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CPSR Newsletter Fall 1994


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Scenarios of People Using the NII

by Jeff Johnson
CPSR/Palo Alto

CPSR News Volume 12, Number 4: Fall 1994


The vision of the NII the media offers is a very narrow one. It represents the NII mainly as a source of 500 TV channels, home shopping, movies on demand, takeout food from fast-food chains, and multimedia game-playing. This is a vision promoted by purveyors of telephone services, TV and movies, computers, software, and catalogue merchandise. Executives in these industries believe that constucting the NII according to this image will maximize their profits. They're wrong, but we'll get to that shortly.

A more serious problem is that this vision drives policy discussions about the NII. Political commentators, columnists, policymakers, elected officials, and even some public-interest advocates seem to be buying the hype. Policy wonks debate whether the Clinton administration should mandate universal access to such services. Or whether public funds should be spent developing that sort of NII, rather than whether that vision is the right one.

Although the NII will no doubt provide couch-potato conveniences policy discussions should not center around those uses. For one thing, there is ample evidence that public enthusiasm for such services will fail to materialize, especially in the hoped-for time-frames. To quote CPSR's recent policy-paper, Serving the Community: A Public Interest Vision of the NII

Judging from the way information networks are used today, people value being online primarily because it gives them new ways to communicate with other people.... Over the past two decades . . . many companies have conducted trials of videotext systems focused on shopping and information retrieval. All have been dismal failures. Now, as we stand poised to develop the NII, telephone, cable TV, computer. and broadcast companies are again focusing on providing systems to promote electronic consumerism. Why?
All our experience with centralized commercial online systems like Prodigy as well as the anarchic Internet suggests that high-tech consumerism is not the only thing, probably not even the main thing. that the public would use an information highway for. Those who are formulating MI-related policy shouldn't accept such a limited vision of the NII.

The NII will have many uses besides "infotainment" and merchandising. It will provide access to governmental information (voting records, court decisions, regulations) and to government officials (by email), better ways to deliver government services (voter and auto registration, tax returns), ways to make democracy more participatory (online discussion groups and policy hearings). and educational tools (access to libraries and encyclopedias, interstate or international email pen pals, remote teaching). Most importantly, it will connect people with each other, one-to-one and one-to-many, and allow them to communicate in new ways. These are the uses of the NII that should be central to its design and that should be driving policy.

Toward these ends, this article presents a broader vision of the NII than that usually touted in the media. Through concrete scenarios, it exemplifies guiding principles that CPSR's policy paper proposes. This is not the first attempt to provide scenarios of a future NII. For example, Francis Fisher [1993] depicts how the NII might affect the lives of a hypothetical Latino family in the year 2002. However, previous scenarios have appeared mainly in policy journals, where they are relatively inaccessible to the public and the press.

At breakfast one Saturday morning, Sally gazes out at her front yard. "Amazing," she thinks, "how fast dandelions grow back. I pulled them all out just a few weeks ago." She'd like to dig them out soon, before they go to seed and multiply even further, but realizes that she has no time this weekend. Thinking that there must be a kid in the neighborhood who would like to earn some pocket money for a couple of hours of weed-pulling, she uses her computer to access the neighborhood "odd-jobs" bulletin board. (She'd used a computer for years, so she didn't need an InfoGizmo or a WorldVision: she just had to get the Windows to the World software for her computer.) Sally posts a note on the bulletin board saying that she'll pay $20 for someone to dig up her weeds. Later in the day, while reading her email, she sees a message from the Hawthorne boy saying that he could pull her weeds tomorrow. She calls him back by phone to close the deal and tell him where her yard tools are.

It's nearly midnight. Bob and Sue have just arrived home from the airport. While on vacation. they missed severalmeetings of their bridge club. They know one is coming up soon, but are not sure when or where. It might even be tomorrow. It's too late to call someone else in the club, so Sue turns on the WorldVision box that's attached to their TV and brings up the club's bulletin board. "Yup, it's a good thing we checked," she says. "The meeting's tomorrow night, at the Rosenfeld's. It says here it's our turn to bring dessert." "And look," she adds, pointing to a list of names with checkmarks next to most of them, "everybody but the Berardis says they'll be there." She checks off their own name so the Rosenfelds will know that they're coming and will bring dessert. "You've sure taken to that WorldVision," Bob teases. "Don't I remember your saying you'd never use it?"

