Dirt tracks to the superhypeway: Will the much-lauded information superhighway ever become a reality and will it be a force for good? Tim Jackson looks beyond the hype

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Indy Lifestyle Online
In the city of Orlando, best known as a jumping-off point for Disney World, a cable-television subsidiary of the mighty Time Warner empire is cooking up a new kind of interactive television service. When the system is up and running, subscribers will be able to:

Choose a film from a library of several thousand at any time of day or night, and watch it immediately on their televisions at home.

Simulate a visit to a shopping mall on their screens, walking into individual shops, looking at specific products, and then ordering them for overnight delivery without even picking up the telephone.

Play highly advanced video games, either alone or against friends elsewhere in town.

Use a number of other services, from ordering stamps from the local post office to arranging for a package to be delivered from their home to anywhere in the world.

Watch news clips on the subject of their choice whenever they want.

To the untutored eye, these new services may not seem that different from what is already available. But the pilot project is of potentially huge significance. If it is a success, it will undoubtedly go nationwide - and will become the first real application of an idea science-fiction writers have been dreaming of for years: a worldwide information network allowing data to be sent to and from normal households at enormously high speeds. A world in which such networks become a reality might look very different from today's.

Two different technological advances make this possible. One is the convergence of computing, telephony and consumer electronics, which is allowing words, music and pictures to be stored and transmitted in digital form. The other is the use of optical fibres to carry vast quantities of this digitised information at the speed of light along filaments of glass no broader than a human hair.

Over the past year politicians and businessmen across the industrial world have become obsessed by the idea of building an 'information superhighway' which takes the Time Warner project dramatically further and makes use of these advances to change the way we live.

In a sense, 'superhighway' is a misnomer: the main trunk routes across oceans and between major cities are already in place. It is the equivalent of dirt tracks - the optical wires that connect individual offices and homes to the network - that have yet to be built.

Great claims have been made for the superhighway. Some say it will revolutionise the world's printing and publishing industries, rendering newspapers, videos, compact discs and books redundant. Others say it will revolutionise work as we know it, allowing white-collar workers to do their jobs from crofts in the Scottish Highlands while remaining in constant contact with their colleagues in Devon (or Delhi) through video telephones and computers.

Al Gore, Vice-President of the United States, goes further still: he predicts that the superhighway could make poor countries rich. Electronic exchange of information, Gore believes, could bring citizens early warning of volcanoes or information on how to improve water supplies and avoid deforestation. No wonder cynics in the US have already begun to talk of the 'superhypeway'.

Behind the enthusiasts who have rushed ahead, more thoughtful observers are asking two questions. One is whether the superhighway will ever become a practical reality, and if so when; the other is whether, if it does come to pass, the superhighway will be a force for good.

There are certainly grounds for doubt on the first question. Although the Time Warner pilot in Orlando is limited to a single town and a small number of servic mised by the end of this year - but even then the company does not expect to have the full complement of services, or of subscribers, in place. Some industry observers still believe the new deadline may be hard to meet.

The Californian programmers developing the service had trouble building the 'video server' - the powerful package of computer and software needed to keep tabs on all the information and pictures and send them to the right subscribers at the right time. So far only the basic film-screening facility is up and running.

They also have a daunting task in making the service friendly to its customers. To be a success it will have to be much more sophisticated than the average VCR deck but radically easier to use. The target market is not the computer boffin but the ordinary consumer at home.

Despite these problems it is hard to believe that the highway will remain unbuilt for long. At today's prices, and on a national scale, US analysts believe it might cost no more than pounds 1,000 per household to connect up industrial countries to the superhighway. The total investment required to achieve this would be vast, but so would the potential revenues. If the superhighway stimulated extra spending of only about pounds 130 per household - the sum the average young Briton spends on wine each year - the networks that comprise it would be able to produce a good return on their investment within five years. US firms are falling over each other to get in at the beginning of a huge and potentially moneyspinning industry.

What makes the idea especially attractive is that advancing computer and communications technology may make the project cheaper still in future. More than 45 years after the invention of the transistor that started it all, computing and telephony prices are still falling at an astounding rate. Even if the pessimists are right, the majority of households in the US and Japan will probably be 'wired up' in a decade.

Scholars, businesses and the professions will clearly benefit hugely from a network that gives them instant, cheap access to vast libraries of information, and customers across the world. But what about consumers themselves: will the superhighway be in their interests?

Even with falling prices, the technology is certain to remain beyond the reach of society's poorest people. Those who do not have the money to spend on all the new services sold on the superhighway will find it hard to gain access to it, and may therefore be excluded even from those services offered free. They will be left with traditional sources of information and communication such as public libraries, letters and telephones, which may wither.

There may also be losers among older people who cannot adapt to the new methods. Since demographic factors will sharply increase the number of elderly people in the industrial world over the next generation, this conservatism may become a worrying obstacle. It might also increase the gulf between old and young.

Evidence of the trouble that the general population have in adapting to new methods can be seen at Kington, the town in Herefordshire that has been fitted out with pounds 500,000 worth of computers and telecoms by Apple and BT. The intention behind the project was to promote a broad range of technology, ranging from the use of basic word-processors or spreadsheets to more advanced applications such as computerised inventory control and local-area networks. Technology there is catching on far more slowly than its promoters had expected - and the project has taken on a new commercial manager in the hope of producing a better return on its investment.

But there is a more profound danger. The wired world may turn out to be not merely a substitute for letters and telephone calls, but also a substitute for direct human contact. The world will become a depressing place if people at work shake hands with their colleagues and customers less often; if shoppers no longer meet sales assistants face to face; if, instead of trudging down to the library in the rain to pick up a romantic novel, people opt to play pornographic fantasy games on virtual-reality computers at home.

The early indications are hardly promising. When it finally arrives, the new Time Warner Orlando service will have consumed hundreds of thousands of hours of work from some of the cleverest people in the world - all to save a trip to the neighbourhood video shop. The films sent down the cables, and the products sold by the new methods, will be no better than they were before. If the experience of deteriorating taste and advancing technology in the print media is any precedent, they will be worse.

Yet there are grounds for optimism. When Marconi invented radio, he believed it would be used for ship-to-shore telegrams - and never even considered that it might become a medium for the broadcast of news and music. With luck, the same will be true of the superhighway. It will bring great benefits for the human race, but benefits that have not yet even been dreamt of. The question that remains unanswered is whether those benefits will outweigh the costs that we can already predict.

(Photograph omitted)