Could we be on the super-hypeway to nowhere?

Will the information revolution really change our lives? Or is it just going to make shopping a little bit easier? Alex Spillius explains how the Net works

IT IS THE year 2014 and the Robinson family is sitting at home watching a documentary about life in 1994. What a grim time it was, they think. People left the house to shop, queued up inside banks and walked to video stores. They sent each other letters which were delivered by postmen - they were called postmen weren't they? On their way to work - remember dear, when we travelled to work? - they read, actually read newspapers.

Sometimes in the evenings, they would go to these strange places with soft lighting, tables and chairs and a bar, where people interacted verbally - pubs they were called. What a quaint world it was, the Robinson family laughs, patronisingly guffawing like those robotic aliens in that old advert for Smash powdered mash. But we're still eating real potatoes.

In 1978, the prime minister, Jim Callaghan, made his cabinet watch an edition of the science programme Horizon called ''The Chips Are Down''. It boldly predicted that we would soon live in ''electronic cottages'' from where we would shop, bank, communicate with others and work - the few of us that had work to do, that is. But changes have been gradual at best. Out-of-town shopping centres have mushroomed, most banks remain firmly planted in the high street, commuters clog our transport system. What price the information super-highway revolution?

If you are not yet familiar with the term, you have probably been exploring Patagonia without a mobile phone for the past year. There have been 1,379 items about the information super-highway, the Internet, in national broadsheet newspapers in the past 12 months, compared to just 92 in the year before that. It has become a buzzword, along with the Net, the infobahn, cyberspace and cyberpunks, who may well be nothing more than people with a pair of DMs and a laptop.

Yet ask most people what it means and the best you will get is a tentative stumble through various new gizmos - or more probably a complete blank. This is just part of the reason why it is tempting to call it the information super-hypeway.

The prophets of the new information age, such as Bill Gates, head of Microsoft, the world's biggest software company, and Barry Diller, chief executive of QVC, the US home shopping channel, would have us all as the family Robinson in the near future. The post office, shopping centre, library, JobCentre, video store and newspapers will disappear as their services and the information they offer become accessible by computer. One day soon we will have a magic box in our front room which will replace the computer, telephone, TV, VCR and stereo. We will be logged on, tuned in and staying at home. Life, they say, will never be the same again.

BUT WHAT are they talking about? What does the information super-highway really mean? First you have to understand that words, pictures (still and moving) and sound can now be electronically blipped down telephone wire or fibre-optic cable, and that the device which does this is called a modem. Essentially the highway has three aspects:

1) The Internet. A worldwide network of people communicating electronically. It is cheap and gives access to all sorts of information, from Nasa minutes to fellow newt enthusiasts in Venezuela. Equal potential for democracy and dullness.

2) On-line services. A vast range that includes: home shopping, banking and accounting; video-on-demand (ordering on-line from a vast catalogue of films), ditto music-on-demand; libraries, weather reports, and share prices. Specific industries or businesses may have their own services, such as legal information for lawyers.

3) Interactive services. Includes interactive TV - playing Blockbusters with a handset as it is transmitted - games, films and educational tools, either received on-line, on normal computer disks or on CD-ROM (a new CD format with high audio, visual and data-storage capacity). Also referred to as multi-media.

From the hubbub drummed up by marketing men, media analysts and journalists, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world is about to turn on its head. But the sensible message has to be: relax, pull into the highway's hard shoulder or even stay on the technological A-Road if you choose, where the view might in any case be better.

THERE IS evidence of something like a backlash even within the market. Nick Alexander is chief executive of Pearson New Entertainment Europe, and was hired to rush headlong into the future. He is, however, cautious.

''I'm a little cynical about how fast this is all going to happen. The hype is tremendous. We don't look back 20 years, before computers, and think: 'My god, life has completely changed.' We just integrate certain things. I am not sure this will cause huge upheavals.''

Frank Barlow, the chief executive of Pearsons, which is best known for owning the Financial Times and Penguin books, has pronounced that the printed word is dying. ''I'm not sure about that,'' says Mr Alexander. ''When TV came, everyone thought radio would die; when video came everyone said cinema would die. These things reinvent themselves and concentrate on their uniqueness. Reading a book on a beach is something people are going to want to do. They are not going to want to take their computer down there, and you can't swat a fly with a laptop.''

Robert Jolliffe, a media analyst at the stockbrokers Hoare Govett, agrees. ''I don't think there will be an explosion. The media is obsessed with this and somehow has allowed this thing to run away with itself. The media likes new technology, likes writing about itself and about things that threaten radical change. It's sexy.''