At 4:30 pm on Sunday, Alfredo is installing new kitchen cabinets in his home. He promised his wife he'd do it today, but he got started late. He's almost done, but now he finds that he's out of wallboard screws. The hardware store in his neighborhood is closed on Sunday. If he doesn't finish the cabinets today, he won't have time until next weekend. He needs to find a store that sells wallboard screws that's open and near enough to get to before it closes. He sits down at the InfoGizmo in the kitchen and punches the Yellow Pages key. He hits the letter H, picks Hardware from the categories shown under H by pointing to it, and finds himself staring at a list of all the hardware stores in the city. He pokes the Search "button" on the screen and sets the Business-hours field to NOW on the form that appears. The list of stores gets shorter, but is still too long to read through quickly. He presses the Map key, glances at the displayed city map with hardware stores shown as blinking dots, pans until his neighborhood is in the middle, and then zooms until he is looking at about a two-mile area around his home. There are three blinking dots. He points to one of them, and it expands to show the store name, address, and phone number. He calls the store by poking its phone number. "Sorry, we don't have wallboard screws," the woman who answers tells him. Alfredo calls the second store, and this time hits pay dirt. "Yessssss!" he exclaims, thinking what a pain this would have been five years ago.

Amy has to drive across town to pick up the microwave oven she ordered. She could take several different routes, but rush hour isn't quite over. She goes to the InfoGizmo in the kitchen and presses the Traffic key. (Actually, Traffic didn't have its own key when she got the Gizmo because it wasn't part of the Basic package. When she first subscribed to Traffic, it was one of many services under the Other button, but she assigned it to one of the five user-gettable function keys because she uses it so often.) A map appears, showing the large streets of the city in various colors. The map warns that the freeway is jammed, but isn't detailed enough to show the surface streets near her house. (At first she had subscribed to a competing Traffic service, but they didn't update their maps often enough, so she switched.) She zooms in and sees that Harbor Street is completely blocked. "Must be road construction," she thinks. She could find out, but she doesn't really care why it is blocked. Then she looks at Andover Street and sees that it looks clear all the way to the mall. Amy thinks how much time she has saved since she added this service to her InfoGizmo.

Mrs. Chang wants to find out what homework assignments her son William has this week. She knows better than to ask him. Instead, uses the InfoGizmo. She brings up the school district's information service, picks Millard Fillmore school from a map of the district, selects Homework from a list of bulletin boards, and looks up Mr. Navarro's third-period algebra class. She sees that there is an assignment due Friday, and a test on Monday. She makes a mental note to remind her son, and then suddenly gets a devilish gleam in her eye. Last week William, who knows much more about computers and how to use the Gizmo than she does, sent her an email message to tease her about nagging him "too much." When she opened the message, she found a picture of her face with an animated moving mouth, coupled with a voice message that repeated "Yakity yak, yakity yak . . ." until she closed the message. Mrs. Chang opens her email in-folder and retrieves that message. She then records a new voice message: "Yakity yak, don't forget your math homework for Friday. Yakity yak, no movie Saturday night until you've written out a study sheet summarizing the chapters that will be covered on Monday's math test. Yakity yak!" She attaches the voice message to the picture and sends it to William. As Mrs. Chang switches bulletin boards to check the date of the next PTA meeting, she chuckles at her cleverness.

Perry has some time to kill. He's at the laundromat waiting for his clothes to dry. He sits down at one of the public terminals the city recently installed, drops in fifty cents, "Cheaper' n drying my damn clothes!" he observes wryly, and pulls up the job listings. Last week, he used a terminal at the library to land a job at an auto shop, but that didn't work out. the manager expected him to have his own tools. "Hell," he told the guy, "if I could afford a whole set of tools, I wouldn't need this job." Now. he scans the listings for warehouses that are looking for loaders. Finding a few listings, he prints them out, then sends a message to the companies saying he's interested. He explains that his back isn't as strong as it used to be, but he's a dependable worker and can drive a forklift like nobody's business. He asks them to reply to his email address. The chances that they will reply are minimal, but in case they do, it's better to give an email address than the phone number at the homeless shelter where he is staying. Since his clothes still have a few minutes to go, he decides to look for the discussion group on homeless issues that a friend told him about.

