The Information SuperHighway:
Social and Cultural Impact

Howard Besser
School of Library & Information Studies
University of California, Berkeley
(as of 1998, at UCLA's School of Education & Information Studies)

 from Brook, James & Ian Boal (eds.) Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information, San Francisco: City Lights Press, 1995


The discourse about the Information SuperHighway is dominated by rosy utopian predictions of increased democratization and access to information and culture. This chapter examines the social and cultural impact of the Information SuperHighway and points to scenarios that are much more dystopian than utopian. Beginning with the examination of a technology that made similar predictions about democratization and access in the late 1960s, the chapter then focuses in on elements of the Information SuperHighway that are likely to make it resemble broadcast television rather than the Internet. Key elements that derive from the dominant socioeconomic system such as commercialization, privatization, commodification of information, and the notion of "mass" and their likely effect on this domain are closely examined. Finally, the chapter examines the likely results of the new technology's impact upon peoples' relationship to information and culture.

 Information SuperHighway -- Past Parallels

 In 1994 the mass media began devoting a significant amount of coverage to the impending arrival of the Information SuperHighway. Readers of newspapers and popular magazines were repeatedly exposed to rosy predictions of increased access to information, improvement of education and health care, and a diversity in home entertainment that would all come from the promised "500 channels" of information.

 While these social and recreational benefits might be a possible result of increased channel capacity, they are certainly not the inevitable outcome that the mass media would have us believe. Technological developments do not in themselves provide widespread social benefits. Both technology and social benefits are shaped by social forces that operate on a much broader level. We need only look at similar predictions in the recent past to see that the benefits promised by a greater channel capacity may prove to be a hollow promise.

 The 1967 report of the President's Task Force on Communications Policy[1] made a series of recommendations on the role that should be served by emerging cable television systems. The industry should be structured "to cater to as wide a variety of tastes as possible, the tastes of small audiences and mass audiences, of cultural minorities and of cultural majorities. Television should serve as varied as possible an array of social functions, not only entertainment and advertising, ... but also information, education, business, culture, and political expression. ... Television should provide an effective means of local expression and local advertising, to preserve the values of localism, and to help build a sense of community... [P]olicy should guard against excessive concentration in the control of communications media."

 A February 1973 report on the Future of Cable TV by the National Science Foundation was enthusiastic about what cable TV would offer. "Public access channels available to individual citizens and community groups. ... Churches, Boy Scouts, minority groups, high school classes, crusaders for causes -- can create and show their own programs. With public access, cable can become a medium for local action instead of a distributor of prepackaged mass-consumption programs to a passive audience. New services to individual subscribers, such as televised college courses and continuing education classes in the home. Cable's capability for two-way communication between viewer and studio may in time permit doctors to participate in clinical seminars at distant hospitals, or enable viewers to register their opinions on local issues. ... Public and private institutions might build their own two-way cable networks or lease channels to send x-rays among hospitals, exchange computer data, and hold televised conferences."[2] They listed key features that cable would offer including: "Instruction for homebound and institutionalized persons, Preschool education, High school and post-secondary degree courses in the home, Career education and in-service training, Community information programming, Community information centers, and Municipal closed-circuit applications."[3]

 The prediction made for cable television more than two decades ago sound remarkably like the predictions being made for the Information SuperHighway today. When listening to today's predictions, we should keep in mind how empty those proved for cable.

 The Internet vs. the Information SuperHighway

 Popular discourse would have us believe that the Information SuperHighway will just be a faster, more powerful version of the Internet. But there are key differences between these two entities, and in many ways they are diametrically opposed models.

 Flat Fee vs. Pay-Per-Use

 Most Internet users are either not charged to access information, or pay a low-cost flat fee. The Information SuperHighway, on the other hand, will likely be based upon a pay-per-use model. On a gross level, one might say that the payment model for the Internet is closer to that of broadcast (or perhaps cable) television while the model for the Information SuperHighway is likely to be more like that of pay-per-view T.V.

