Buxton, W. (1994). Social Planning and Communities Along the "Information Highway" , Interactivity, 1(1), 85-88. Also appears in

Buxton, W. (1994). Social planning and communities along the "Information Highway," InterCommunication, 10. Tokyo: NTT, 168-171.


Social planning and communities
the information highway

Bill Buxton
Alias | Wavefront Inc.
Original: Feb. 8, 1994
Minor revisions:  July 19, 1994

The "Information Super Highway!"  Not since the last constitutional debate has something concerning our future so dominated the media.  It's being discussed and explained on television, in magazines, newspapers, and on the radio.  The only thing that exceeds the number of outlets where it appears it is the diversity of the views and explanations "clarifying" what it is all about!

On the one hand, we have proponents telling us that it will help create jobs and wealth, while improving government, education, and health care.  On the other, we have the skeptics who, at best see 500 channels of "mind candy" pandering to couch potatoes, and at worst, see forces threatening privacy and freedom.  Each side, of course, dismisses the views of the other.

What follows could be described as yet another stab at clearing some of the fog and illumination of the future.  But the views that I am going to offer differ in that they fall into neither the cyberphilic nor the cyberphobic views characterized above.  And as will be explained in more detail below, my story may well be more reliable than most, since - along with my colleagues - I've been living on the highway for the past five years.  Unlike most, I speak from experience.  Let me, then, share with you some of what I've learned in the process.

A first step in navigating through the conflicting views of the so-called "Information Highway" is to recognize that this is not a story about technology, nor are the associated issues primarily ones for engineers, technologists or business.  Rather, it is a story about people and communities.  The issues are inherently social, and must be discussed as such if we are to avoid having, yet again,  the tail of technology wag the dog of society.

As Melvin Kranzberg has pointed out, technology itself is neither good nor bad.  But nor is it neutral!  It is how we design, manage and use it that makes the difference.  The effect that these emerging technologies will have in the future is a matter of the choices that we make today.  Such decisions must be made from the social perspective.  Without being overly dramatic, what we are doing is shaping social ecology in which our children will live.  This we must do with care.

But who is making these choices, which versions of the future should we believe, and how do we determine whom to trust?  First, let me emphasize the urgency of these questions.  The decisions that will shape this future are being made today, and because of the scale of the initiatives, once made, their very inertia will make it difficult to change them after the fact.  In simple terms, we are only going to get one kick at the can, and we'd better get it right the first time.  My view is that we are at great risk of not doing so.

While PR initiatives, such as the ITAC Conference in Toronto in early February, argue to the contrary, home shopping and the video store at the end of a wire are what are in the drivers seat.  Witness the "feeding frenzy" among media giants currently gracing the business pages.  Home shopping and video on demand have been described as "the Killer Applications" by none other than Ray Smith, head of Bell Atlantic (which is trying to gobble up everybody else in a monopolist Cornelius Vanderbilt kind of way).  To see the real priorities behind the hype, look where the money is going.  QVC (the home shopping channel) put in a bid of $10 billion (!) for Paramount (a rich library of video to sell/rent).  Now here's the kicker:  the interest for one day on this offer is more than the national annual investment in the human and social aspects of these technologies!  (And this is just one such mega-deal being played out.)  If one believes that applications, services and social issues should be of primary concern, then something is really out of proportion here.

People have reason to be concerned.  In both the US and Canada, government is increasingly taking a "we'll stand back and not get in the way" attitude towards the private sector.  (There are clear exceptions, but again, one has to view them in the context of the scale of other initiatives - remember the $10 billion QVC/Paramount deal is just one of many.  Unless carefully targeted, government and individual initiatives run the risk of being buried by these larger concerns.)

Recently, I listened with interest as the CBC's national phone-in show, Cross Country Checkup, asked Canadians, "Are you ready for the Information Highway."  On the one hand, I was struck by the number of people from all walks of life who  expressed how personal computers and networks, such as the Internet, had a positive effect on their lives.  This is as it should be.  However, this also gave me all the more cause for concern.  The reason is the apparent confusion by virtually all concerned - from the general public to the federal minister responsible - between the Internet and the electronic highway which is being deployed by such major players such as Bell South, MCI, and Rogers/Cantel.  Be clear about one thing:  the more you care about the community of the Internet, the more you should be concerned  about their version of the "Information Highway."  Some of the reasons for this are discussed in the accompanying sidebars to this article.

It is amazing the confidence with which people express their guesses as to the future as if they were facts.  Perhaps taking one too many Tony Robbins course has given them an inflated view of power of their own vision.  However, I'm a scientist, and I want something more.  The best that we get from those bidding the billions is a poll underwritten by MCI and dutifully reported by the Globe and Mail.  It attempts to allay our fears, and convince us that the highway really would be used for good and productive things.  The results of their questionnaire reported that only 24% of the public want the information highway for shopping and video on demand, and that the rest want it for applications such as education, medicine and social services.