Charles and Eliza are big jazz fans. They used to go out often to jazz clubs, but that mostly ended when the kids came along. But tonight Charles's morn, who is visiting, made them an offer they couldn't refuse: she'll baby-sit the kids while they enjoy a night out on the town. Charles is really looking forward to it; he wants to find a club with serious musicians and good food. He remembers how hit-and- miss it used to be to find good music: the listings and ads in the Calendar supplement of the Sunday paper were neither comprehensive nor well-organized. He usually had to try two or three clubs in an evening to find something worth listening to. Now, he gets on the InfoGizmo and pulls up Live Entertainment and then Jazz. He scrolls to today's date and starts scanning clubs. Some of the musicians' and groups' names are familiar; some aren't. Most of the combos otter descriptions of the sort of music they play; some even provide photos and brief audio samples Charles listens to a few samples, but ends up choosing a club where Chris Grampp is playing with some other musicians. He knows Eliza loves Chris's playing. He pokes the club's phone number to call and make reservations.

When the Spring quarter ended, Warren got home to his parents' ranch in Montana the usual way: by finding someone who was driving there and seeking riders to share expenses, riding with them to Bozeman, then calling his parents to come into town and get him. That was no problem: the college provided bulletin boards for ride-sharing. A few years ago, they moved the bulletin boards online, accessible through terminals in the library and elsewhere as well as through home computers, InfoGizmos, WorldVisions, and the like.

Getting back to school in September, however, was never as easy. There was simply no way to find out who near Bozeman was driving to Philadelphia and wanted riders. He usually ended up flying back even though it was too expensive. No more. Online services have finally arrived in Bozeman, and his parents now have an InfoVision, a box attached to their TV. He pulls out the cordless keyboard and sits on the couch. (His parents apparently don't use the keyboard, preferring the TV remote control, menus, and voice messages.) Warren quickly finds the list of Bozeman bulletin boards. "Hmm. Not many yet. They'll learn." Spotting one labeled Rides Offered, he opens it up and begins scanning. "Most of these are within the state," he grumbles, initiating a search for the word "Phil." Two postings match the search. One is a ride to Los Angeles offered by someone named Phil; the other is the ride to Philadelphia he is hoping for. He'd like to call the phone number given, but he thinks it might be too late at night. He glances at the clock on the VCR. It is flashing 12:00, as it has been for years. "My parents," he sighs. Glancing at his watch and finding that it's really 11:25, he jots down the number so he can call in the morning.

Earl's father, 79 years old, lives in South Central Los Angeles. Earl lives in Chicago. His dad no longer gets around as well as he used to and recently had to give up his car. He may soon have to give up his two- story house. But he won't move to Chicago; he wants to stay in L.A. where his friends are. Earl would like to know what options are available for his father, but knows very little about services and housing for the elderly, and in Los Angeles wouldn't even know where to start looking. He can't afford to go there to research elder care. especially since he has no idea how long it might take. Instead, last week. he went to the Chicago Public Library and used a public information terminal to begin his search. Under Elder Care, he found a wealth of information about services in the Chicago area, and several articles on elder care in general, but nothing about the L.A. area. He printed out the articles to read at home, and now he is back, knowing that the right level of care for his father is a senior apartment complex that provides help with shopping and in emergencies and that checks up on residents periodically. However, he has no idea where to look. He asks a librarian for help. The librarian does a little online digging and finds a directory of senior apartments in L.A. Earl takes over and quickly narrows the list to the South Central area. He scans the list, using photos of the buildings, rooms, and grounds, and his knowledge of the neighborhoods in South Central L.A. to narrow it down to several likely-looking facilities. He composes an email message describing his father's situation and asking for further information. Since he doesn't have an information terminal at home, he gives his postal address and phone number for replies, then sends the message to the places he found.

