The Information Superhypeway:


Corporate America, the U.S. Government and the Mass Media:
Selling the Abstraction to the Nation

Steven Mark

stevem@uclink.berkeley.edu

Library and Information Studies 296A
Professor Besser
University of California, Berkeley
*Spring 1994*

© NOTICE

Five hundred channels of high definition television, video on demand, time shifting, digital music, interactive games and shopping, instant access to information, electronic mail, electronic books, high quality video telephones. All of this, and more will be delivered- via high speed fiber optic cables- to your door. Seated in your favorite recliner, you will be able to access these services using a graphical user interface displayed on your television set, and a remote control unit. The Information Superhighway will allow you to "access the world" through the touch of a button.

Due to the enormous economic potential of the NII (National Information Infrastructure) and the ISH (Information Superhighway) it has become one of the most emphasized and celebrated national topics during the past year. President Clinton and Vice President Gore have propelled the NII to the forefront of the national agenda; the media has followed this emerging new technology unlike any before it; and dozens of the nations largest businesses are scrambling to strategically locate themselves for the monumental changes to come. All three domains: media, government and business, are circuitously tied in the pursuit of achieving the same objectives: First, to build a national information infrastructure, where every home in America is digitally linked to a high-speed, fiber-optic network. And secondly, to sell the "information superhighway" to every man woman and child in the country. This is the dream, this is the promise, this is the future. Experts agree it will be at least a decade until such a dream is realized, until then- the government, the media and corporate America will continue to sell the population the promise and the abstraction of the conception- in preparation for the eventual actualization. In this report I will substantiate the claim that the media, the government and the high-technology industries of America are entangled in a complex, whirling sphere of alliance and dependence upon one another- all in the pursuit of the enormous financial gains associated with the future of the telecommunications industry.

When President Clinton, Vice President Gore, industry leaders, and the media discuss the coming NII or information superhighway they often make reference to the Internet. Most agree that the existing Internet will serve as either a model for the emerging NII, or the actual foundation on which the new NII will be built. The Internet has experienced an astronomical growth rate of 10% - 20% per month during the past several years. This tremendous growth has caught the attention of government officials, as well as infrastructure building corporations, such as the telephone and cable companies. They have been analyzing this phenomenal increase of Internet use, and studying how the infrastructure has handled the increased load. Since there is no central governing unit on the Internet, its growth and evolution over time has occurred form the bottom up; as opposed to most networks, such as the telephone network, which grow and change from the top down. When designing the NII, its builders must consider such issues as: network flexibility, universal access and privacy. NII architects are studying the successes, as well as the failures that the Internet has encountered during its development. It's presence during this important planning stage of the NII is crucial to the success of the new network. Whether the NII will be built alongside the existing Internet, or actually integrated into it, remains to be decided, either way, the Internet is an invaluable tool, one which we have today.

The mass media serves as a liaison linking the government and big business to the American population. Without the media, the majority of the population wouldn't have any knowledge of the Internet, or be able to comprehend the abstract concept of the NII or the ISH. The ways in which these topics are presented to the public by the media are interesting to examine, in addition, they reinforce the assertion that the government, the media, and big business are all united in a "master plan" of selling this abstraction to the population. In analyzing the media's presentation of the NII, it is important not only to study the various frames in which the story is found, but to also understand the factors that contribute to these frames. These factors, such as a news organ's overall style, tone, audience and values, are taken into consideration when determining story angle and objective.

The very fact that the media is presenting the NII's emergence raises questions surrounding the manner in which this story is being covered. Traditionally, news articles center around events that have already happened, or anticipated news that one knows is going to happen in the immediate future. The story revolving the NII, however, is a story of speculation because the information superhighway in its full and realized form does not exist and will not exist for at least a decade. A nation completely operable and linked fiber optically is a futuristic vision, and not an ascertained transformation. Therefore, it is possible to conclude that while news organs are not exactly certain when this information transformation will come of age, they can begin slowly integrating its ideas and images into society.