 "Pay-per-use" environments affect user access habits. "Flat fee" situations encourage exploration. Users in flat-fee environments navigate through webs of information and tend to make serendipitous discoveries. "Pay-per-use" situations give the public the incentive to focus their attention on what they know they already want, or to look for well-known items previously recommended by others. In "pay-per-use" environments, people tend to follow more traditional paths of discovery, and seldom explore totally unexpected avenues. "Pay-per-use" environments discourage browsing. Imagine how a person's reading habits would change if they had to pay for each article they looked at in a magazine or newspaper.

 Yet many of the most interesting things we learn about or find come from following unknown routes, bumping into things we weren't looking for. (Indeed, Thomas Kuhn makes the claim that, even in the hard sciences, real breakthroughs and interesting discoveries only come from following these unconventional routes [Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962]).

 And people who have to pay each time they use a piece of information are likely to increasingly rely upon specialists and experts. For example, in a situation where the reader will have to pay to read each paragraph of background on Bosnia, s/he is more likely to rely upon State Department summaries instead of paying to become more generally informed him/herself. And in the 1970s and 1980s the library world learned that the introduction of expensive pay-per-use databases discouraged individual exploration and introduced the need for intermediaries who specialized in searching techniques.


 The metering that will have to accompany pay-per-view on the Information SuperHighway will need to track everything that an individual looks at (in case s/he wants to challenge the bill). It will also give governmental agencies the opportunity to monitor reading habits. Many times in the past the FBI has tried to view library circulation records to see who has been reading which books. In the online age, service providers can track everything a user has bought, read, or even looked at. And they plan to sell this information to anyone willing to pay for it.

 In an age where people engage in a wide variety of activities online, service providers will amass a wealth of demographic and consumption information on each individual. This information will be sold to other organizations who will use it in their marketing campaigns. Some organizations are already using computers and telephone messaging systems to experiment with this kind of demographic targeting. For example, in mid-1994, Rolling Stone magazine announced a new telephone-based ordering system for music albums. After using previous calls to build "a profile of each caller's tastes ... custom messages will alert them to new releases by their favorite artists or recommend artists based on previous selections." ("Phone Service Previews Albums" by Laura Evenson, San Francisco Chronicle, 6/30/94, p D1) Some of the early experiments promoted as tests of interactive services on the Information SuperHighway were actually designed to gather demographic data on users. ("Interacting at the Jersey shore: FutureVision courts advertisers for Bell Atlantic's test in Toms River", Advertising Age, May 9, 1994)

 Producers vs. Consumers

 On the Internet anyone can be an information provider or an information consumer. On the Information SuperHighway most people will be relegated to the role of information consumer.

 Because services like "movies-on-demand" will drive the technological development of the Information SuperHighway, movies' need for high bandwidth into the home and only narrow bandwidth coming back out will likely dominate. (see Besser, Howard. "Movies on Demand May Significantly Change the Internet", Bulletin of the American Association for Information Science, October 1994) Metaphorically, this will be like a ten-lane highway coming into the home and only a tiny path leading back out (just wide enough to take a credit card number or to answer multiple-choice questions).

 This kind of asymmetrical design implies that only a limited number of sites will have the capability of outputting large volumes of bandwidth onto the Information SuperHighway. If such a configuration becomes prevalent, this is likely to have several far-reaching results. It will inevitably lead to some form of gatekeeping. Managers of those sites will control all high-volume material that can be accessed. And for reasons of scarcity, politics, taste, or personal/corporate preference, they will make decisions on a regular basis as to what material will be made accessible and what will not. This kind of model resembles broadcast or cable television much more so than it does today's Internet.

 The scarcity of outbound bandwidth will discourage individuals and small groups from becoming information producers, and will further solidify their role as information consumers. "Interactivity" will be defined as responding to multiple-choice questions and entering credit card numbers onto a keypad. It should come as no surprise that some of the major players trying to build the Information SuperHighway are those who introduced televised "home shopping".

