The future of cyberspace will rely not on our ability to police it, but on what we collectively build there that is of real public assistance and social value.

by / September 30, 1995
Oct '95 Vendors: Xerox, Microsoft Corp, MCI, RAND Corp. Contact: Rick Schremp, University of Colorado 303/844-4402

Blake Harris Contributing Writer The development we now generally refer to as cyberspace may be a hot topic of discussion these days, but it is unlikely that it will be much talked about 25 years from now. It's not that the long-term social impact of computer mediated communications will be insignificant. Rather, as Mark Weiser, head of the Computer Science Laboratory at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, pointed out in The Computer for the 21st Century, "the most profound technologies are those that disappear." What he means is that technologies become so much a part of the human landscape that no one pays them much attention. In industrialized society, the printed word so surrounds us that we often aren't even conscious of its presence. What happens is that technological innovations such as printing become secondary to the task being performed and therefore become virtually invisible. In a similar fashion, over the next few decades, cyberspace will become increasingly ubiquitous and unobtrusive - which is another way of suggesting that its social impact may be so profound that we won't even be able to trace all the ramifications.

Spinning Out of Control Already, the Information Age is changing so many aspects of our lives that many people increasingly feel, as Newsweek noted earlier this year, that the information revolution is "spinning out of control." We aren't too sure exactly where it is all going. And more to the point, we still really haven't worked out where we want it to take us. This is especially true when it comes to cyberspace. Certain trends, of course, aren't difficult to predict - especially those already in motion. Vinton Cerf, an Internet founder, designer of TCP/IP networking technology and now an MCI senior vice president, estimates that by the year 2000 there will be one or several methods in wide use for moving money around on the Net, that cable access to the Internet will be prevalent, and that power companies might be well on their way to becoming the main distributors of this access. Digital technology is ushering in a marriage between television, computers and telephones that many believe will revolutionize the business, political and cultural landscape of the entire globe - what Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates has described as a "new digital world order." The technological development needed to make this a reality largely has to do with the infrastructure that remains out of sight to most network users. The MBone (multicast backbone) has started to be overlaid on the existing Internet network to greatly expand the bandwidth and allow real videoconferencing. However, the T1 lines that typically connect current MBone sites can effectively carry only two or three videoconferences at a time. Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation has shifted the bulk of its funding from the now-commercialized Internet to a new experimental network called the vBNS (Very-High-Speed Backbone Network Service) that will be operated separate from the Internet by MCI. This will link five supercomputer centers across the country to test high-speed router and switching technologies and will eventually lead to applications currently not considered possible because of bandwidth limitations.

Virtual Worlds As these and other technological advances are implemented, it will ultimately be possible to communicate in real-time video, text, graphics and audio with anyone, anywhere, at anytime - and at very little cost. As a result, business meetings will increasingly take place in cyberspace involving participants scattered across the global marketplace. Scientists and researchers on different continents will probably work jointly on projects with a degree of collaboration that is unrealistic today. Undoubtedly we will see the rise of the virtual salesperson who makes calls to businesses and homes in some fashion over the global Net. These things are predictable because new technologies tend first to be used to do familiar tasks more cheaply and easily. However, much of the topography of cyberspace will be mapped out in the coming years by entrepreneurial ingenuity, both inside and outside the government sector, as well as by what people want and how people use it - things which are invariably difficult to predict. No one, for instance, foresaw that the automobile would spawn sprawling suburbs. Will the development of cyberspace precipitate a migration away from the crime-ridden big cities back to rural living, a trend which would greatly affect state and local planning? This is possible if people are able to send their children off each morning to a virtual school or university and then report to work in a virtual office where they interface with co- workers hundreds or even thousands of miles apart, then drop into a virtual shopping mall at lunchtime to handle their more elaborate shopping needs, get together with friends after work at a virtual cafe, and then download the news, book, television program or film of their choice to pass the evening hours.