Still, the question arises as to why there has been a sudden buildup of coverage on the NII in the past year - after all, the Internet has been in existence as the ARPANet since the 1969. In his book, Deciding What's News, Herbert J. Gans groups substantive stories, those critiqued through story content and newsworthiness of source information, into two categories - "interesting" and "important." When examining the NII as a "news story", it becomes evident that it emerged in the media as an interesting story, and later evolved into an important story. Before the Clinton Administration obtained office in 1992, what little press the NII received was labeled as an "interesting story", a residual category in the media Gans reserves for stories which evoke surprise or fascination from the readers.

The NII, the Internet and the emerging information superhighway were first introduced by the mainstream press as a cutting-edge, high-tech story speculating on future technologies and how they could impact our lives. The general population was in awe when they learned about the possibilities this new technology possessed. In general, journalists favor stories which are new; they judge a story by whether or not it is new to them, and if it is, they then assume that it will also be new to their readers. "Novelty news," as this is termed by Gans, appears in the mass media as a bell-shaped curve, with stories generally going through three phases: "ripening, cresting and declining" (Gans 170). The media avoids coverage of a story before its rise, as well as after its crest and during its decline; the optimal time to cover this type of news is just before its crest. Novelty news covering new technological advancements have always held the American population's fascination:

Since the industrial revolution, new technological developments have fascinated people. Much of the initial allure lay in the promise that these new inventions would provide more free time and remove drudgery. At work, machines would eliminate the most despised and monotonous labor (both manual and mental); at home, machines such as washers, vacuum cleaners, and food processors promised to remove the drudgery of housework; in social life, machines such as telephones, automobiles, airplanes and telephone answering machines promised to ease communication between people." (Besser 25)

The NII is the latest in the history of time saving, novelty devices. Although its emergence as a news story would be categorized by Gans as novelty news; at some point before this story peaked and declined, it developed into important news, prolonging its existence in the media spotlight. When Clinton and Gore were elected into office in 1992, the NII completed its evolution from an interesting, novelty story into an important story. The press began to cover the political and business perspectives of the NII, the tremendous increase in Internet users and, of course, the president's and the vice president's active involvement in NII policy.

Consequently, the NII has evolved from an interesting story to an important news story because it now satisfies the three factors which Gans outlines when defining an "important news story": rank in governmental and other hierarchies, impact on the nation, national interest and impact on large numbers of people, and significance on the past and the future (Gans 147-152). Among these categories, perhaps the most emphasis should be placed on the first. The president and vice president play a major role in promoting the NII as a national priority, their initiatives in turn provide the impetus for the next two criteria - national interest and impact, and past/future significance. The NII is by definition a "national" issue, therefore the media is inclined to give it more coverage. Even though the media's current coverage of the NII would be defined by Gans as an important story, it still bears traces of its once purely "interesting" aura due to its connection with the future. Gans writes,

The future of today's news is more important; but because it is more difficult to assess it ... prediction is risky, and it is generally eschewed because an incorrect guess impairs the journalists' credibility. Nor do journalists see themselves as the writers of history; but at the same time, they do not want to be accused later of having ignored events which in retrospect, ultimately achieved historical significance. (152)

The media realizes that the information superhighway will eventually come into being, they also realize that its presence will have a dramatic effect on our lives. Although this story is potentially important, major newspapers provide rather vague descriptions in their coverage due to the inherent risks involved in forecasting future news. The more detail a journalist uses when describing the information superhighway, the more chance there is that their predictions will be wrong. Because the NII is a story dealing with the distant future, media tends to be quite conservative in their coverage- this is the idea behind the news value of moderatism, of keeping an angle away from minimalism and extremity. Despite this, however, there is still a wide disparity among different news groups as to how the notion of the NII is packaged, portrayed, and socially integrated into society.

When examining the current media coverage of the NII, there is a considerable difference in the framing of the story among different news organs. Some of the factors that contribute to these various framings result from an individual news organization's format, audience and values. Daily newspapers tend to sensationalize stories on the NII, addressing them in a superficial manner; building hype, and "selling" the idea to their readers. Magazines, on the other hand, seem to probe deeper into the issues of this new technology, and while some magazine articles present the NII and the ISH in a sensationalized manner, many question this hype, challenging the optimistic claims of politicians and daily newspapers.