Without getting into the issues such as who was asked, what knowledge they had of the technology and its options or what the questions were, the results of such "research" are about as reliable as if you had of asked the same people in January if they planned to lose 10 pounds after the holidays.  Feeble questionnaires, gut feelings, lobbyists, and futurist "gurus" (few of whom have any practical experience with either social science or living with such technologies) are not reliable sources for making such important decisions.

It is only by building the future and actually living in it that we can reliably understand it from the social or any other perspective.  And the only people who can give you reliable accounts of what it will be like are those who have done so.  At first glance, this may seem to provide little comfort.  This seems to say that we have to wait for the experiences of tomorrow to gain the insights needed to guide our decisions today.  But the sleight of hand that I want to play is to show that methods exist which enable us to live in the future yesterday so that we can engineer an appropriate future tomorrow.  How?  By adopting a human rather than technology centric view of research, and adopting what has been called a "Wizard of Oz" approach to research.  Let me explain this, using as an example the Ontario Telepresence Project, of which I am Scientific Director.

The Ontario Telepresence Project is a 3-year old joint academic, government and industry project directed at understanding the human and social components of the emerging networks, especially as concerns the office and collaborative work over distances.  It is an example of how, by using a "Wizard of Oz" approach, we can build working prototypes of different visions of the future and test them intensively.  Without apology, we build such futures using "smoke and mirrors."  As long as no "Totos" look behind the curtains and expose the illusion, we can learn a great deal by observing the "Dorothys" living in our prototype-supported community.  We study such usage in the laboratory, in our own community, and over the long term in selected "arms-length" organizations.  (The use of "smoke and mirrors" does not mean that our prototypes are either not useful or unreliable.)

In short, the best way to understand and responsibly engineer the electronic communities of tomorrow is to have lived in the future yesterday and to take advantage of what we learn in the process.  Unfortunately, our experience with the Internet and projects such as Telepresence are currently having far too little input into shaping the emerging future.  It's not too late, but there is real cause for concern.  Those with the biggest lobbyist budgets are not the ones who necessarily have the answers that are in the best interests of society as a whole.  A change in balance will only occur if there is a shift in priorities.  Research, such as that of the Telepresence Project and that which I am involved in at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, demonstrates that the social criteria for making appropriate decisions can be derived today, in time to support the decision-making process.  But this is a long way from saying that the relevant research has been done or is even planned.

By way of summary, I want to emphasize a few key points:

We have a real opportunity facing us.  However, there is a real chance that we will blow it.  If we do, it will be too bad - especially for our children.  The key message is this:  since the knowledge to get it right is available, if we do blow it, it will be our own fault - not technology's.



The Lie of the "Information Highway"
The term "Information Highway" is misleading at best.  First, it implies that what is being delivered is "information."  But information is that which informs, helps us learn and serves as the basis for decision making.  Information is not something that is spooned into us, or that we absorb like a sponge.  It is acquired through experience, experimentation, and - yes - mistakes.  From this perspective, what will be mainly available from the systems being deployed by the major cable and telephone companies hardly warrants the name "Information."  Second, this is no highway.  Rather, what is being proposed is a tollway, with all of the inhibitions to free exploration of the community that the term implies (and therein, by the way, lies the seed for destroying the culture of the Internet).  So let's not mince words:  what is being proposed is more honestly described as a "Data Tollway," not an "Information Highway."

"Interactive" Television?
Discussions of the new technologies are dominated by the term "Interactive Television," with implications that some great gateway to new beneficial services is being offered.  Such was the case last week in Toronto, when the US company Oracle showed what they are going to make available to "millions of homes" over the next year.  What was shown can best be described as "Telidon II", the sequel to that previous (and dubious) excursion into interactive TV.  The problem is the limited notion of "interaction" embodied in these systems.  It is a form of interaction that permits you to "select", not "create."  What this means is that you can choose among your 500 channels of TV, home shopping, etc., but you cannot create your own information.  It is simply a fancy remote control, which does little, if anything, to support notions such as distance learning, telemedicine, telecommuting, or the home information provider.

Interactive television is very different from broadcast televison.  By analogy, interactive television is to broadcast television what the telephone is to radio  (since the telephone is interactive audio, while radio is broadcast audio).  Any model of interactive television that does not acknowledge a change of paradigm of this magnitude is missing a large part of the potential of the technology.

The notion of interactive television being offered to the public is narrow, short sighted, and sells the public (and business) short.  To reap the true benefits of the technology, the second-rate interactivity offered by Oracle and its kind must be resisted.  We can and must do better.