It's an election year and Vinh Truong is trying to decide whom to vote for for Congress. He recently became an American citizen and is looking forward to voting in his new country, but is a bit bewildered by all the campaign ads and literature he's seen. The campaigns seem overly centered on the personalities of the candidates. He thinks it would be more helpful if they would talk about what the candidates have done and plan to do. As a new citizen, he wants to vote responsibly, so he doesn't want to rely solely on the TV ads and flyers that jam his mailbox. One candidate is the incumbent, so Vinh wants to see how he's voted on issues Vinh cares about, such as the environment and immigration policy. His brother and sister-in-law, who live nearby, have an OmniPhone, which has a touch-display and lets them connect to information services. They told him that the voting records of local representatives are accessible for tree as part of the basic package of services, and invited him to come over and use their device. When Vinh arrives, his brother takes his coat and shows him to the family room, where the OmniPhone is. Their teenage boy is peering intently at the screen. "Sammy, Uncle Vinh is here to use the OmniPhone, so you'll have to do something else for a while." "Aw, Dad! Things are just getting interesting!" the boy says, but yields to his father's stern look and, with a few keystrokes, stops what he was doing. "Sammy discovered that this thing lets him connect to an electronic 'diner', a place where he can chat with other teenagers who are connected at the same time. It's been hard to peel him off this thing ever since. At least it's better than watching TV." Vinh nods, thinking that just about anything would be better than TV, but wonders what is so interesting about talking with others through a keyboard and a screen instead of in person. His brother sits in front of the unit and taps keys for a few seconds. "OK, I've got you into the Congressional voting records, but I've never used this service, so you'll have to figure out the rest on your own." Vinh sits down and looks at the screen. He sees a form with the fields "Name," "District," "From date," "To date," "Bill #," and "Keywords." Vinh uses a database system at work, so he is pretty sure what to do. He fills in the incumbent's name, a "From date" of two years ago, and leaves the "To date" blank to indicate the present. He types "Environment" into the ''Keywords" field and punches the Search key. After a few seconds, the database displays the message "42 bills found" and a list of bills, indicating how the congressman voted on each. Vinh scans the list, asking for more detail on some of the bills. He then changes the "Keywords" field to "Immigration" and repeats the process. He is pretty sure now that this congressman is not someone he wants to vote for, but that of course depends on what the other candidate, who hasn't held office before, is like. She might be worse. While he is thinking about how he might get some useful information about her, Sammy returns and says "Are you almost done, Uncle Vinh?" "It's all yours," Vinh says, and gets up to ask his brother about the other candidate.

While having Thanksgiving dinner in New York with relatives last week, Jacob and Laura got a lot of compliments for the pumpkin pie they brought (Laura made the crust; Jacob, the filling). They promised several people they'd send them the recipe. Now, Jacob goes into the kitchen and pulls out the Recipe Manager. He opens the cookbook-shaped device, taps a few keys, and peers at the recipe that appears on the screen. Satisfying himself that it's the one he wants, he presses the Send key. The Recipe Manager communicates with the OmniPhone in the next room, displaying the OmniPhone's familiar electronic mail screen. Jacob writes a brief note: "Here's the pumpkin pie recipe you wanted. Enjoy, Jacob and Laura." Jacob scrolls through the address list, selecting the names of the people who wanted the recipe, then sends it off.