Consequently, a general theory can be constructed surrounding the relationship between the audience of a news source and story specificity. News becomes more concentrated as target audiences become smaller; this results in the broader publications developing mass appeal while the smaller publications retain similar disposition and feel in their framings of the story. This idea can be visualized as an inverted triangle, with newspapers represented at the top and specialty magazines falling below. Not only does this "inverted triangle theory" establish a relationship between substance, framing, and audience, but it also structuralizes social communication and integration of current news - News distribution becomes stratified according to audience and medium.

While researching the media's presentation of the NII and the ISH, I focused on the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New York Times. These publications were chosen above others because they are archetypal representations of two different types of publications within the same news medium. The Chronicle, a local daily, is the most widely read paper in the bay-area; it is designed to facilitate readability and general understanding- catering to the lowest common denominator and maximizing its circulation. In contrast, the New York Times has a reputation as an intellectually stimulating publication catering to a more affluent and "enlightened" readership. Despite these two papers variance in framing, tone, and targeted audiences, both approached the story with equal ambiguity and vagueness - neither were willing to go into very much detail or make any flagrant criticisms of this new technology.

To help elucidate these allegations, I have selected one article from each publication to examine. In a piece from the San Francisco Chronicle, "Visa Laying Plans for Credit Card of the Future," the article describes "a move toward a cashless society," one in which marketing will be facilitated electronically with a standardized credit card. The story quotes from Visa International's President and CEO, Ed Jensen, "`The goal of our combined efforts is to lead the market into the next frontier of payment processing -- the automation of cash and coins.'" This is clearly a novelty piece aimed at the Chronicle's middle-class readers. The Chronicle staff reporter sensationalizes one possible scenario for the future. This futuristic ideal of an automated monetary system, when explored on a superficial level- as in this article- sounds good; although issues of safety, privacy, and public policy must first be explored before such a technology would be utilitarian for use on a wide scale. The Chronicle piece failed to recognize or address these issues, or any negative impacts of such a new technology.

The New York Times, with the slogan, "All the news that's fit to print" on their masthead, targets a more intellectual audience, and carries a definitive reputation of respectability, status, and professionalism. What is immediately noticeable at first glance is the Times' "no-nonsense" and formal approach to news. Whereas the Chronicle opted for a reader-friendly layout, the Times emanates a "strictly news" feel. In an article from the Times, "High-Tech Safety: Will Parents Buy It?" The Times reporter introduces a new product stemming from the NII. This article is similar to the Chronicle in the sense that it is introducing a specific new technology which will have an effect on the way we will live our lives in the future.

Listen in on a child by way of a concealed microphone and transmitter! Push a button and set off a piercing alarm that could frighten away abductors! Hear a loud beep if a child strays too far or falls into water! Send messages like "Come home" to a child's watch!

Although the teaser contains a novelty, sensationalized quality to it, the Times reporter enters into an elaborate and thorough discussion of electronic beepers for children. While the Chronicle cites only Ed Jensen in the Visa article, the Times validates its story with a variety of professionals, corporations, and even consumers of the new product. Details like this aid in attributing a professional image to the Times.

Although there is a difference in the manner in which the Chronicle and the Times frame new technology in their publications, based on the different paper's style, tone and targeted audiences, both, on some level, contain sensationalized hype, aiming to sell the concept of a "high-tech society" to the population. In contrast to the sensationalized hype of the daily papers, magazines treat news and information much differently, often exploring the intricate complexities of the NII, while demoting the hype and sensationalization that is often found in the dailies. Since the average reader of a specialized magazine is different than the average reader of a daily newspaper, the way in which these two news organs treat the emerging information superhighway varies accordingly.

