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The Net: Predictions and Promises

For much of this century, a number of communication and media scholars have formulated educated predictions pertaining to the development of communication technologies from simple one-way, mass media through to individualised multi-tasked services. Such optimistic appraisals of an uncertain future have initiated a great deal of discussion, hype and investment throughout the latter half of this century, with radio, public access television and the Internet making promises of a new democratic order, a global community and an augmentation of human sensation. (CAE, Utopian Promises – Net Realities, 1997) Vannevar Bush's foresightful As We May Think reveals that such universally appealing ideals were sought by the information elite as far back as 1945.

Bush's investigation into contemporaneous scientific and informational services notes that technology has the ability to improve upon the human condition by transcending time and space, and by overcoming physical and mental barriers that have restricted mortal man since the dawn of humankind. (Bush, July 1945) What is interesting to note is that not only do supporters of today's developing 'information superhighway' allude to similar benefits as those pointed out by Bush in relation to his theoretical MEMEX personal information databank, but they continue to preach similar future developments posed by Bush.

While Bush stated that man, and man's capacity for knowledge, will flourish in the face of a device that offers access to the near-infinite 'common record', he also noted that the development of such a technology would be restrictive in terms of size and usability, forcing data compression and a furthering of information scanning and retrieval methods. He also noted that in order for the infrastructure to best suit the human mind, it must adapt to our natural cognitive processes, in terms of the manner by which we peruse and filter related data. His customisable MEMEX boasts a reliable memory of paths browsed by the user (overcoming the transience of human memory), while housing the capacity for distant communication, data updating and the automated gathering and filtering of information. These properties highlight some of the aspects of the World Wide Web that have developed only since the age of CODEC applications and graphical browser software such as Netscape Communicator, Microsoft IE and Alexa. Bush's writing also alludes to navigable index pages in compressed books, which is congruent with the Web's default index.html content pages on each site, linking the site's expansive content via hyperlinks. (Bush, July, 1945)

Interestingly, the MEMEX, apart from its perceived physical size, resembles, in application, today's personal digital assistants, even so far as possessing intelligent agents and voice recognition characteristics. These are touted as representing the future of remote networked communication, offering universal personal telecommunications to all who can afford the service. The networked potential of Bush’s scientific tool, he claimed, would make feasible distant collaboration that could rapidly accelerate human efficiency of thought and investigation. (Bush, July, 1945) He also claimed that while "...truly significant attainments [could] be lost in the inconsequential," as represents a recurring criticism of today's open-access Web, intelligent employment of the tool would work towards fostering basic human freedoms. (Bush, July, 1945)

Like Bush, Michael Dertouzos believes that the information infrastructure will offer a vast majority of the global population with the potential to designate mundane tasks to 'the machine', allowing the human spirit to flourish in a creative, unbound realm of education and communication. (Scientific American, 1995) Furthering Bush’s notion that remote communication will alleviate the negative connotations of physicality, Dertouzos also combats the possible inadecquacies of the system.

Noting that the Web, in its current form, is driven largely by free capitalism, integrating large commercial sites with a mass of seemingly irrelevant public material, Dertouzos states that countries not driven by capitalist desires may be disadvantaged by the existing channel from the outset. He also notes that unless the infrastructure is refined to a state by which its capacity is responsibly channeled into the "...useful rather than frivolous," that the medium may not appeal to all. (Dertouzos, 1995) Furthermore, the information superhighway cannot reach its oft-promised pinnacle unless it is also found to be universally accessible and user-friendly. (Dertouzos, 1995) The provision of common services, founded around a standardised base of codes and conventions, too, is necessary to push the uptake of this technology past critical mass the world over.

Amongst the technological developments that Dertouzos lists as crucial to this are the provision of low-cost connectivity (including broadband where needed), wireless networking, voice and multimedia capabilities and personal intelligent agents. (Dertouzos, 1995). Like Bush, Dertouzos believes that once we overcome the bounds of defining technical standards, the Internet will be granted the ability to fascilitate free enterprise, collaboration, debate, democracy and a general free flow of ideas in a disembodied form. In addition, advances in interactivity and (in a possible extension from Bush's thoughts regarding direct electrical cognitive stimulation that bypasses the physical senses) advanced mediated education promise to initiate the next phase of human evolution – that from a physically-oriented species that fails to employ the full potential of its complex brain to a species reliant not on temporality and whose access to information and VR-fed cognitive advances promises a flourishing of pure thought exchange. Associated with this is the technological determinist perception that the Web, unlike any reportedly democratic medium to precede it, is truly designed to advocate freedom of speech in all its converging forms.

Of course, this potential is restricted to only those who have access, ruling out a large population in developing nations, many of whom have no need or socially-driven desire to use an online service even in the event that the technology was made available to them. This raises concerns regarding the rapidly expanding information gap that continues to divide the 'haves' from the 'have nots', in a style reminiscent of feudal Europe. In essence, today's 'digital literate' possess a controlling power over the less information-rich members of society – a fact that stands as a major adversity to the improvement of the human condition.

The Critical Art Ensemble, taking a devil's advocate stance in their article Utopian Promises – Net Realities (1997), discuss possible underlying disadvantages of the Net that run in direct contradiction to its apparent goals. Whether employed by marketers as invasive research and tracking tools, by governments as watchdogs or by the military as an espionage tool, a connected society certainly faces threats to personal freedom. CAE note that along with the immortal, ethereal virtual body of infinite promise comes an associated 'data body' that is assigned to us from birth until death. With the diffusion of personal digital assistants and similar individualised, portable technologies, Big Brother has never had it so easy. In fact, CAE push this potential scenario to its limits by presupposing that the advent of virtual and augmented-reality technologies may be integrated into the all-encompassing network as a covert method of encouraging the furthering of human efficiency (though not necessarily humanity) through cybernetic integration.

CAE attempt to further tarnish (or materialise) the heady Net illusion by breaking down its two biggest flagships of social furthering. The Net's egalitarian democratic properties, CAE state, provide both little credibility within developed nations and little relevance within underdeveloped nations, where access to such facilities is restricted to the wealthy only. Similarly, the fusion of pure thought and consciousness into one collective body of shared material is restricted only to those with access, and who possess the experience necessary to unravel the Net's standard codes and conventions.

Certainly, as supported in Kapor's Where is the Digital Highway Really Heading?, (Wired, July/Aug, 1993) many of these issues may be resolved or abolished as access and freedom improves along with deregulation and the refinement of a decentralized method of uncensored content provision. As the structure of the information highway moves to a more user-friendly and operable system, while maintaining free speech and privacy, the Jefferson democratic Ideal may be preserved.

It would be naively idealistic to claim that the current information infrastructure has largely improved the human condition, except in isolated cases. Conversely, it would be arrogantly pessimistic to deny that the infrastructure, in theory, does carry such potential. This potential, though, may only be unleashed once universal access to the resource has been granted, which may be more feasible in the face of greater competition in the telecommunications and media industries. With companies such as Free-PC and NetZero providing free hardware and Net connection to members of Western nations at present (supported by advertising revenues), developing nations, whose telecommunication connectivity is increasing at a rapid rate, could foreseeably receive similar offers during the early years of the next millenium.

Written by Joshua Smith. © 1998

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