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Information Superhighway Accessibility Vannevar Bush Community Chat Vote
1. Introduction

2. Information

3. The Panopticon
4. Beyond The
   Gold Rush


Copyright © 2001 by Matthew Eliot

Part 2  

  The Information Superhighway

The general-use Internet, as we know it today, is the result of decades of research and political action. This section describes the selling of the Internet by Al Gore, in concept and execution, to the American people as a revolutionary shift in the way this country accesses information and does business. This discussion will include:

A Burgeoning Technology

Internet technology is barely 40 years old. The present form of the Internet can be traced back to the year 1962 and the work of J.R. Linklider. That year Linklider became director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a research organization for the Department of Defense. In 1962 Linklider also published a series of memos entitled “On-line Man Computer Communication,” in which he described a “Galactic Network” connecting computers (and their users) all over the globe. ARPA became a key player in the initial phases of Internet development, instigating and/or funding research for many of the stepping stones toward the creation of ARPAnet, it’s first nationwide network

By the 1990’s, Linklider’s initial vision was becoming a concrete reality at the rapid pace:

  • Number of Internet hosts surpassed 100,000. (1989)
  • The first commercial provider for dial-up access, The World, came online. (1990)
  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) upgraded its cross-country Backbone, the central hardware of the national Internet system, to T3 (44.736Mbps). (1990)
  • The first World Wide Web pages, designed under the direction of Tim Berners-Lee, were displayed publicly for the first time. (1991)

Like a quiet avalanche, Internet technology was swiftly developing. By 1992, the number of Internet hosts had exceeded the 1,000,000 mark. Still, the Internet was a tool that remained outside of the public sphere, belonging primarily to the realms of computer science, academia, governmental research, and military operations. Few “civilians” knew anything substantial about the Net, how it operated, or how it might be beneficial.

If the Internet was ever going to be a mass-market communication tool, the general public would need to be educated. They would need to understand the medium’s possibilities and challenges. It wasn’t until 1992 that a spokesperson for Internet technology would grab the public spotlight. That spokesperson was Albert Gore.

Al Gore’s Internet Involvement

During his 2000 presidential campaign, Gore was repeatedly ridiculed for stating, "I invented the Internet." In retrospect, this was an extremely foolish declaration for Gore to make. The development of such a complex technology cannot be attributed to a single individual. Given its speciousness, Gore’s self-aggrandizing claim became a totem during the campaign for deceit, egoism, or self-importance (depending upon how his opponents used his words in any specific ad.)

Nevertheless, Gore had undoubtedly supported the Internet on several occasions during its developing years. His office spearheaded both a key piece of legislature and a persuasive article outlining the Net’s potential. His involvement with the Internet included:

Gore began his political career in the House of Representatives as a congressman from Tennessee. During this term, he introduced a bill calling for the construction of a "data highway."

Senator Gore sponsored the Supercomputer Network Study Act, a project which called for a mapping of the information needs of the general public onto the existing networks run by various universities, corporate research facilities, and military technology centers.

Gore wrote an article for Scientific American, "An Infrastructure For The Global Village." This article describes his vision for the Internet as a mass media communication tool.

In retrospect, it may be difficult to unravel the possible motivations behind Gore’s interest in the Internet. The degree to which his interest was genuine, or merely political opportunism, remains unclear. But for whatever reason, Gore found in his Vice Presidency an occasion to leap onto the Internet bandwagon.

During his first year in office, Gore announced an initiative that sparked the imagination of the entire country. This initiative was the National Information Infrastructure (NII), or as dubbed by the Clinton Administration, the "Information Superhighway."

Building The Information Superhighway

Using the term highway was an inspired choice on the part of Gore and his staff. One could easily explain then-current features of the Internet in terms of a common American experience – traveling on a highway:

  • Highway entrances, including onramps, were like dial-up services. They both provided access to their respective media.
  • Heavy traffic on a highway mapped directly onto system difficulties stemming from overuse
  • Highways, like digital hardware, connected far-flung parts of the country
  • Toll roads require payments for use, just like connection and other user fees.

This highway metaphor was instantly accessible to most people. Superhighways connoted large capacity, swift movement, and community progress.

In his first public address on the NII, on January 11, 1993, Gore presented a conceptual blueprint for his project. He spoke of its benefit to schools, to the medical profession, and to a more effective government. In the proceedings of a later conference dedicated to the design of a generic NII interface, Gore’s vision was said to include:

the telephone system, the radio and television networks, all of the libraries and every computer in the country, including various other communications and storage facilities and services. The term ‘NII’ was coined recently because of the possibility of tying together a great many (if not all) of these elements into an integrated network complex that will be accessible (with some limitation) to essentially everyone… (National Research Counsel, 1997)

Gore and his staff clearly intended that the NII would be a radical extension of the current infrastructure. The idea of including all digitized communication systems into a single entity would require huge amounts of money, time, and cooperation on both national and local levels. In his 1993 talk, the Vice President likened the building of the NII to the implementation of the national telegraph system:

I referred earlier to the use of the telegraph in 1860, linking the nation together. Congress funded Samuel Morse's first demonstration of the telegraph in 1844. Morse then suggested that a national system be built with federal funding.

But Congress said no, that private investment should build the information infrastructure. And that's what happened -- to the great and continuing competitive advantage of this country. (Gore, 1994)

To hasten this privatization, the Clinton-Gore administration “sold” the NSF Backbone upon several corporations in 1995. The intention was to foster growth through competition, while mandating these corporations to widen accessibility to schools and community organizations.

A Digital Gold Rush

Private investors flocked to become a part of the next communication paradigm. While government spearheaded the marketing of the NII, public investments in the Information Superhighway topped $400 billion USD according to some estimates. Corporations and small businesses alike sought to profit from this lucrative "equivalent of what the automobile-oil-rubber-highway industrial complex was in the first half of the twentieth century." (Castells, 1996)

A fever seemed to take hold of the country during the beginning years of the NII. Venture capitalists saw an opportunity for significant profits by providing goods and services to the consumer via online retailers. If many of these early businesses collapsed, no one seemed to take heed. Venture capitalists simply poured another dollop of that $400 billion into additional start-up companies. Employment at a brought the potential for seemingly instant wealth via stock options for most of the workforce. The Cyber Gold Rush was on...

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