Researching this topic, I read numerous articles from various newspaper sources- repeatedly the president and the vice president of the US were sited as "experts" in this area- their enthusiasm was mistaken as knowledge in this technologically advanced arena. Examining similar stories in computer-related magazines, Clinton and Gore were still present, but they did not speak as experts; instead, they existed in the article as the foundation for arguments based against their claims by legitimate industry experts, who presented realistic outlooks for the emerging information superhighway. In an article from LAN Magazine (March 1993), entitled, "Rewiring America: Bill Clinton sees potential for an Internet superhighway," Gordon McLachlan wrote, "The development of a national information superhighway is an important part of President Bill Clinton's technology policy." McLachlan questioned the president's optimism in this article stating, "implementation of such an information superhighway would literally require the rewiring of America." McLachlan continued to provide realistic opposition to the president's optimistic predictions by writing,

As envisioned by its optimistic supporters, the network will- in 20 years or so- provide end-to-end fiber-optic networking to every home, school and office in the country. It will rival the telephone network in terms of penetration, but requires mny times the investment in the physical plants because of the required bandwidth. Technical issues aside, the most pressing issues are, how much will it cost and who will pay for it?

In this article, McLahlan acknowledges the fact that the NII will eventually come into being, but he raises "the big question" - "how much and who pays?". None of the articles I read in the daily newspapers asked this fundamental question.

In another article, this one from MacWEEK (March 1, 1993) entitled, "Clinton Rolls Out Information Superhighway," Mitch Ratcliffe challenges President Clinton's auspicious forecast for the emerging information superhighway. While the Clinton Administration claims that the development of the NII will "enhance U.S. competitiveness, create markets and jobs, improve education and the delivery of health care and advanced manufacturing," Ratcliffe contests these predictions by raising the issue of privacy on the emerging information superhighway. Later in the article, Marc Rotenburg, the director of the Washington office of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, states,

The missing piece of the data highway is the guard rails in the form of privacy protections that will make it safe. Without a guarantee of privacy, the Internet will not be a useful place for doing business.

Electronic privacy is currently a very heated topic. While the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have written about the possibilities of the "clipper chip" - daily newspapers have done little to cover the issue of privacy as it pertains to the NII and the ISH.

From these two examples, we can see that although President Clinton and Vice President Gore may be considered to be experts in the daily news, which is aimed at a broad audience, they are seen as no more than "pitch-men" in the more specialized computer magazines. Political hype in these publications is recognized for what it is. Furthermore, these articles go one step farther, addressing some of the indisputable, problematic issues which are involved in the implementation of the information superhighway.

Daily newspaper journalists pride themselves on being as unbiased and objective as possible while reporting a news story. This sincere attempt at objectivity is sometimes absent from stories in specialized magazines; often times, a staff writer's concerns and opinions are blatantly exposed within an article. In some extreme cases, these magazine articles can read more like an angry editorial from the newspaper than a feature story or column. An example of this lack of objectivity is clear in the following February 1994 article from AI Expert, entitled, "500 Channels and Nothing's On." Harvey Newquist expressed his utter disbelief with the manner in which the emerging NII is being covered by the mass media. He writes,

The information superhighway is a joke. So is the 500 channel television. They are both high-technology concepts that are completely out of touch with reality. Despite the media barrage claiming that these data concepts are right around the corner, they are not going to happen for quite some time.

Newquist writes that this over optimistic, high tech media hype is not new. He recalls another instance of this treatment by the press in 1984, when (AI) artificial intelligence was being developed and becoming a viable possibility for use by the public at large. Although AI was not covered to the extent which the NII is being covered today, we must remember that it didn't have the endorsement of the President and the Vice President of the United States. The article continues,

I get a real sense of déjà vu from reading all the recent magazine and newspaper articles about these two interactive data structures. It reminds me of the cover of Business Week on July 9, 1984, which featured a headline proclaiming, ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE IS HERE! (This was printed in very important-looking, bold type-faced, capital letters, so you knew it had to be true.) This was 10 years ago and AI still isn't here. It was media hype... Over-hype is part of any new technology, and a certain amount of naive exuberance on the part of Time, Newsweek, and your local newspaper is to be expected. But the reason I get really agitated about the information superhighway and 500 TV channels is that nobody is talking specifics. In particular, no one is talking about how these concepts are to be put into practice and made workable.

This claim can be applied to the NII - general mass media emphasis is aimed at the information superhighway's features and benefits, while ignoring the numerous logistical problems which first must be addressed.