How Much Regulation? The Internet's unpredicted, rapid growth stems from its grass- roots structure, its open, nonproprietary nature and its fiercely democratic organization. The more than 10,000 Usenet news groups, although often littered with gossip and silly chatter, act almost as an antidote to modern packaged mass media. Newsgroups offer a kind of equalizing platform where voices can be heard regardless of qualifications and background. And they provide, on occasion, unfiltered, cutting-edge information and a unique platform for social interaction and education that many people consider not only valuable, but revolutionary in its broad social implications. William Gibson, the science fiction writer who first coined the term "cyberspace," said in a speech to National Academy of Sciences' Convocation on Technology and Education, that "Historians of the future - provided good dreams prevail - will view this [development] as having been far more crucial to the survival of democracy in the United States than rural electrification or the space program." He added that access to cyberspace "may well represent nothing less than this nation's last and best hope of providing something like a level socio-economic playing field for a true majority of its citizens." It is not surprising that many Internet users feel that they are tied into a powerful new medium that collectively gives them a form of personal power they previously lacked. But all is far from useful or bliss on "the Net." More than a few of cyberspace's inhabitants have begun to feel that the early hopes for a social revolution through electronic community networking may have been overly optimistic. Clifford Stoll, astronomer and author of Silicon Snake Oil, for example, now calls cyberspace a "vast wasteland [of] mediocrity." Author Bruce Sterling, while still enthralled with the possibilities, describes cyberspace as a mirror that "reflects our values and our faults, sometimes in terrifying exaggeration."

The Dark Side The dark side of cyberspace harbors hackers pirating software and exchanging hacking techniques, drug smugglers using e-mail, political extremists advocating racism, hate and violence, predators seeking to seduce children, pornographers with modems, and maybe even terrorist networks plotting atrocities - in fact, almost every form of evil that already exists in our society. It is a little terrifying, at times, to think that virtually anyone, armed simply with a computer, modem and telephone line, can, at least in theory, reach a worldwide audience with whatever communication he or she wishes. This fact, coupled with the anarchic freedom of the Internet, has brought to a head a number of fundamental issues that may have significant ramifications on how the Information Age unfolds: surveillance and public safety vs. privacy through encryption and anonymity, censorship vs. free expression, more control vs. a decentralized anarchy of information. On the surface, some of these issues appear fairly clear-cut. Unauthorized access to computers is already covered by legislation. Cases of libel or copyright violations are easily settled by the courts under current laws, provided that one can find who is responsible for such transgressions. Yet even seemingly clear-cut issues can have mind-twisting digital implications. Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, predicts the oblivion of print. If more and more books only exist in electronic format, it only makes economic sense that public lending libraries would operate in cyberspace - except how does anyone enforce copyrights and ensure that only the paid-for copy of the book is in circulation? And if people can download a book from a library and then keep a copy for themselves at home, what does this do to the retail book trade, not to mention authors' royalties that make it economically viable to produce books in the first place? More than a decade ago, a classic study by Ithiel de Sola Pool called Technologies of Freedom summed up what must be the principle concern in all debates about regulation and control of cyberspace. "In future society the norms that govern information and communications will be even more crucial than in the past," Pool wrote. "The onus is on us to determine whether free societies in the 21st century will conduct electronic communication under the conditions of freedom established for the domain of print through centuries of struggle, or whether that great achievement will become lost in a confusion about the new technologies."