 Information vs. Entertainment

 The telecommunications industry continues to insist that functions such as entertainment and home shopping will be the driving forces behind the construction of the Information SuperHighway. Yet, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that consumers want more information-related services, and would be more willing to pay for these than for movies-on-demand, video games, or home shopping services.

 Two surveys published in October 1994 had very similar findings. According to the Wall Street Journal (Bart Ziegler, "Interactive Options May be Unwanted, Survey Indicates," Oct. 5, 1994, page B8), a Lou Harris poll found that "a total of 63% of consumers surveyed said they would be interested in using their TV or PC to receive health-care information, lists of government services, phone numbers of businesses and non-profit groups, product reviews and similar information. In addition, almost three-quarters said they would like to receive a customized news report, and about half said they would like some sort of communications service, such as the ability to send messages to others. But only 40% expressed interest in movies-on-demand or in ordering sports programs, and only about a third said they want interactive shopping."

 A survey commissioned by MacWorld (Charles Piller, "Dreamnet", MacWorld, Oct 1994, pages 96-105) which claims to be "one of the most extensive benchmarks of consumer demand for interactive services yet conducted" found that "consumers are much more interested in using emerging networks for information access, community involvement, self-improvement, and communication, than for entertainment." Out of a total of 26 possible online capabilities, respondents rated video-on-demand tenth, with only 28% indicating that this service was highly desirable. Much more desirable activities included on-demand access to reference materials, distance learning, interactive reports on local schools, and access to information about government services and training. Thirty-four percent of the sample was willing to pay over $10 per month for distance learning, yet only 19% was willing to pay that much for video-on-demand or other entertainment services.

 If people say they desire informational services more than entertainment and shopping (and say that they're willing to pay for it), why does the telecommunications industry continue to focus on plans oriented towards entertainment and shopping? Because, in the long run, the industry believes that this other set of services will prove more lucrative. After all, there are numerous examples in other domains of large profits made from entertainment and shopping services, and very few such examples from informational services.

 It is also possible that the industry believes that popular opinion can easily be shifted from favoring informational services to favoring entertainment and shopping. For several years telecommunications industry supporters have been attempting to gain support for deregulation of that industry by citing the wealth of interesting informational services that would be available if this industry was freed from regulatory constraints. Sectors of the industry may well believe that the strength of consumer desire for the Information SuperHighway to meet information needs (as shown in these polls) is a result of this campaign. According to this argument, if popular opinion can be swayed in one direction, it can be swayed back in the other direction.

 Mass Audience

 A significant amount of material placed on the Internet is designed to reach a single person, a handful of people, or a group of less than 1,000. Yet commercial distributors planning to use the Information SuperHighway will have to reach tens (or more likely hundreds) of thousands of users just to justify the costs of mounting multimedia servers and programs. This will inevitably result in a shifting away from the Internet's orientation towards small "niche" audiences; the Information SuperHighway will be designed for a "mass" audience (and even "niche" markets will be "mass" markets created by joining enough small regional groups together to form a national mass market).

 Because distributors will view their audience as a "mass" audience, a number of results are likely. First of all, information distributors will favor uncontroversial programs (for fear of alienating part of their audience). In recent years we have seen the extreme version of this, where controversial programs have actually been eliminated from network television and radio, cable, local broadcast stations, and even art museums due to pressure from various organizations. But, perhaps less obvious is the fact that the overwhelming majority of programming focuses on elements that appeal to most people but don't offend anyone (the least-common-denominator), and this is due to the orientation towards a mass audience.