Things are finally starting to go better for Pamela Watson. For a while, life looked pretty bleak. She had married just out of high school and got pregnant right away, but then her husband began coming home drunk and beating her. She had read about women who endure beatings, afraid to leave the security of their homes, who end up dead or severely injured, and she did not want to be one of them. She left, and went to a women's shelter. Soon afterwards, her baby was born-- boy. With no job, only a high-school education. and a baby to teed and care for, she wasn't sure what she was going to do. The social worker got her into a housing project and signed her up for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, AFDC. Pamela remembers thinking, "Oh great, I'm a welfare mother. Now what'?" She hated the project, it was run-down and unsafe, and didn't want to raise her boy there. She made friends with another "welfare mother" who lived in the complex, and they worked out a deal that each would work half-time while the other watched both children. They found a warehouse manager who was willing to take on two half-time office clericals instead of one full-time, and they had been working there for several months. Their goal was to save first and last month's rent on a two- bedroom apartment so they could move out of the projects. But Pamela's social worker warned her that if she saved too much money, she would lose her AFDC check. "So how am I supposed to get out of here? " Pamela protested. "Without the AFDC money, everything I make at my job will go for rent and food, and I'll be living in this project on welfare forever." The social worker sympathized, but just kept saying that rules were rules. Pamela wanted to find out exactly what the rules were, to see if there was some way she could keep her job and her AFDC income, but the social worker was too busy with other clients to go over the details. He suggested that Pamela use the public-access terminal in the complex to look up the AFDC regulations. Pamela had seen the room where the terminals were, but it was kept locked so they wouldn't be stolen or vandalized. She got the manager to let her in, but couldn't figure out how to work the thing. The manager said she should wait until the next day, when a volunteer who helped people use the terminals would be there. The next day, the volunteer showed her how to find the welfare regulations, and also set her up with an email account so she could write to the AFDC email question service and participate in a "welfare mothers" electronic discussion group. Over the next couple of weeks, she used the terminal frequently when she wasn't working. with the babies playing nearby on the rug. After a few weeks of looking up regulations, exchanging email with AFDC online consultants, and swapping experiences and information with other women, she had a pretty good idea of what the limits on savings were, and some ideas about how she and her friend might be able to work their way out of the projects.

"Say cheese!" Raymond points the electronic still camera at his two kids, who are digging in a mudhole. "Cheeeeeeese," they yell, their faces and clothes covered with splattered mud. Raymond takes a few more shots, then goes inside to connect the camera up to the printer. He prints the pictures, then takes them into the living room to show his wife, who is reading. "Oh gosh, look at those little rascals. We've got to send these to Grandma and Grandpa," she says. "Good idea," says Raymond. He takes the memory card out of the camera and sticks it into the slot on the WorldVision. On the TV screen, the WorldVision displays a stylized roll of film representing the photos. He pokes the film to "open" it and displays the pictures, one by one, on the TV screen. "Cute." He closes the roll and makes a copy of it, then writes a short note to Grandma and Grandpa: "We thought you'd enjoy these pictures of your grandkids in their Sunday best." He attaches the "film roll" to the note and sends it off. He remembers how his parents used to complain that they never got any pictures of their grandchildren. Of course, that was when cameras used chemical film that was expensive to develop and make prints of. "I wonder where my old Nikon is," he muses.

It's late in the evening. The kids have gone to bed and their father is watching TV. For several days, Carmella has been meaning to join an ongoing neighborhood discussion about a proposal to install traffic barriers on some streets. Until now, she's been too busy with family matters. Some people say closing selected streets will make the neighborhood safer and quieter; others, that the barriers will be an inconvenience and make other streets worse. To resolve the issue, the neighborhood association assigned a committee to gather comments and counterproposals and then propose a solution for a neighborhood vote. To gather comments the committee held meetings and also set up an online discussion group. Carmella prefers presenting her thoughts through the InfoGizmo, partly because she is better at writing English than speaking it, and partly because, as a woman, she feels that the men pay more attention to her ideas when they read them as disembodied text than when she speaks at a meeting. Besides, it's hard to attend the meetings because of her kids. She brings up the discussion group and scans the messages that have been posted recently. "There he goes again," she mutters, spotting another message from Mr. Lubars, infamous for his hot-headed postings. She reads some of the messages, skipping the one from Lubars. Carmella then composes one of her own, describing the idea that occurred to her yesterday. As she shuts down the Gizmo, she makes a mental note to check in a few days for responses to her idea.

The city Ombudsman reviews his Todo list on his office computer to see what needs attention next. "Ah, yes. Check status of Excelsior dumping problem." The neighbors of Excelsior Park are upset about people dumping rubbish there. The illegal dumping by gardeners and rubbish haulers avoiding the city dump's fees has been a problem for years, but has recently gotten worse as a result of an increase in the dump's fees. In response to complaints, the Ombudsman set up a discussion group a few months ago between representatives of the neighborhood surrounding the park. the police department, the Mayor's office, and the Chamber of Commerce. Reviewing the discussion, he is satisfied that it seems to be doing what he'd hoped it would do: making clear to the authorities that the problem is serious and needs better enforcement, getting the word out in the business community that offenders better clean up their act, and convincing$ the neighbors that there aren't easy solutions .short of closing the park to everyone. Convincing the neighbors, that is, except old man Lubars. "Who got that guy a Gizmo?" he thinks.

