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The Information Superhighway, or The Politics of a Metaphor

To understand the ideological battle going on in the term 'information highway' we need only press on it for a moment.
Zoe Druick

Issue #18, January 1995

The latest in technology is always the occasion of metaphysical voyages outwards in space but backward in time: a journey of restoration as much as of progress.
— James Carey
The concept of progress requires critical confrontation with real society.
— Theodor Adorno

There is no word or phrase indigenous to the bundle of new and converging technologies that have become as familiar to us over the past couple of years as the 'information superhighway.' This naming is an example of catachresis — the necessary use of a metaphor where no more accurate word exists. We have all been over-inundated with applications of this particular trope: we have heard about 'on-ramps' to the information highway, 'speed-bumps,' 'construction,' 'toll booths,' 'highwaymen,' 'hotels,' and the examples just keep coming. The metaphor seems to make immediate sense and it has quickly become taken for granted as an image of this new network. However, there are at least two things at stake in this seemingly self-evident use of language. One is the conflation of computer 'space' with material space. The other is the inscription onto this new set of technologies of a utopian narrative well-entrenched in the West: namely, progress and salvation through technology and transportation.

To understand the ideological battle going on in the word 'highway' we need only press on it for a moment. Highways are the new world paving its way towards the frontier. Highways are liberation, equality, mobility, autonomy, facility, connection, speed, direction, communication, excitement. The building of highways has been used for the past 150 years as a promise not only of greater mobility, autonomy and connection, but also of economic invigoration. During the post-War construction boom highways were laid through isolated, depressed areas with the slogan 'Roads Fight Blight.' Highways were to link rural areas to the city, thereby alleviating isolation by providing access to the city and simultaneously encouraging country people to stay in their communities. At the same time, highways were to link the newly built suburbs, or garden cities, to the industrial urban core. The irony in all this idealism around the highway is that we have all had the opposite experience: traffic jams, accidents, the disintegration of post-WW II infrastructures. The point is that the highway is part of a very old narrative of progress completely separate from our everyday experience of actually existing highways.

It is this narrative, naturalized and deeply embedded within our language that needs to be stirred up, its history made visible, so that we can assess the values at work in this seemingly common-sense use for the convergence of new computer technologies. Communication, both physical and technological, has long promised to bring about utopia, thereby facilitating the improved functioning of a spatially dispersed democracy. In 1834, Jefferson envisioned a network of highways to bring the city to the country and vice versa: new channels of communication will be opened between the states, the lines of separation will disappear, their interests will be identified and their union cemented by new and indestructible ties' (quoted in James Carey, Communication as Culture).

Almost a century and a half later in a collection on cyberspace we can read the following: A radical transformation of our conception of architecture and the public domain ... is implied by cyberspace. The notions of city, square, temple, institution, home, infrastructure are permanently extended. The city, traditionally the continuous city of physical proximity, becomes the discontinuous city of cultural and intellectual community (Michael Benedikt, ed. Cyberspace: First Steps).

The overwhelming similarity between these narratives of unity and emancipation based on technological developments is striking. More than anything, perhaps, their similarity emphasizes that narratives of emancipation remain static over time; by and large they merely re-present the existing social structure in a different technological guise. This reinscription of the present into 'the future' legitimates existing relations of power. The redeeming future be it heaven or the promised land thus serves as a regulating principle for actions today. A curious movement can be detected in the telos of progress. It would seem that the narrative is so contradictory, so far removed from actual experience, that its extremes meet. In the utopia of the official future that never arrives, highly technologized environments enhance the natural environment producing, as it were, paradise and utopia simultaneously.