As we have seen in our examination of the NII as a news story, Clinton, Gore and other prominent national figures have served as a catalyst leading to extensive media attention. With this in mind, the obvious next questions would be: What factors have led to the NII and ISH's rise to the forefront of the national agenda? --- And if there is a link between the media, the government and the private corporations of America, what is it? If we examine the forces which have helped to make the NII a national priority we are forced to consider political action committees (PACs), special interest groups and big-business' political power in Washington.

In 1992, during the presidential campaign, high-tech industry leaders made a decision which took many prominent political, government and media figures by surprise­ dozens of lifelong Republicans, including: John Scully, CEO of Apple Computer, James Treybig, President and CEO of Tandem Computer, E.R. McCracken, President and CEO of Silicone Graphics, Chuck Comiso, President of Link Technologies, and John Young, a director at Hewlett Packard decided to vote against their party and support presidential candidate Bill Clinton. In an interview following this announcement, Scully expressed his political views by stating, "I am still a Republican, but I am voting for Bill Clinton." This was the beginning of a symbiotic relationship between the high-tech Silicon Valley and the United States Government under President Clinton and Vice President Gore.

With the emergence of new information and communication technologies and the realization of its financial promise for the future, lawmakers are engaging in the most comprehensive revision of communication policy since the Communications Act of 1934. Infrastructure building corporations, such as the long distance telephone companies and the cable television companies, along with communication equipment manufactures all want to enter each other's markets - they all want the right to generate the programming and services which will flow through the infrastructure, which is expected to produce the real revenues of the information age, as well as to own the wires over which consumers receive those products. In all, there are currently over thirty bills dealing with various aspects of the NII floating about Washington. Of these numerous policy issues in the House of Representatives and the Senate, two bills in particular are commanding everyone's attention, they both focus on the issue of government deregulation. Backers of the legislation say the time is right for the government to "deregulate and get out," if these bills are passed, it would provide the media giants with the economic incentives to build Clinton and Gore's conception of the information superhighway (Abernathy 57). Industry PACs are not sitting idly waiting for the government to make their decesions, intense lobbying by corporate special interest groups are aimed at swaying the politicians' decisions on these key policy issues. Congressional committees with power over deregulation and communications received $69,538,609 from industries which had business before them, and three media powerhouses entangled in a legislative battle over cable television poured $1.3 million into key 1992 congressional campaigns (Mills 1524). The National Association of Cable Broadcasters (NAB) which controls the industry's only major PAC, gave $286,817 to 1992 campaigns, nearly double its contributions for the same time period in 1990 (Mills 1523). One must consider what, if any, effect this corporate spending has on the political decision-making process. Chuck Lewis, the executive director of the non-partisan Washington watchdog group Center for Public Integrity, claims that the political process is clearly being distorted by money, he argues,

When you look at the money that has gone to members of Congress, and the Clinton campaign, and you look at the money given to the Democratic Convention in 1992 by AT&T, Nynex, and you look at the money given to the inaugural, and you look at the big guns hired from the administration, there is no question that there is some serious lobbying going on here.

This tie between the major communication and information technology corporations and the United States Government has critics worried about the outcome of some of these key bills. "With the NII, you don't see a vision. You see a business plan for the seven regional Bells, Hollywood, and the cable industry," states Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Media Education. This is a common view from the public interest stance on these key issues, if the bills which deal with deregulation are passed as law, it threatens to restructure the nation's communications environment, stifling competition and limiting civic activities on the information superhighway. A few lawmakers including telecommunications heavyweight Rep. Ed Markey, D- Mass., say they are trying to resist this onslaught of special interests by refusing PAC donations altogether. Markey does, however, accept money from individual members of the PACs, an action one expert says puts him right back with the others.

