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Roger Clarke's 'Networked Nation' Ch. 4

Information Infrastructure for The Networked Nation
Chapter 4

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 25 November 1994

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1994

This is chapter 4 of a multi-part Monograph whose contents-page is at

This document is at

4. The Political Economy Of The Information Infrastructure

This section offers a preliminary analysis of the field within which the critical decisions and actions in relation to the information infrastructure will be played out. It considers firstly the metaphors commonly used in discussions, and then identifies the various stakeholders and their interests. The set of interests least likely to be powerfully represented is those of the public, and particular attention is accordingly paid to them.

4.1 Alternative Metaphors

'Information infrastructure' has proven to be an excessively pompous phrase, and many attempts have been made to popularise the image. Especially in a case like this, where the issues confronting government regulatory agencies and parliamentarians are new and unfamiliar, metaphors are powerful communication tools, and may decisively shape the debate. The most common of these, the 'information superhighway' is discussed in this section, and shown to be dangerously misleading. Alternative metaphors are sought out.

The term 'superhighway' is a little long for common usage, and the term 'infobahn' has emerged to address that deficiency. More importantly, however, 'highway' has many negative associations, ranging from traffic jams, accidents and speeding tickets, to tollways. It implies massive investment, and a swathe cut through the countryside.

What's needed in a metaphor is that it be graphic, attractive, and contain many useful analogical features and few unfortunate ones. Its efficacy must be judged from the perspective not of the well-informed specialists, but of those people who need to grasp the new idea. In this case, the audience is non-Internet users, the general media, officers and executives in relevant regulatory agencies and key Parliamentarians.

With current technologies, an information infrastructure comprises both backbones or trunks (to carry large volumes of traffic between major conurbations) and tails (to connect individual sites to the backbone). The 'highway' notion corresponds to the backbones, but fails to encompass the tails. This has led some commentators to use grotesque extensions of the metaphor, such as 'on-ramps' and 'cloverleaf interchanges'. Moreover, there are several senses in which railroads would be a better analogy than main roads, because once a message is on the net it submits to active management by it, rather than being a free agent. If road or rail transport imagery is to be persevered with, then the tails to industrial and commercial sites and to homes would be by-roads or branch lines. Hence it would be more appropriate to compare the information infrastructure with the complete road transport infrastructure, or the entire rail network.

An alternative approach might be a reticulation model, along the lines of the way in which supplies of water, electricity and gas reach us. This has the deficiency that these models tend to be designed for one-way rather than two-way flows.

But these ideas still miss an important element of the information infrastructure of the very near future. By-roads, branch lines and pipelines imply physical connections, whereas wireless tails are already technically feasible, and becoming commercially available in such forms as GSM digital mobile networks. Analogue services support only voice, but digital technology will also enable the transmission of fax, data and email. Using portable devices such as laptops and hand-held 'personal digital assistants' (PDAs), people will soon be sending and receiving email from park-benches and taxis. To convey the idea requires images like broadcasting and narrowcasting. The poverty of the 'superhighway' idea becomes even more apparent when it is appreciated that backbones can also be wireless, in particular through satellite and terrestrial microwave technologies. To express wireless backbones and tails in terms of road, rail or pipeline metaphors is challenging in the extreme.

A number of alternative notions are popular among Internet and sci-fi aficionados. 'The Net', 'the Matrix', and 'the Web' all have appeal, but lack the power to convey the essential difference to newcomers. 'Cyberspace' may be technically misleading, but its virgin nature enabled Gibson (1985), Sterling (1986) and other science fiction authors of the 'cyberpunk' genre, to paint meaning on a blank canvas. It still seems unlikely, however, that an idea popularly defined as 'shared hallucination' will be saleable to hard-headed public servants, parliamentarians and Cabinet Ministers.

Another idea that has circulated is the use of ecological and geographic idioms, including arable land, pastoral land, parkland and wilderness areas, perhaps augmented by storehouses, libraries and delivery trucks. A further notion, less appealing at first sight, but meaningful nonetheless, is of a 'superfungus', whose spores travel invisibly. There is scope for a more comprehensively connection-less image, such as the 'data-field' (not as in 'paddock', but as in 'magnetic field').

