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The Information Highway from Hell: A Worst-Case Scenario

by Jeff Johnson -- February 1996
Like most new technology, the Information Highway is being promoted by those with a large financial stake in its success.  Thus, we hear mainly about benefits it will bring us, and very little about problems it will cause or exacerbate.  Furthermore, many of the promoters are banking on a particular vision of the Information Highway -- namely that it will be a conduit between big business and consumers -- and are working to marginalize alternative visions.

Here, I present a worst-case analysis of the Information Highway, for three reasons:
  1. To provide balance.  Even though I have presented fairly optimistic visions of the Information Highway (Johnson, 1994), I find the current discourse too heavily based on hyperbole and wishful thinking.  It is a poor engineer or policymaker who designs or plans based exclusively on best-case analysis.

  2. To caution against alarming trends in the development of the Information Highway so far.  While an Information Highway designed to improve the quality of life rather than to create captive markets for corporations might be possible and beneficial, I fear that is becoming increasingly unlikely.

  3. To argue that while we in the computing profession focus on preserving the free and open character of our precious Internet, the other Information Highway -- the one that will affect most people -- is being fashioned based on a very different model.

To preview an Information Highway from Hell, one need only look at various service networks that telephone/cable/entertainment/merchandising conglomerates are now testing in various cities around the U.S.  For example, executives from Time-Warner, Inc. are proudly showing a video about the "Full Service Network" currently being tested in Orlando, Florida.  The video shows happy suburban families using their set-top boxes to play games, watch movies, browse electronic magazines, and order pizzas and bedroom sets.  This supposed "Full Service Network" does not provide e-mail, bulletin-boards, or person-to-person communication of any kind.

Projecting forward from the "Full Service Network" and its ilk, I now provide, in more detail, the salient features of the Information Highway as most Americans would experience it in, say, ten years.

Of course, the Information Highway will not be a single entity, though the name suggests otherwise.  Rather, it will be a collection of many different component networks -- local, national, one-way, two-way, point-to-point, center-to-points, wire-transmitted, wireless -- providing a variety of services.  Furthermore, most of these networks will be disconnected from each other, at least initially and probably for a long time.

Nonetheless, certain components and services will dominate.  Just as commercial TV and radio now completely dominate the American broadcast media, with public stations having nearly insignificant audiences in comparison, the dominant component on the Information Highway will be a highly commercial, top-down, "pay-per" system for delivering infotainment and advertising to consumers, and, of course, taking their product orders.  Most people won't even know about alternative components, e.g., civic networks operated by non-profit organizations, much less subscribe to them.

The Information Highway will be controlled by the Fortune 500, who will design it for their own benefit.  It will treat us as consumers to be targeted rather than as citizens to be connected.  Consumer choice will be greatly limited by monopolies, both horizontal and vertical.  The concept of "common carriage," wherein carriers have no control over -- and no stake in -- what is transmitted to whom, is now being severely damaged by current telecommunications "reform" legislation.  Within ten years, common carriage will have disappeared.  In most markets, a few companies will control not only the network but also most of its services, shutting out small businesses and individuals as information providers.  Access equipment will be obsoleted quickly, requiring subscribers to replace or upgrade it frequently to remain online.

The Information Highway will push information at consumers.  In theory, a well-designed Information Highway could let anyone put information "on the net," allowing seekers to locate and pull it out as needed.  Buyers could browse, search, compare, and choose.  In short, an Information Highway could provide a close approximation to a true marketplace such as has existed until now only in economics textbooks and, in limited form, street bazaars.  There would no need for advertising as we know it today other than the passive, "yellow pages" variety, which means that there would be no need for businesses to collect, share, and abuse data about households and individuals in an attempt to target advertising.  But, alas, a pull-oriented network isn't what we'll get.  Big business isn't interested in free markets, but rather wants captive markets: consumers who buy based on habit and lack of information about competitors.

Captive markets is therefore what the Information Highway will be designed to deliver.  Today's push-oriented marketplace will be replicated, with much enhanced capabilities, on-line.

Even the Internet is not immune.  The World-Wide Web was originally purely pull-oriented:  people surfed it, viewing and/or downloading information as desired.  However, as the Web is commercialized, push-mechanisms are being added.  Many corporate Web-sites now require users to register in order to gain access.  Registering in order to "visit" a Web-site gives the host your e-mail address as well as an indication of your interests -- just what they need to add you to direct-marketing lists.

With the Internet, consumer-data-capture had to be tacked on. With more mainstream components of the Information Highway, it will be designed in from the start.  In the glorious future, the data-gathering potential of on-line transactions will be exploited to the hilt.  Most of what we do using the Highway will be recorded and analyzed for use against us later, e.g., targeting us for advertisements and sales calls, determining our insurance rates, judging our eligibility for employment.  The market for consumer data -- already brisk -- will grow significantly.  Many services on the Information Highway will be "Bait and List" fronts, which lure customers by providing a token product or service but make their real money selling lists of customers to other companies.  Current-day privacy rules against using information about people for purposes they didn't approve are already seen as hindering business.  They will be forgotten.