The early rhetoric of transportation and roads was often about coming to the city and leaving again, thereby having access to both urban and rural worlds. In current writing about the information superhighway we are told that the computerization of everyday life will, in fact, bring about renewed corporeal awareness, less pollution, a healthier environment, more free time, and therefore more time to spend enjoying the outdoors. In the face of this absolute contradiction between high technology and the enhanced natural world, it is frightening to observe the enthusiasm with which some intellectuals and artists (not to mention governments, businesses and funding bodies) have recently embraced the notion of cyberspace. Even more striking, though perhaps not surprising, is the fact that these advocates unabashedly frame their excitement in the same old narrative of reason and transcendence: the promise of utopia. It is important to situate the introduction of this new technology historically. This narrative of progress through communication is being mobilized at the precise moment that the collapse of the promise of urbanization, industrialization and modernization is becoming impossible to disregard any longer. It can no longer be denied that the veneer of the secularized eschatological narrative of salvation through capitalism is wearing terribly thin. However rather than reassess this narrative, people stubbornly retain it and, for want of a better application, displace it onto a putatively non-material virtual reality. The only hitch in this new narrative of promise is that the electronic utopia is still regulated by material factors such as access to equipment and the use to which the technology is being put, not to mention its geo-political distribution.

One of the main mystifications of the 'heralding of the coming of the information superhighway' is the conceptualization of technology as a force outside of the social and political context in which decisions about its implementation are being made. In both the United States and Canada, for example, government regulations are actively paving the way for the convergence between otherwise antagonistic players in the communications sector such as phone, cable and television companies. Vice-President Gore earned his reputation as the superhighway VP with programmatic statements such as the following (taken from M. Mills, Clinton's Computer Highway to Spur Information Age. Congressional Quarterly #51). In the next decade it will be possible for an elementary school student to come home after class and instead of playing Nintendo, plug into the Library of Congress and explore an entire universe of information along a road map defined by that childs curiosity with the information appearing not only in the form of words but in the form of vivid, moving colored pictures precisely keyed to the subjects and questions of most interest to that student. [...] There will be many other developments that are currently invisible to us. Just as the development of the Interstate Highway System led to the creation of McDonald's hamburgers, Holiday Inn and a thousand other new commercial developments that would have been impossible without the Interstate Highway System, in the same way we will see the emergence of information services on a nationwide basis that will be extremely profitable and nearly ubiquitous.

The Clinton administration is thus taking an active role in both promoting the building of an electronic highway system and mobilizing public opinion to support the benefits that such national communication could bring; here in Canada, the government is following the American lead as usual. Despite all the promises and 'possibilities' being articulated onto this new communications infrastructure, all indicators about the actual implementation of this electronic infrastructure actually point away from the universality, equality and democracy promised by governments and academics alike. For example, we are told that democracy will become absolutely direct with people voting in plebiscites from their homes. A system called TV Answer is at the forefront of this direct democracy. Yet people can expect to pay $500 for the access to such a service, not to mention potential charges for each vote. Further, with the current proliferation of people using Internet and other similar electronic networks, pay-per-use will almost inevitably be introduced to generate capital for services in high demand. Moreover, only 13% of American households are currently equipped with a personal computer and modem: a small proportion of the first world, not to mention the so-called developing world. And, even projecting a huge upsurge in access, currently less than 1% of mankinds documented knowledge has been captured in digital form. So much for letting a child's imagination and curiosity design a road map: the data banks only provide a limited terrain to explore. Another promise of the information superhighway has to do with its electronic replacement of actions currently carried out in physical space. Examples range from shopping to education to medical examinations. There has been talk, too, about shifting office work to the home by hooking employees up to the office by modem and thereby replacing commuting with 'telecommuting.'