Julia is an amateur guitarist. She subscribes to a nationwide online bulletin-board where guitarists share musical arrangements. Today, Julie is excited as she sits down at her OmniPhone. She recently worked out a jazzy version of "Georgia on My Mind." Yesterday, someone posted to the Wanted area of the board a request for an arrangement of that tune. Great timing! She brings up the bulletin board, quickly scans to see if anyone else has posted a reply. So far, no one has. "Maybe mine will be the first," she thinks, realizing that by next week, dozens of arrangements of "Georgia" will have appeared. She invokes the Post function, and is presented with tour ways to submit an arrangement: 1) enter it in music notation or guitar tablature using an online music editor, 2) send synthesizer data in MIDI format, 3) tax either sheet music or tablature, or 4) play a recording of the tune into the telephone. The bulletin board system can convert submission forms I and 2 to any of the other forms, but can't convert forms 3 or 4. Julia doesn't read or write music notation and doesn't have the equipment needed to submit MIDI, but she wants people who do to try her arrangement, so she copies it from her handwritten tablature into the tablature editor. She also connects her cassette recorder to the OmniPhone and submits a recording she made of the tune so that subscribers who don't have MIDI can hear what her arrangement sounds like. She posts the arrangement, then checks back through the recent postings to see if anything interests her. Julia is amazed at how many new tunes she has learned since her husband signed her up for this service as a birthday present.

Vince has volunteered to organize his church's annual pot-luck picnic. Until a few years ago, he never volunteered for this, because it was a nightmare of meetings and telephone tag. Trying to get 250 people to agree on a date and place, arranging who would bring what dishes, getting picnic supplies, finding out who needed rides and who had extra car space, and forming a volunteer clean-up crew was more work than he had time for. But ever since the church information system went online in the town network (and the congregation bought InfoGizmos for members who couldn't afford them), the picnic organizing job had become easy. Vince first used the voting software the church had purchased to send everyone in the congregation an electronic ballot listing plausible picnic dates and asking them to mark all dates that worked for them. After checking the tally and noting that the minister couldn't attend the most popular date, Vince chose the second most popular. He posted a message announcing the date, suggesting some places, and requesting other ideas. After looking through the suggestions and eliminating some, he submitted the list for a vote, then chose the most popular location. Last week, to ensure a variety of dishes, solicit volunteers to buy the drinks and other supplies, and arrange carpooling, Vince had posted sign-up "sheets" (the same ones last year's organizer had used). Now, with the picnic a week away, Vince sits down at the church's computer to check the sign-up sheets. It looks as if most everything is covered, but a few key people haven't yet signed up. He sends email to Mrs. Arnold, who has a large van, saying that it would be helpful if she could give rides to some of the elderly members. He reminds the church teen group to bring sports equipment. He reminds Mr. Boghossian that without his famous baklava, the event won't live up to previous years. He tells Mrs. Hsieh that he's looking forward to her pot stickers. Now he remembers why he likes the picnic so much.