Finally, perhaps a metaphor should be chosen which is driven not by the technical way in which the information infrastructure works, but rather by the social possibilities it delivers. For example, images such as electronic 'collective', 'community' and 'society' may better convey the real meaning, or, in Australian terms, 'the bush telegraph'.

Realistically, though, it takes a great deal to launch a new metaphor, and the II will doubtless continue to be discussed with the help and hindrance of transport-related metaphors. One small refinement would be to replace the unhelpful prefix 'super' with some safe, catchall, and preferably very open-ended alternative, resulting in such alternatives as the short and philosophically appropriate 'meta-bahn' and the more romantic and stylish 'cyber-strada'.

4.2 The Stakeholders and Their Interests

There are many stakeholders in decisions about the information infrastructure, each with their own motivations and agendas. Chief among them are the following:

Across these large, corporate interests must be mapped those of individuals in their various roles as consumers, employees, taxpayers and inhabitants of a country subject to regulation by a wide variety of government agencies. The 'big battalions' possess both market power, and well-established lines of communication with policy-makers. Accordingly, the primary perspective adopted in this document is that of the public.

4.3 The Public's Social Interests

This section's purpose is to argue the critical importance of the public's interest in the information infrastructure debates. The term 'the public' is a vague generalisation. It is used here to refer to the non-corporate participants in society, including individuals, informal groups and communities of common interest, not-for-profit incorporated associations, and small businesses. It is used in distinction to large corporations, including government agencies and authorities, government business enterprises and large joint stock corporations.

Discussions about information infrastructure are currently using a vocabulary that reflects historical relationships between people and social institutions, rather than the relationships which are more appropriate to the present and the future. Key elements of that vocabulary include:

Even the ambiguous term 'access' is primarily being used to mean the ability to receive data pumped down a channel to the consumer. Users are expected to demand what the providers are capable of and want to supply; and providers invest in consumer education, to ensure that consumers appreciate what will be offered. This is the now-classic 'revised sequence' in marketing that Galbraith described three decades ago (1967).

These terms and their usages are consistent with the force-feeding of the public by institutions who possess information and provide services. They are also consistent with the 'cable-TV / videos-on-demand' conception of the information infrastructure, the 'supplier-push' approach, and 'technology-driven' policy. But in the information age, a more inclusive vocabulary is needed. 'Access' should imply much more than passive consumption of the user's choice among pre-determined alternatives. It should go beyond the puny ambition implicit in some proposals, that people be able to offer feedback to the providers whose information and services they access. It should instead be consistent with the 'Internet' conception of the information infrastructure. It should mean access to the net, and all that the net enables. It should imply the ability of individuals to participate.

Full participation in the net means that people must be able to perform multiple roles. In addition to acting as passive listener / watcher / consumer and perhaps chooser of data and services, an individual must be able to act as a provider, of:

The primary experiences to date derive from the Internet, and this section is framed in terms of those experiences. The Internet and the culture surrounding it cannot be understood on the basis only of corporations seeking to exploit the resources it gives access to. The net has long been a playground for individuals, and a significant proportion of the traffic has been of little direct benefit to their employers. It has been of great indirect importance, however, as it has resulted in the foundation of electronic communities, and an explosion of creativity.

Access to networked resources is quickly assuming the shape of a public utility, i.e. a service which needs to be available to all, on an equitable basis. In the same manner in which advanced western societies have recognised clean water, electricity, refrigerators and the telephone as facilities which the majority of people should have access to in their normal work and home environments, so too is network access becoming a reasonable expectation of a resident in a civilised, information society.

Unlike many utilities, however, an information infrastructure must support a great diversity of services. This is partly due to the degree of openness and cultural variation, but also because change and creativity are dependent on diversity.