The significance of shifting these 'public' activities to the home and of using terms like telecommuting is that these metaphors of mobility and the public sphere mask the privatization and fixing in place that is actually occurring. Of course, it is easy enough to see the failure of the original 'Roads fight Blight' rhetoric of the highway itself. Cars, originally predicted to bring about the development of the decentralized garden city, have actually contributed to the creation of the sprawling cities we inhabit today. Rather than facilitate access to the pastoral suburb, the smog caused by cars and the relocation of industry onto cheaper land outside the city have brought about the degradation of massive quantities of once-arable land. Significantly, promised funding of physical road systems has been cut, thereby obstructing actual driving even as massive infrastructural funding has been allocated to electronic networks. Thus while our physical communication is being eroded and the environment degraded, 'virtual' electronic services are being held up as more efficient. The implications of this replacement of material space with 'improved' metaphorical electronic 'space' are hidden both by the use of a physical metaphor, and by its continuity with our culture's time-honoured metaphysics of salvation and progress.

This narrative of future betterment — be it through metaphysical salvation or technological extensions — is remarkable precisely because it remains expectant: it is perpetually anticipating a future that never arrives. What can be said, then, about this tenacious narrative? It is not my intent to sketch a dystopia onto these new technologies. On the contrary, a dystopia takes for granted the emerging developments as inevitable. I do, however, want to question the deeply ensconced narrative of progress that is our legacy in the West. Despite the atrocities endemic to modernity, throughout its reign there has been a sense that an impending future will redeem all the suffering and injustice of the present. As this future never comes, 'progress' must be recognized as an ideology that justifies the exploitation and inequality of the present. This metanarrative is very much still with us despite talk of its demise.

In his 1962 essay, Progress, Theodor Adorno suggests that the concept of progress can only be salvaged from ideology if it is disarticulated from the mere development of skills, knowledge and technology. Accordingly, the concept of progress requires critical confrontation with real society. Progress, then, would be perpetual resistance to that which merely is; hence his paradoxical dictum that progress only properly occurs where it ends. In other words, the storys end must not be assumed, must not be fully explained by the present. We must resist the implementation of the idea of the future operating beyond our perception like the invisible hand of Providence. In our societys assumption that technological dynamism will lead to social and moral betterment is the blindness that only perpetual movement can bring. However, perpetual movement and change cannot be equated with progress. As with the metaphor of telecommuting on the information superhighway, discourses of technological dynamism must be confronted with the immobilization actually occurring around us. While electronic networks certainly open up possibilities for the decentralized circulation of information, it does not follow that cyberspace and the information superhighway are going to ensure universal access, peace, democracy, equality or any other component of the Enlightenment humanist ideology. Not only does the rhetoric of the American Dream transpose itself neatly onto this new technology, but industry takes the information superhighway to be the palliative it needs to return America to the industrial paradise of the post-WW II boom.

The more people log on, the more dependent they become on a ream of costly new technological gadgetry, most of which is produced in the Third World, out of sight of the First World and, thereby, susceptible to the myth that the Information Age is post-industrial. Moreover, there is still a residue of the eschatological, promising that only the technologically saved will be saved, while the rest of the world (i.e. most of the world) will be consigned to the hell they deserve. It would not, then, seem wise to adopt this narrative, as so many people have done, either explicitly or implicitly. The narrative of progress and improvement emphatically does not describe our world; however its perpetual reinscription does contribute to the constitution of our cultural world view. We are currently at a point when the contradictions of our economy have become untenable: the environment, for example, cannot continue to absorb the hidden costs of capitalist production and sustain life on this planet. As the contradictions become ever-more apparent, the promotion of the virtual environment of cyber-, or controlled, space provides a respite from the physical realities. How better to avoid dealing with the disparities of the outside world than by retreating into a restricted-access space that insinuates itself into our understanding of our world by, among other things, the use of familiar metaphors? Cyberspace and the information superhighway that is being paved through it according to the interests of government and big business does not represent progress, the way of the future or any other characteristic of 'the new.' It is decidedly as old as the Western metanarrative of salvation and progress. If we can recognize the repetition of this metanarrative, unlock our eyes from the gaze to tomorrow and start addressing the present, only then may we have any hope at all for the future.

Zoe Druick is a Ph.D. student in the Graduate Programme of Social and Political Thought, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Copyright © by Zoe Druick 1995. All rights reserved.