One result of all this collecting and trading of consumer data will be that advertising on the Information Highway will be ubiquitous and in-your-face.  You think you get junk mail now?  In the glorious future, stupefying amounts of unwanted junk mail is headed your way!

Not only will privacy be rare on the Information Highway, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and other constitutional rights will be severely restricted there.  Doctors discussing anatomy will be arrested for posting "pornographic" information.  Network operators will censor private e-mail and bulletin board postings.  Instead of treating cyberspace as a new communications medium to which the U.S. Constitution extends, policymakers will regard it as special territory in which the Constitution has limited applicability.  On the Information Highway, your rights will be governed by a "Constitution-Lite."

The Information Highway will be bad for democracy.  The popular term "electronic democracy" suggests that the Information Highway will enhance democracy by allowing citizens to communicate with elected representatives and participate more effectively in government policymaking.  In some fantasy world, perhaps, but not in this one. For example, without e-mail, discussion groups, or a means of entering text, the Time-Warner "Full-Service Network" can't possibly support participatory democracy. Most of the hype about "electronic democracy" is really just about rapid electronic polling, which networks like Time-Warner's can support.  But polling is just"acclamatory democracy," a degenerate case (Hadden, 1996).  True democracy involves discussion and deliberation and is slow by definition.  It requires debate, not just clicking on For or Against buttons.  Instead of democracy, we'll get Oprahcracy.

The Information Highway will be bad for children.  The threat doesn't come from pornography on the Internet -- that particular danger has been badly overblown.  For most Americans, the Information Highway won't be the Internet, but rather the services available through their set-top box.  Those services will subject children to a mind-numbing barrage of advertising -- some of it masquerading as entertainment or educational material -- designed to train kids to be consuming machines.  There will be no escape from it, even in places that were once sanctuaries from commercialism, like libraries, schools, and churches.

To understand why the Information Highway could easily turn out this way, consider television.  In the Fifties, when the corporate push to get people to buy TVs was in full swing, the press was awash in glowing predictions about TV's social benefits.  Instead, we got Gilligan's Island, Beavis and Butthead, O.J. Simpson, and TV news designed more to sell tires than to inform, interlaced with 12-15 minutes of commercials per hour of airtime.  Some people complain about this, whining that "TV could be so much better, if only the 'content' were improved."  No, it couldn't.  TV was developed and marketed by commercial interests.  The content on TV isn't the programs; they are just the bait.  The real content is the commercials.  TV had to become a wasteland of drivel, violence, sexploitation, sensationalism, and advertising because its purpose was not to educate or inform, but rather to sell product.   The Information Highway will be no different.

Some people who lament the failure of TV to live up to its "potential" believe that computerizing TV -- making it interactive and turning it into everyone's portal onto the Information Highway -- will rescue TV from the wasteland.  This view is naive in the extreme.  TV won't be computerized, computers will be TV-ized.

There is an alternative to this vision.  An Information Highway could be open to all, especially small businesses and individuals who want to provide information.  It could be pull-oriented rather than push-oriented.  It could support forms of exchange other than product consumption.  It could provide public-services as well as private ones.  It could allow us to preserve our privacy if we so desire.  It could enhance communication within neighborhoods.  It could connect us rather than targeting us.  In short, it could be more like the Seattle Community Network or the French Minitel system and less like the Time-Warner "Full-Service Network."  Infrastructure providers could make money selling communications connectivity and bandwidth instead of zirconium jewelry, movies, and pizza.  Such a system would generate more total value when summed across the entire economy, yielding a higher gross national product and better standard of living, than the corporate dominated Highway I have foreshadowed.

But the Fortune 500 don't care about the general well-being or the summation of all generated wealth; they care only about their own well-being and wealth.  So they will push for an Information Highway that delivers much less public benefit but maximizes their own projected benefit.  Of course, their projections may be wrong.  As Barlow (1995) and others have pointed out, there is evidence that the corporate vision won't catch on with the public.  Unfortunately, there is also evidence that corporate executives are too narrow-minded to notice this anytime soon.  Are we going to wait until they push their hellish vision through until it fails or, worse, succeeds?  I'm not, are you?


Barlow, John Perry, "Death from Above", Communications of the ACM,
May 1995, 38(5), pages 17-20.

Hadden, Susan Ginsberg, "Democracy on the Electronic Frontier", in
Gary Chapman (ed.), Beyond the Endless Frontier, forthcoming, 1996,
The MIT Press.

Johnson, Jeff, "Scenarios of People Using the NII", The CPSR
Newsletter, Fall, 1994 (and at CPSR's Web-site).

About the Author:

Jeff Johnson is a software designer.  From 1991-94, he was Chair of
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), a Palo Alto
based organization that examines the impact of technology on society
(E-mail:; Web:  He is
Program Co-chair of the 1996 conference on Society and the Future of
Computing (SFC'96).  This article is based on a talk Dr. Johnson gave
at the Association for Computing Machinery's 1995 Conference on
Computer-Human Interaction.  The views expressed are his own.
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