Closely associated with the rise of the Internet has been the re-definition of the notion of 'library'. Documents are increasingly coming into life in electronic form, and are increasingly available via the Internet. Even in respect of the vast collections of important documents which exist only in printed form, increasing numbers are being scanned into electronic form and made available over the net.

The librarianship profession is already in the process of adaptation by reducing the emphasis on its curatorship function, and accentuating its 'knowledge navigation' expertise (Klobas 1994). The significance of this is that libraries have for many years been the means whereby equitable access to many kinds of knowledge, and to literature, have been provided to people in all walks of life. Equity of access to the new, dispersed electronic library must be sustained.

Another necessary condition for public access to network services is widespread ability to use them. Public book-libraries could only be of benefit where social programs were instituted to promote literacy in the population. The notion of literacy, and the focus of literacy programs, need to reflect the new electronic environment. The whole population needs skills in order to operate computer equipment and use the basic application software. Moreover, the nature of the media makes new styles of communication necessary. For example, replying to email demands care with the selection of addressees; and commenting on documents, and on other people's comments about documents, requires some form of linking arrangements or text to ensure that recipients understand to what the comment relates.

Early experiences on the Internet suggest that long habituation is necessary for people to internalise such apparently simple lessons. In one sense it seems incongruous that a well-educated society should need a significant adjustment period for relatively simple new rules; in another it is understandable - the norms on which existing communities are built have been relatively stable for centuries, whereas the norms of electronic communities are having to be formed, disseminated and applied in a decade.

The people who wrote the Australian Constitution at the end of the nineteenth century seem to have recognised that equitable, universal access to transport and telecommunications services was fundamental to the cohesion of the federation. A century later, equitable, universal access to the much wider range of networking services is at least as critical to the cohesion of our information-based society, as roads and telegraph and telephone links were to the agrarian and emergent industrial society of 1895.

A further important aspect of telephone services, recently re-asserted by the regulatory authority Austel, is the freedom from monitoring of and interference with conversations. The cluster of rights associated with freedom of thought, freedom of communication and freedom of assembly must be embedded in the conception and architecture of the information infrastructure.

The pattern of the public switched telephone network (PSTN) has always been 'symmetrical', i.e. all parties have comparable capacity to send and receive signals. The pattern of cable television has, on the other hand, tended to be 'asymmetrical', or 'broadcast' in style, i.e. suppliers have high sending capacity, and drive their products and services outwards, whereas consumers have little or no capability to send messages, and adopt a passive role, choosing among the supplier-decided alternatives placed before them.

The new information infrastructure could be easily conceived and developed using the asymmetrical model, supplier-driven, with consumers passively selecting among 500 largely similar channels (as the popular image of next-generation cable TV has it). This would be greatly against the public interest. The model to be preferred is one more nearly symmetrical, in which consumers have at least the ability to provide feedback, and even to initiate.

With sufficient outgoing capacity, people can actively participate in decision-making, and can contribute to the pool of available materials. A measure of the success of the infrastructure will be the extent to which it enables appropriately motivated and organised individuals to be service providers, performing electronic publishing and maintaining collections for access by others.

This capability can be applied in other contexts as well. Of particular importance is the use of the information infrastructure to encourage the public to exercise their democratic rights and responsibilities.

The justification for the public interest being the primary determinant of the information infrastructure's architecture might be criticised as being idealistic, because it seems to be based on 'renaissance mankind' notions, e.g. "modern people will at last shake off their primitiveness and innate savagery, because they will be enabled by information technology to be educated, and to fully participate in their democratic society".

The public interest argument is, however, not based just on social idealism. The notions of social equity, equal opportunity, and assistance for the socially and educationally disadvantaged have become well-accepted during recent decades, and parties of the right do not appear inclined to turn the clock back: these principles have become established underpinnings of contemporary Australian society.

Another element of the public interest argument for access to networked services can be advanced at the political level. Participative democracy, if it is indeed an aim of Australian society, demands that information infrastructure comprise inherently open structures and processes, provide access to information to the population as a whole, and deny large protected spaces within which narrow interests can arrange resource allocation and public policy to suit their own interests.

