Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 7/ November 1, 1994 / Page 4

Head for the Lifeboats! The Suits are Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

by John Murray (

When I lived in England fifteen years ago, we had a teletext decoder in our television which enabled us to retrieve real-time data, such as the news, weather, and traffic information. This data was continuously broadcast with the television signal. (Take a look at a Web feed of the teletext service from the Dutch television network NOS.) Most Europeans are used to that type of facility and so they have a mental image of what net surfing in a database means.

The United States does not have an equivalent public data system, so "Jane and Joe Public" have difficulty conceiving of an information superhighway. And I believe that those responsible for representing the public interest--specifically the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)--seem disinterested in understanding whether the public is currently being served by the existing Internet. No one seems to be asking the real National Information Infrastructure (NII) decision makers the awkward questions on the public's behalf. (It was recently pointed out to me that community access television became possible because municipalities leveraged cable companies. As a result, public access channels were part of the payoff for the right to run cables on city streets.)

This lack of concern for the public welfare was reinforced at a recent symposium, "Competition and the Information Superhighway, " sponsored by the Michigan Telecommunications & Technology Law Review. The symposium was held at the University of Michigan and dealt with NII legal, business, and regulatory issues. Symposium speakers included formal representatives from AT & T, Bell Atlantic, Ameritech, the FCC, and other interested parties. I shared a view common among conference attendees that the NII policies of some organizations were like rearranged deck chairs on the Titanic: large bureaucracies are trying to stay afloat by bringing privately-owned, centralized management and control to a hopelessly distributed and fundamentally anarchic network.

During the symposium, industry representatives were obsessed with the supposed need to find source material to take advantage of "all this bandwidth." It wasn't clear to me how this obsession was linked to their desire not to "squander these gifts provided by the scientists and engineers!" Several speakers sought to justify covering the basic infrastructure costs by vertical integration of source and distribution. One telecom representative described this idea as "the acquisition of content or rights to content." None of the platform speakers seemed able to consider alternative models, such as a simple common carrier system between consumers and small businesses. As a result, they assumed that the "initial entry product" (the inevitable video-on-demand services) would come from a vast Blockbuster-style video base instead of specialized providers or independent niche market servers.

These large bureaucracies are trying to stay afloat by bringing privately-owned, centralized management and control to a hopelessly distributed and fundamentally anarchic network.

A speaker from Bell Atlantic, when asked a direct question about content, side-stepped the question and discussed router capacities and broadband satellite networks instead. Likewise, an audience comment about high bandwidth, community-wide networks linked by national backbones drew disparaging responses about Internet jocks and arcane user interfaces. During an informal discussion, a telecom policy consultant and former FCC official seemed unable to understand how low-cost the existing Internet really is. There's a pervasive impression that current low-cost or free Net access is being subsidized by literally billions of dollars of support from industrial and research entities. While the financial support certainly exists, the Net's net running costs are not nearly as high as such individuals imagine. This is not the only erroneous impression of the Internet: the media portrays the Net as a playpen for virus-writers, porn-brokers, and students MUDing at the taxpayers' expense.

During the discussion of legal topics, two phrases used by corporate representatives stuck uncomfortably in my mind--"the identification of new legal opportunities" and the need to "protect our own first amendment right to freedom of speech over our own network." Inevitably, they also discussed copyrights and royalty issues as well as the need for lawyers to offer advice on corporate strategy and organizational structures.

There were some encouraging signs amid all this "suit-speak." A Silicon Valley venture capitalist calmly announced that "the evolution of the superhighway isn't going to come from any of the big companies heard from today." He predicted that numerous small and start-up companies would provide what's needed. According to the investor, some amount of government involvement will be required but mostly to prod the Internet into a form more useful to the public (Perhaps this may be a "teaser" for what can be done on the bigger network where the "real" commerce takes place).

The founder of Pagenet described how his company evolved from a start-up in 1981 to become the largest paging company in America. It was refreshing to hear about a business that grew by simply providing a communication link without needing to "acquire content" and then subsequently having to exert its own rights of free speech using that content.

As an "Internet jock," I found the Michigan symposium interesting but also rather disheartening. I realized how wide the gulf is between "us" and "the suits." It's up to us "Internet jocks" to do our best to help represent the public interest. We need to demonstrate that their video-on-demand model is not the only option. (It was unfortunate that no one at the University of Michigan was able to set up a few Mosaic demonstrations in the hallways for the participants. Little things like that really CAN make a difference!) ¤

John Murray is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan where his research interest is Human-Computer Interaction. He has fifteen years experience in software engineering and computer system design, and holds degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering from Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland, and Stanford University, California.

Copyright © 1994 by John Murray. All Rights Reserved.

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