 For similar reasons, programs designed for mass consumption will be favored over those perceived as having a relatively narrow appeal. The result is likely to be a lack of diversity and an emphasis on mass-appeal items. For an example of possible long-term results from this phenomenon we can examine the phenomena affecting bookstores and video stores around the country. Since the late 1980s, independent book and video stores are being rapidly being replaced by chain stores. Independents tend to offer a wide diversity of material, and in some ways use popular, mass-appeal items to subsidize more esoteric works. Chains, on the other hand, tend to carry little other than popular items. Because of the economies of scale realized by stressing mass-appeal items,[++] chains are putting the independents out of business, and it is getting more difficult to find items that don't have much mass appeal. If this carries over onto the Information SuperHighway, we can expect that what may start out as diverse offerings will, for economic reasons, soon turn into relatively homogenous (bland) programs with mass appeal.

 Other portions of the "mass" phenomenon have parallels with book and video stores. Upholding a tradition they share with libraries, independent bookstores tend to take strong stands against censorship. Chain stores, on the other hand, tend to "not want to offend", and avoid carrying controversial items. (For example, after the death threat to Salman Rushdie, many independents carried both books and displays of Satanic Verses, while most chains refused to even carry it.)

 Chain stores tend to deal almost exclusively with major publishers and distributors who can offer them better (volume) discounts and less paperwork. Independents tend to be one of the few venues for small presses or independent videos. A decade ago we saw legislative attempts to favor large studio film and video productions over independent productions in proposals to "tax" blank tapes.[4] While these efforts were designed to compensate major producers for illegal copying, in effect they amounted to an attempted fund transfer from independent producers (who spent a more significant percentage of their budget on blank tape) to the large studios who were to receive the "tax" distribution based upon perceived market share.

 Independents tend to be close to their community, and cater to odd tastes within their community. Chains, on the other hand, tend to focus on national tastes, and not carry many items that may cater to primarily local or regional tastes. Some chains have been accused of trying to impose their perception of (bland) national tastes upon local communities. Blockbuster,[+++] for example, refuses to carry programs it deems controversial because of sexual or political themes, even in communities that do not find those themes offensive.[5] At the same time they carry movies of a violent nature even in communities that find these themes offensive. For a generation, this same phenomenon of "mass" allowed broadcast television to dominate the discourse over what constitutes national taste. This is likely to carry over onto the Information SuperHighway, with video-on-demand service providers imposing their national standards upon each local community they enter. Information providers will claim that this will be done for purely economic reasons -- it is not cost-justifiable to spend a fortune digitizing and mounting a program that will only be of interest to a few communities. But the results will be the same.

 Changing Access and Relationship to Culture

 As we have seen above, cultural options available in an online environment will be dominated by mass-market productions that do not offend. But as more and more people rely on online access to culture, this shift is also likely to have a great effect on how people view culture, as well as on the perception and internal workings of our cultural repositories (such as museums and libraries).

 As it becomes more and more convenient to view high-quality representations of cultural objects (and accompanying explanatory information) on the home computer, people are likely to visit museums less frequently. As more and more people access representations of museum objects without entering the edifice, the authority of the museum (and its personnel) will rapidly erode. In libraries, we are already beginning to see that the people who have traditionally served as caretakers of onsite collections are instead becoming designers of access to collections that may reside either on- or off-site. And, as people gain the ability to seek information without the direct help of museum and library personnel, we are seeing a great diminishment in their role as intermediaries.

 As individuals look at more and more cultural objects on their workstation screens, it is likely that they will begin to confuse the representations with the original objects they represent. This is part of a general leveling effect (equating abstracts of experiences for the experiences themselves) that appears to be an integral part of contemporary life. This is not unlike viewing a video and equating that experience with watching a film in a theater, or eating at McDonalds and calling it a meal. Though, in an online system, more people gain greater access to cultural objects, this type of access eliminates a richness and depth of experience -- what Walter Benjamin called the "aura". (Benjamin, Walter, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", Illuminations, NY: Schocken, 1969)

 The widespread viewing of digital images poses interesting authenticity and authorship questions. Because digital images can be seamlessly altered, how can the viewer be sure that the image on view has not been manipulated? A number of magazines have placed purposely altered images on their covers (Time Magazine's June 24, 1994 darkened mug shot of OJ Simpson, New York Newsday's Feb 16, 1994 photo falsely showing Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan skating together, Spy magazine's February 1993 shot of Hillary Clinton in a bondage outfit, and Mirabella's September 1994 composite photo of several models' faces). Although in the above examples the magazines admitted (often in tiny print) that they altered the photos, in the future we are likely to see more and more such alterations without the publishers alerting the audience.

