormous significance is the gathering of information. In an example Gore often uses, the information superhighway would enable a young student in a small Tennessee community to connect her home or school computer to the Library of Congress. Medical doctors in isolated areas could call up data needed to treat patients; vast newspaper files could unfold on screen to answer any question; individual investors could have immediate access to their stock portfolios.

As a recent convert to the information highway system, I can testify that using a computer to obtain information and share messages is akin to learning how to drive. The process seems overwhelming at first. but once mastered--and user-friendly systems make this easy-connecting is as easy as driving to work in the morning.

I belong to two networks. One of them allows me, among a myriad of options, to plug into current and past editions of newspapers and magazines, look up topics in an encyclopedia, make airline reservations, or chat at any hour of the day with potential pals. …

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