It may be a turn-on but can we turn on to it? Video on demand won't arrive until 1997 at the earliest with music on demand even later, and on-line shopping and banking are also a long way off. Interactive television is due for launch in April. One day CDs will probably replace video tape, but not until they can simultaneously record television programmes. And Radio Rentals has only just introduced an Olivetti multi-media package on PC, although the Internet is available to anyone with a PC and a modem.

Advocates of the Internet claim there are up to 40 million users worldwide, and that if the present growth rate continues, everyone in the world will be on-line by 2003. But telephones have been around for over a century and not everyone has one. Perhaps it has been forgotten that many of those counted have on-line access at work and never use it.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that a lot of apparently very encouraging research on the demand for new technology is ''for Wall Street - to show companies are out front and to drive up their stock price''.

And one consumer reseacher said: ''Standard market research techniques are extremely weak at predicting how people might behave with a product they barely understand.'' It is like asking 19th century consumers what they think of air travel.

Recent precedents also suggest this will be evolutionary not revolutionary. Wild claims based on research predicted a huge immediate demand for cellular phones which did not then make an appearance for 15 years. It has taken almost 20 years for VCRs to reach 74 per cent of British households.

''It's not clear whether people want to organise their lives on-line, or whether the cost is ever going to be low enough,'' said Mr Jolliffe. ''In 15 years' maybe, but this year or next year - no. And it is in no way clear what the demand is for these services.''

Demand is not apparently great among his peers. At a recent conference attended by 45 media analysts and fund managers, not one had a CD-ROM drive. Similarly, of 90 BBC staff at an internal conference last week, no one was on the Internet.

In a study released on Friday, the research company Inteco concluded that the ''much-touted information super-highway is not about to happen in Europe, not until the next millennium''. This was based on 11,500 interviews conducted in France, Germany, Italy and the UK. Inteco also predicted that many computer companies were going to get their fingers burnt early on by pushing products before demand existed. Remember Betamax video, eight-track cassettes, or the BBC computer?

If you are in a hurry to get hitched up, the important thing is to ignore the hype and concentrate on what will be specifically useful to you, your family or your company. Clearly a firm of solicitors which can tap into a legal library for a few thousand pounds a year will do so, likewise the financial services industry which has already been receiving information and trading on-line for years.

But what about individuals? I gathered six ''dream consumers'' together, all mid-20s to early-30s, all computer-literate, working in the media, publishing, design and business.

We all liked the idea of having pictures of the Sainsbury's aisles on our console and clicking on what we wanted. ''But you'd still have to be in when they delivered it,'' said Steve. ''I wouldn't buy meat like that,'' chipped in Simon.

''People will always shop. Maybe they will buy the odd thing on-line, but they do like to get out and about. It's assumed we are after this home-based, cellular existence, but we're not,'' complained Val. Everyone agreed, but thought the next generation, weaned and educated on computers, might be happier to spend more time at a screen.

''But even they, after 10-12 hours a day in front of a screen at work, wouldn't want to spend all evening in front of a one,'' said Matt. ''Books are interactive. You have to turn pages, pick them, put them down.''

We liked the idea of video on demand and ordering pizzas on-line for those slobby nights in, but home banking sounded too demanding. ''I like to be told to my face why I've been charged pounds 50 on my overdraft,'' said Paul.

Karen thought it would be great to play Scrabble on-line. ''Yeah, but it would be more fun if you came round like you do now,'' replied Steve.

THE POINT really is that once we broke the information super-highway down to its components, none of us felt it to be a revolution-in-waiting. Each of us did, however, identify a service station we would probably stop at and felt it would be a loss to completely miss the ride.

Similarly, in the early days of home computing, the first consumers were convinced that here was something vital to own and which promised to transform their lives. David Skinner, a sociology lecturer at the Anglia Polytechnic University, has studied home computing in depth and found that those early consumers eventually settled on a specific use for their PC, such as work or games.

''What we now consider standard technologies once promoted new fantasies, and fears that they would transform our lives,'' he says. ''There is often a Utopian slant on new technologies. There's always this sense that in a couple of years, the real transition will happen, but somehow it never arrives. There is a millennialism with what is going on now, a self-fulfilling prophecy: if it's important, we'll invest in it and make it more important.''

The prophecy boasts that the information super-highway will alter our lives as significantly as the telephone or television did. But it is simply too early to tell if video will die, and book and record shops will close. What seems more certain is that some of the drudge will be removed from our lives, international communication will be cheaper, and that we and our children will have some fun with games that also educate us. Perhaps we will go out a bit less, but we'll still go down the pub, and the Robinson family will probably be there too.

(Photographs omitted)

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