Neighbours, Access and Privacy
Perhaps the issue of privacy is behind people's concerns about these technologies more than anything else.  I worry about the term, since it has a negative, paranoid connotation.  So to put things in a more positive perspective, let us talk about this concern as one of the individual's right to control their own "accessibility."  Unchecked, these technologies leave us open to massive electronic "junk mail" (written, voice and video).  As distance ceases to be the determining factor of who is a member of your immediate community - that is, when everybody is a "neighbour"  - how do you establish and maintain social distance when desired?  And how do we control access to the "data trail"  (as in "paper trail"), that traces all of our activities - a trail which is potentially ever easier to follow?

With planning, and assuming we understand the issues soon enough, there is cause to believe that such issues can be dealt with in a responsible way.  I believe that there are theree levels at which to address such issues.  First, the technology itself can have hooks built into it that provide control over some such concerns.  As a simple example, in my office, my door is hooked up so that when it is closed, incoming calls are blocked.  The same technology (the door) that discourages intrusion from unwanted physical visitors, also blocks electronic intrusions.  So, by appropriate design, one technology can address problems introduced by another.

But not all issues can be solved in the technology.  Sometimes, it is far more appropriate to have a "social" fix.  As we gain experience, we will adopt social mores that provide pressures that affect how we use technology.  For example,  experience with cellular phones is getting to that stage of maturity where it is largely unacceptable to have your phone on in a restaurant.  That is to say, we are learning when and how to use that most important control, the on/off switch.  By doing our homework, we can identify such problems before  releasing technologies onto the general public, and take steps to accelerate the adoption of socially appropriate conventions.  As a society, we shouldn't have to live though two years of intrusive, offensive or inappropriate use because the designers felt that the social component of technology was not their responsibility.  Given the means available today, there is no excuse for blindly throwing technology at society.  It is bad design, bad manners, and ultimately, bad business.

Finally, in some cases, social pressure itself is not sufficient to dictate appropriate behaviour and usage.  Clearly, certain things need to be "fixed" in law.  Look at the introduction of another technology:  the automobile.  Here is a deadly technology which is in mass circulation.  To reap the benefits and avoid the potential chaos that might otherwise result, there is a large body of legislation which controls its use.  As it is on the asphalt highway, so should it be on the electronic one.

However, before issues can be addressed by any of these three means - in the technology, by social convention, or by law - they must first be identified, and the appropriate means of addressing them determined.  For every issue that we are aware of, there are probably ten that we haven't recognized, and some of these may well dwarf the known ones in importance.   Before releasing these new technologies on the general public, the research to bring these issues to the surface must be undertaken.  My argument is that it is only by living in these worlds that the issues, their significance and their solutions wil arise.  Research that permits this in a controlled way must receive a far higher priority that it has been getting.

Universal Access or Haves and Have Nots?
Let us assume that the services and functions offered on the "Information Highway" are of value.  They help educate, generate jobs, improve the delivery of government services and make it easier to participate in society.  There seems to be general agreement that if we are not to have a group of disenfranchised citizens, then access to such systems must strive for universality.  Here again, however, it is critical to realize that the issue of access goes far beyond technology.  There are three criteria that must be met in order to achieve true access:  physical access, economic access and cognitive access.  If any one of these criteria is missing, the services provided by the technology is inaccessible and the would-be beneficiary becomes disenfranchised.

Physical accessibility is what we most think of when we think of access.  It involves the provision of the terminal equipment and the connection to the network.  It is the most likely to be provided (but not trivial to make universal).

Economic access is mentioned less often, but is critical.  One doesn't need a Ph.D. in communications theory or sociology to recognize that near universal affordable access to the telephone forms an important part of Canadian life.  So will it be with access to services on the emerging networks.  But who decides what is "affordable,"  and have those setting or regulating tariffs really done the research to understand the parameters of their decisions?  I think not.  Let me give a simple example that illustrates the importance of this issue.  Technologically, there is no significant difference between the telephone companies in Europe and Canada.  I can literally take my handset from Toronto, plug it in Paris, and it will work.  What is different, is that in Canada, I pay a monthly flat rate for local calls, whereas in Europe, I pay extra every time I make a call, and the amount increases by how long the call lasts.

The effect of this difference in charging structure is that the use of home computers and modems to connect to networks, such as the Internet, is practically non-existent in Europe, compared to North America.  In North America, from home the Internet is a "freeway."  In Europe, it is a "tollway."  Hence, not only do far fewer people use it, but those that do are at far less liberty to explore and wander around, getting to know the community and what it has to offer.