 Having images of cultural objects widely available online in the home is likely to lead to a proliferation of derivative art works based upon the online works. The ease of altering these digital images will lead individuals to make changes to them and incorporate them into larger works in a collage-like process. What we have seen with clip-art and desktop publishing is likely to significantly increase as continuous-tone images of cultural objects become widely available.

 When someone alters an existing image, this raises interesting questions as to who is the creator of the new work: the creator of the original work, the person who altered it, or a combination of the two? In anticipation of the widespread availability of digital works online, copyright holders of existing images have attempted to strongly assert their intellectual property rights over works in other domains. In recent court cases Disney made R. Crumb stop using a mouse in his comic strips, a photographer won a multimillion dollar judgment over Jeff Koons for "copying" his photograph of a man cradling a large litter of puppies, and the copyright holders of a song won a judgment against a rap group who incorporated pieces of "Pretty Woman" into one of their recordings.

 Today, ownership of intellectual property rights of digital images of cultural objects is considered a great investment opportunity. The highly inflated price paid for Paramount Communications and Bill Gates' establishment of a company (Continuum Productions) to buy up electronic reproduction rights of images were early shots in what will become an economic battle over the ownership of content.

 If it continues (as is likely, given the strong economic incentives in an online digital domain), this strong assertion of intellectual property rights will have a chilling effect upon future artistic endeavors. Postmodern art relies upon the recycling of images from the past, and the strong assertion of intellectual property rights will remove much of the material from the hands of future artists. More importantly, the strong assertion of intellectual property rights has the potential of eliminating satire and will serve to limit social, political, and artistic commentary -- all of which rely upon being able to represent pieces of the domain that they are reacting against.

 As it becomes easier and easier to obtain images and documents online in the home, it is possible that people will download and copy these somewhat indiscriminately. The advent of the photocopy machine led researchers to become less discriminating and to copy articles of only marginal interest. This led to a glut of paper in researchers' homes and offices. Word processing led to the generation of paper drafts each time a slight change to the text was made. In a similar way, online access to full-text documents and digital images may lead individuals to accumulate items of only marginal interest. And the proliferation of images (both those available and those accumulated) may lead to a reduction in meaning and context of all of them. This leveling effect (floating in a sea of endless images) is a likely result of information overload, and we are already seeing traces of it as people are caught in the web of the Internet, not being able to discriminate between valuable and non-valuable information, and not seeing a context to any of the pieces of information.

 In a way, the online environment of the future is the logical extension of postmodernism. As in previous incarnations (like MTV), most of our images come from the media. The images are reprocessed and recycled. In the postmodern tradition, all images (and viewpoints) have equal value; in an online world they're all ultimately bits and bytes. Everything is ahistorical and has no context.

 It is interesting to examine the development of technological communications from generation to generation. From the radio generation to the television generation to the MTV generation to the upcoming virtual reality generation, we can see a steady progression incorporating an increased (faster) pace and relying upon the stimulation of a larger number of senses.

 One of the identifying characteristics of the information age is to get people directly to the information they need without exposing them to tangentially interesting or relevant material. Information science research in the 1980s and 1990s has focused on tailoring of information to user profiles and techniques borrowed from the artificial intelligence community in order to avoid subjecting the user to information overload. But this approach devalues serendipitous discovery.