Examining the intense lobbying in the nation's capital, one wonders where the opposing side's representatives are. Upon further investigation, it seems that few are present. Judging by the list of invited speakers at the SuperHighway Summit, some voices are being heard more clearly than others. Among the key speakers at this summit were the CEOs of Time Warner, Oracle, Bell Atlantic, TCI, Walt Disney, and dozens of other firms. Of all the speakers in attendance, only one was readily identifiable as a spokesman for the public interest: Electronic Frontier Foundation chair Michael Kapor. The EFF has become synonymous with electronic civil rights, and House lawmakers such as Rick Boucher cite the EFF as the public interest group called in to help draft their legislation. But for all the EFF's good work on civil liberties, critics charge that the foundations agenda on telecommunications may not be its own; that is because the EFF, the most influential technology lobbying organization in Washington, has accepted millions of dollars from the same communications industries for which it is seeking to shape the competitive environment, "it may be biased" (Abernathy 58).

Andrew Blau, project coordinator of the Benton Foundation's Communications Policy Project seems to sum up the political environment of the NII quite eloquently, stating,

The entire political system is infected by the need to have money. The corporate sector has money, it has interests, and in general can use that money to express its interests. It has more access and more of a role in shaping public policy. I'm not saying that's good - I'm saying that is the way it is right now.

With Mr. Blau's inside observation and conclusion, the link between corporate America and American Government becomes indisputable. Once this relationship between corporate America and the American government is defined, the media's role in the amalgamation is clear to see. To help simplify what is obviously a quite complex issue: High-technology corporations buy the government's attention through intense lobbying; the mass media covers the government's actions (which are influenced by PAC dollars); the American population follows the media, reading their daily papers, and learns about big business' new technologies, and services (such as the information superhighway and other related high-tech consumer products and services). Therefore this high-tech media coverage is no more than "paid advertisements" for high-technology producing industries, which carries the prestigious endorsement of the President and the Vice President of the United States of America. This extensive media coverage also serves to prepare the population (future consumers on the information superhighway) for the monumental lifestyle changes to come. This preparation will minimalize or eliminate the "lag-time" which usually accompanies the public's embracement of any new technology. As the public welcomes the information superhighway into their homes, the large corporations who invested heavily in building of the infrastructure, providing the content and working to influence politicians in Washington will immediately begin to reap the financial rewards.

The information superhighway is still no more than pure speculation, and although most agree that it will eventually emerge in one form or another, for now, it is no more than theory based on hype - hype which has been incited by the Clinton Administration, corporate America, and the mass media - working together to sell this abstraction to the nation. The Clinton Administration has adopted the NII as a national priority without fully comprehending its inherent complexities. Clinton and Gore personify this technical endeavor, attempting to sell the novelty of the NII to the American population through the media's hype. When they discuss the NII, they simplify and generalize the complexities of the issue - ignoring technical, social and logistical obstacles which must be addressed.

Ideally, there would be a bifurcation between the three domains: media, government and business. The media would report the emergence of this new technology in a balanced and objective manner; the government would reject and repudiate any PAC money which may influence the decision-making process; and big businesses would consider the public's interest first and foremost in the crucial designing stages of the NII. In reality all three domains are enmeshed, and only the population, or end user is bifurcated from the design process of the NII architecture.

Works Cited

Abernathy, Joe. "Highway Robbery: Selling the Net" PC World. May 1994: 56.

Besser, Howard. Elements of Modern Consciousness. Doctoral Dissertation. 1992.

Chira, Susan. "High-Tech Safety: Will Parents Buy It?" New York Times 17 Feb. 1994.

Chronicle Staff. "Visa Laying Plans for Credit Card of the Future" San Francisco Chronicle 23 March 1994.

Fraase, Michael. The Mac Internet Tour Guide. Chapel Hill: Ventana Press, 1993.

Gans, Herbert J. Deciding What's News. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

Genler, Barbara. "Gore at the Internet Crossroads; the Vice President Says the Administration is Committed to the NII" LAN Computing v5, n2 Feb. 1994: 13.

McLachlan, Gordon. "Rewiring America: Bill Clinton Sees Potential for Internet Superhighway" LAN Computing v4, n3 March 1993: 17.

Mills, Mike. "Media Groups Trying to Pave Way To a Favorable Cable Bill" Congressional Quarterly. May 1992: 1523.

Ratcliffe, Mitch. "Clinton Rolls Out Information Superhighway" MacWEEK v7, n9 1 March 1993: 28.


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