The reason that this should concern Canadians, especially those enamored by the Internet, is that with the changeover in technology in deploying the "information Highway" will come a switch to a tariffing structure much like the European model.  This is something that the North American phone companies have wanted for a long time, and may well be in the cards in the near future.  I'm not at all convinced that this is in anyone's long-term interest, including the phone company's.  It certainly does not auger well for universal access for citizens.

Finally, there is the most neglected, but perhaps most important aspect of access:  cognitive access.  What I mean by this is that it is not enough to have a terminal, network connection and economic means.  If you don't know how to use the system, you are just as cut off as you would be if you had no electricity.  In a society where people with Ph.D.'s have trouble dealing with the technological gadgets surrounding us, I really question the degree to which reasonable access can be provided within what might be called "the threshold of frustration," or the "complexity barrier."  This issue is amplified further, when we consider the additional problems of the aged, those with disabilities, or the six million Canadians who are functionally illiterate.

The bad news is that current practice provides little cause for optimism in terms of increasing the range of services and functionality that do fall within the threshold of human capability.  The good news is, however, that this is one area where Canada is a leader, and has the potential to make a real contribution.  Again, however, achieving this potential depends on making an adjustment in our priorities, and making a real investment in this area.  I believe that we can reap real benefits - social, cultural and economic - if we invest less in the study of asphalt that makes up the highway, and more on the controls of the vehicles that are to pass over it.  At the moment, however, things are greatly skewed in favour of the asphalt.  We, the public, should be concerned.

Electronic Gentrification
There is a side issue that emerges from the previous discussion of the Internet being transformed into a "tollway."  It is important to think of the Internet as a community, not a piece of technology.  As such, it is suceptible to many of the same social pressures and trends that occur in more conventional ones.  Of concern to me is the phenomenon of "gentrification,"  where the members of a community are displaced due to cost pressures deriving from more wealthy would-be occupants.

From a social perspective, the Internet, as we know it, is extremely vulnerable.  And if the current occupants are pusshed out, what will be the cost?  From a short-term economic perspective, one could argue, "but these people don't pay, or at least, don't pay enough.  Let market forces prevail and let's maximise profit.  After all, we have to recoup our investment."   However, I would argue that this is a poor argument from both a social andi an economic perspective.  The current Internet community is not a community of techno-welfare freeloaders.  Rather, it is a community of pioneers.  In technospeak, they are "early adopters."  They are largely knowledgable people who will put up with prototye systems and give valuable feedback on what works and where the "sweet spots" are.  In short, they are one of the most valuable assets that we have to help realize the potential of the technology.  They should be nurtured and listened to, not priced out of the market.

Two Sides of Work-at-Home
Let me finish with an example that highlights the two-sided nature of the arguments, and how appropriate design and usage can lead to true improvement in quality of life.  Take the example of the home office, facilitated by fax, computer, telephone, etc.  To many, this conjures up images of never being able to get away from work and work interfering with home life, for example.  Certainly these concerns are real, and work at home has to be carefully managed.  But let me give the counter-example.  Thirteen years ago, my first son was born.  What I did then, was add a second phone line to my house and bring a computer terminal and modem home, and set up a home office.  I then began to work at home two days a week, and my wife went back to work two days a week.  The net result was that the technology afforded my an experience unavailable to most North American men, that is, to share the role of primary care giver to their child.  First, this was one of the most valued experiences of my life.  But as an added benefit, it turned out that by working at home, I had the unexpected bonus of getting more work done than I did at the office.  It was a win-win situation that, without the technology, would have been impossible.

The first step to using technology to effect an improvement to our quality of life is to better understand what it is in life that we value.  I conclude as I started, stating that these are human and social issues, not ones of technology.  If we make the effort to contemplate and understand our social values and priorities, then we will have the raw data to ensure that the technology that we deploy works in their favour.  This time around, the tail of technology need not wag the dog of society.  We have a choice.  It is just a "simple" matter of priorities.

William Buxton is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto.  He  works half-time as scientific director of the Ontario Telepresence Project.   For the past five years, he has worked half time as a consulting research scientist at Xerox PARC, Palo Alto California.  He is now Principal Scientist - User Interface Research, at Alias Research Inc., a Toronto based company specializing in high end 3D graphics systems for the design and entertainment industries.  His background is in the arts (music), as well as technology.  He is deeply involved in studying human-technology interaction, and the social and behavioural issues surrounding these emerging technologies.

The Ontario Telepresence Project is unique in its multidisciplinary make-up.  It brings together a team made up of sociologists, cognitive psychologists, designers, artists, and - yes - engineers, to try and understand the social opportunities and implications of these new technologies.  It is a precompetitive research consortium with participation of industry, academia and government.  Their work is unique in that they truly have been building the future for the past 3 years - not only living in it themselves, but studying its human effects in diverse organizations.