Planning The Future Whether we are ready for it or not, the reality is that the Information Age and cyberspace is upon us with a vengeance. As Newsweek summed it up a few months ago, "The revolution has only just begun, but already it's starting to overwhelm us. It's outstripping our capacity to cope, antiquating our laws, transforming our mores, reshuffling our economy, reordering our priorities, redefining our workplace, putting our Constitution to the fire, [and] shifting our concept of reality." The mind-boggling quantity of information which cyberspace puts at our fingertips is causing us to look upon information in a different light. For one thing, information itself is increasingly considered a resource with intrinsic value and even, as the European Common Market declared a number of years ago, "a national resource." Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Daniel Bell highlighted the essence of what the information revolution is all about. "The crucial point about a post-industrial society is that knowledge and information become the strategic and transforming resources of the society, just as capital and labor have been the strategic and transforming resources of industrial society," he said. We have become increasingly aware that there is, as David Ronfeldt of the RAND Corp. described it, a "rising hierarchy with data at the bottom, information in the middle, and knowledge at the top... [and] some would add intelligence or wisdom above that." All information is not of equal value and this lies at the heart of much of the problem with cyberspace as represented by the Internet in its current state. There is a vast volume of data flooding through the network that one must wade through to find information. "In the final analysis, the future of cyberspace is not really about technology. Although it will obviously continue to develop, the essential technology is already here in one form or another," said Rick Schremp of the government technology project at the University of Colorado. "The thing we have to start recognizing is that cyberspace must be content-driven rather than technology-driven." Schremp argues that we should be focusing our attention on creating a diverse, content-rich cyberspace of real benefit to people and that local and state governments have a role to play in helping to bring this about. "Everywhere, governments are feeling the economic pinch," added Schremp. "Cyberspace isn't a technological problem. It's the solution that will enable government to continue to economically deliver vital services like education, social services, and adequate health care while making the interface between government and citizens easier and more rapid no matter where those citizens happen to live." Schremp's program at the University of Colorado has been pulling together the cumulative experiences of government use of cyberspace from around the world. It offers seminars for government leaders to assist them to begin using cyberspace to deliver better, more cost-effective services not in the future, but right now. "Like bank ATMs, people will start to use cyberspace-based government services if they make interaction with government easier and faster," said Schremp. No one can really say what cyberspace will look like in 25 years. That's because it is like a new land that has only begun to be settled - or rather created. For cyberspace is defined and delineated first and foremost by its content. And its future depends not on our ability to police it, but rather upon what we collectively build there that is of real public assistance and social value.


G7 Pilot Projects Last February, ministers from the various G7 countries met to begin to address the social, political and technological issues raised by the Information Age. The result of this historic meeting was a series of pilot projects to utilize cyberspace for broad social betterment. These include: * The Global Inventory Project which will provide an Internet-based multimedia inventory of information regarding major national and international projects, studies and other data relevant to the promotion and development of knowledge and understanding of the Information Society. This includes a network for the exchange of information for industry, governments, public authorities and users. * The Global Interoperability for Broadband Networks Project to facilitate the establishment of international links among existing high-speed data networks in various industrialized countries. * The Cross-Cultural Education and Training Project to offer access to distance learning facilities and various sources of knowledge by interconnecting educational institutions, small business resource centers and other institutions. * The Electronic Libraries Project to help create an advanced infrastructure for the interconnection of libraries that will provide an open and global platform for access, manipulation and circulation of digitized information in many forms. * The Electronic Museums and Galleries Project to ensure the interoperation of networks for open multimedia access to major museums and galleries and create a virtual gallery which would allow the public to interact in real time with museums and galleries. * The Environment and Natural Resources Management Project will develop information infrastructure and information management technologies to address key environmental and natural resource issues of relevance to both developed and developing nations. * The Global Emergency Management Project to develop a global information network that will save lives, reduce social disruptions and lessen environmental degradation by improving global emergency response and planning, fostering development of international standards, and facilitating technology transfer to developing nations. * The Global Healthcare Applications Project to help medical professionals around the world keep abreast of complex developments and increase the use of national and global electronic networks to substantially reduce costs and promote better efficiency in health care. * The Government Online Project to examine effective and innovative use of information technology to lower costs and improve service delivery. The two key issues of emphasis are replacing paper-based operations with electronic operations and improving electronic access to public information.

Government Technology's Web site address is:

Blake Harris Editor
Platforms & Programs