4.4 The Public's Economic Interests

As the material well-being of inhabitants of the richer nations has improved, the effort and resources invested in social and environmental considerations have increased. Economic interests have, however, remained uppermost in the minds of the majority of the population, and implicit in the behaviour of most of the remainder. The shape of the future information economy remains speculative, but there are signs that it is substantially different from that of the past.

An appropriately designed information infrastructure can assist companies and government agencies to avoid or significantly reduce many of the costs of organisation. Teleworking was heralded a long time ago (e.g. Toffler 1980), and failed to fulfil the predictions of explosive growth (Olson 1989, Forester 1988). It has, however, slowly become a reality, as it has become apparent which applications are appropriate, the relevant levels of trust have been achieved, appropriate controls have been put in place, and the costs of equipment and software to support it have come down.

Teleworking is currently enabling organisations to reduce their office-sizes, through an arrangement sometimes referred to as 'hot desking', in which many staff-members are mobile, work primarily at home, on the premises of clients, business partners and suppliers, and/or on the move, and visit their own organisation only occasionally. They are then allocated an office and services as needed. The current round of office-size reduction is based primarily on the fax and mobile-phone, and it can be anticipated to accelerate as messaging, document-transfer and data access services improve.

The effects of such changes in work-patterns are compounding the collapse in demand for commercial premises in central business districts which accompanied the recent recession. The emptying of CBDs has resulted in commercial buildings being converted to apartments, and alarmed at least the Sydney Chamber of Commerce to the extent that in late 1994 it appealed to the government to halt the trend towards residential use of the CBD by refusing planning approval for building conversions.

The economic arguments in support of a participative information infrastructure go beyond cost-replacement. The prototype of a democratic, participative information infrastructure, the Internet, represents an 'electronic playground'. Students in tertiary institutions make what some people regard as frivolous use of transmission capacity to file diatribes about matters of ephemeral significance to small groups of highly dispersed aficionados, to participate in multi-user games, to conduct opportunistic, poorly conceived and poorly managed searches, and to experiment with new ideas for services. Yet precisely these frivolous uses are providing these young people with the means to pursue ongoing self-education and discovery.

'Distance education' is becoming much more than just a means to attain geographical equity for far-flung populations; it will become a way of life for a workforce continually preparing itself for the next change in market demands. The foundations have been laid for our own ongoing 'cultural revolution' - a welling-up of new and revised ideas and artefacts.

As recognised in the Commonwealth Government's communications and the arts policy revision in late 1994, culture is not only a quality to be protected, but also a major export, and a major reason for foreign tourists to spend their money in Australia (BTCE 1994, Cutler 1994). The dynamics of culture are tightly bound up with industrial design. A participatively-oriented information infrastructure, and the services it inspires, are incubators of creativity. Australia will live or die in economic terms, depending on the extent to which the aspiration to being 'a clever country' is just rhetoric, or is achieved, by harnessing information technology's potential.

A bygone era has bequeathed to us all a principle of 'universal access' to basic telephone services. This asserted that some minimal level of service must be practicably available to every person, irrespective of material well-being. It implied subsidy, whether from rich to poor, or from city-dweller to country resident. In the information society, network services must also be subject to some such principle of universal access; otherwise it will become impossible to sustain our well-being in a world in which an increasingly large proportion of countries are becoming clever.

There are also potential benefits to be gained from increased international telecommunications linkages, because if a greater proportion of the population has the opportunity to interact with people in other countries, improved mutual understanding and tolerance may result. Moreover, Internet services are designed to be robust, and are therefore appropriate for third-world countries whose underlying telecommunications may be, and may remain, fairly limited. There is therefore scope for contributions by advanced nations like Australia to under-developed and newly industrialising countries.

4.5 Conclusions

In summary, this section has canvassed the following propositions:

Further, it is argued that several principles are essential if a participative rather than an authoritarian information infrastructure is to emerge, and that these principles are not at present being applied:

This is chapter 4 of a multi-part Monograph. Chapter 5 is at

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