After a decade of working as a bank manager, Clarence has had enough of working for a big company. He wants to start his own business. His wife Shirley, who runs her own income tax filing service, has urged him to try to turn his hobby, coin collecting, into a business. "You have a great collection, coins you'd like to sell, and you're an expert at what coins are worth," she told him. "People are always asking you for advice. Sell your coins and your expertise." He was skeptical about there being enough coin collectors in the Houston area to provide much business. "Houston, schmouston! Go online!" Shirley said. "Use the information superhighway! People are starting hundreds of little businesses every day on it. Antique dealers, worm growers' newsletters, geneology services, you name it. There's a whole world of coin collectors out there. A lot of them have computers or into gadgets." "InfoGizmos," he corrected her. "Whatever! Show pictures of your coins, let 'em show you theirs, tell 'em what's good and what isn't. I'd put my tax business online, but I have more clients than I can handle already." It actually wasn't a bad idea, assuming that there weren't already too many coin catalogue and appraisal services on the network. Clarence used his computer to look up all the nationwide services that had to do with rare coins. He found nine. He then went to the Chamber of Commerce to find out what he needed to do to start a small online business. They told him he needed software to allow his computer to present information for others to access. Several different packages were available, all priced low enough to entice small entrepreneurs onto the network. Also, he needed electronic-funds-transter software so his customers could use encoded IDs in transactions, allowing him to do business with them but not share their identities with others. He bought a digital close-up camera for taking pictures of coins, and hired a software consultant for a month to set up his online catalogues and into bulletin board. The rest, he set up with Shirley's help. At this point, all he needs is a name for his business for the state application. "This whole thing was Shirley's idea." he thinks. "Maybe she can come up with a good name." "Use your name: coin collectors know that you know your stuff," she says. "How about C. Fowler, Rare Coins'?" Perfect.

The variety of uses that an NII designed mainly for communication and information access would have is nearly limitless. Ideas for additional uses include: Posting an opinion to a nationwide discussion group. Writing to an elected representative. Submitting testimony to a state government hearing from across the state. Reporting items to an online Lost and Found bulletin board. As a volunteer "Big Brother," using email to communicate with your assigned young friend. Finding a charitable organization to receive a donated item (computer, desk, surplus fruit from a backyard tree). Finding an auto mechanic in an unfamiliar city. Sharing recipes with other chefs. Seeking a support group for parents of Down's Syndrome children or women with breast cancer. Looking for a doctor, dentist, places to meet people, and so on in the new town you've just moved to. Looking up the side-effects of a medicine. Registering to vote. Registering your car. Voting from home.

The point of these scenarios is not to suggest that using the NII will always be positive and wonderful. Even if the NII is designed as the foregoing scenarios suggest, it will not be problem-tree. Some services will be poorly designed and difficult to use. It won't always be easy to find the ones you want. Access equipment won't always work. Some people will be overwhelmed with electronic mail, much of it unwantedd. People will send aggressive and insulting messages to each other over the network. People will post pornographic pictures and racist statements on bulletin boards. Unscrupulous people will try to use the NII to cheat others or gain unauthorized access to information. Network operators may read or censor private email between users. Handicapped people will find some of the network's services inaccessible. Companies and government agencies may use it to gather information about people or misuse information users give them. Effective policy and design can minimize some of these problems, but even a well-intentioned NII will not bring about Utopia.

The point of these scenarios is, rather, is to avoid a dystopia. an NII designed by big business mainly for mass-marketing, that treats us as targeted consumers rather than interconnected citizens, that shuts out small businesses and individual entrepreneurs, and that is evaluated solely in terms of corporate gain. As CPSR's policy paper says:

An imaginative view of the risks of an NII designed without sufficient attention to public-interest needs can be found in the modern genre of dystopian fiction known as "cyberpunk." Cyberpunk novelists depict a world in which a handful of multinational corporations have seized control, not only of the physical world, but of the virtual world of cyberspace. The middle class in these stories is sedated by a constant stream of mass-market entertainment that distracts them from the drudgery and powerlessness of their lives.
Such an outcome would very bad, both for the quality of our lives and for the future of our democracy. The foregoing scenarios aim to stimulate our imaginations to show that the NII can and should serve many goals besides those of "infotainment" and shopping.

I encourage readers to write their own scenarios, both positive and negative, of people using the NII. I invite you to take some of the brief ideas described above and flesh them out. Then inject your scenarios through letters to editors, articles, net-postings, and in-person discussions into the debate on what the NII can and should be.

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Serving the Community: A Public-Interest Vision of the National Information Infrastructure Fall 1993, Palo Alto, CA.

Fisher, Francis D. "What the Coming Telecommunications Infrastructure Could Mean to Our Family," Aspen Institute Quarterly Winter 1993, Vol 5, No. 1, pp. 121-141


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> Chicago, IL
> Pittsburgh, PA
> San Francisco Bay Area
> Seattle, WA
Why did you join CPSR?

To network and volunteer to support initiatives.