 And, as this approach comes to dominate, it will help reinforce the notion (promoted by various forms of technology) that chance encounters should be avoided. From mass-produced (virtually identical) goods to giving us a choice of movies to watch and when to watch them (rather than relying upon our local cinema), technology has always promised us more predictable, controllable experiences. In an era when most people feel pressed for time and/or fearful of chance encounters in a hostile world, people are increasingly shunning public spaces and turning to experiences that involve less unpredictable interactions. Public cinemas have been one of the recent casualties of this phenomena.

 Over time, our experiences with technology are becoming a replacement for public spaces and human interaction. Channel-surfing on a couch in front of a 500-channel television minimizes the chance (and often dangerous) encounters that might take place "window shopping" past inner city movie theaters. And computer-based "virtual" experiences (including the promised "virtual sex") will provide us with experiences that are more predictable and less serendipitous than human interaction.


 No one can predict the future with certainty. But we can analyze and evaluate predictions by seeing how they fit into patterns. And an analysis of the discourse around the Information SuperHighway shows remarkable similarity to that which surrounded cable TV nearly a quarter-century before. Though there is no guarantee that the promises of this technology will prove as empty as those of the previous technology, we can safely say that certain powerful groups are more interested in promoting hype than in weighing the possible effects of the Information SuperHighway.

 The Information SuperHighway will not just be a faster Internet; in fact it is possible that many of the elements that current Internet users consider vital will disappear in the new infrastructure. Though the average consumer will have many more options than they do from their home television today, attempts at mass distribution will likely favor mainstream big-budget programs over those that are controversial or appeal to a narrower audience. It is possible that diversity available from all sources will decrease and independent productions will be even further marginalized. And the adoption of an asynchronous architecture (a ten-lane highway coming into the library or home with a tiny path leading back out) would pose a significant barrier to those seeking to be information providers, and would favor a model of relatively passive consumption. And the kind of massification and leveling of culture that will follow is likely to be similar to the effects of broadcast television on culture.

[1]United States. President's Task Force on Communications Policy. Final report, August 14, 1967. [Washington]: GPO, 1968, [chapter VII, pages 3-4]. (commonly known as the Rostow Report)

[2]Baer, Walter S. Cable Television: A summary overview for local decisionmaking, National Science Foundation Research Applied to National Needs Program, 134-NSF, Santa Monica: Rand, February 1973, page 2.

[3]ibid, page 6.

[++] This is similar to the phenomena of "cherry picking" that in recent years has put intense pressure on the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs). Companies offering phone connections to business customers in metropolitan areas have "skimmed off" the most lucrative customers by offering cheaper prices (and can do so because they are not using these customers to subsidize other services). By removing the RBOCs' highest-paying customers, this has forced regulatory agencies to consider changing the fee structures for all customers.

[4]see, for example, Tax on home videotaping is urged,New York Times v131 (Thu, April 22, 1982):24(N), C21(L), col 2, Holsendolph, Ernest, Legislative Plan to Tax Video Recording Gear, New York Times v131 (Fri, March 12, 1982):A30, and Raspberry, William. No to the Betamax tax (column), Washington Post v106 (Fri, April 29, 1983):A29, col 1, and Lardner, James, Fast Forward: Hollywood, the Japanese, and the onslaught of the VCR, New York: Norton, 1987.

[+++] Which the NY Times has called "the largest and most profitable movie rental chain in the United States" (Portfolio: Huizenga's Major Holdings, NY Times, April 4, 1994, page B12) and the Wall Street Journal calls "the MacDonald's of US video rentals" (Brannigan, Martha. Blockbuster plans a drive to become the MacDonald's of U.S. video rentals, Wall Street Journal (Fri, June 10, 1988):28(W), 29(E), col 3).

[5]see, for example, Blockbuster to shun video of 'The Last Temptation,' Wall Street Journal (Fri, June 23, 1989):B2(W), B4(E), col 6, and Blockbuster, San Francisco Weekly (March 29, 1991), page 15. ÿ

Last modified: 11/3/2000