Infobahn Blues

Since American Vice President Al Gore made his famous speech in California a couple of years ago, it has become impossible to scan any news medium without finding at least one reference to the "Information Superhighway". The Information Superhighway metaphor - specially tailored for Mr. Gore's California audience - is so brilliantly simplistic it seems to have blown the mind of every media editor in the Western Hemisphere. With an Information Superhighway you just plug in your modem and roll your data out onto the ramp and into the dataflow where it zips along the freeway until it hits the appropriate off-ramp. Finding data is the same - it's all nice straight data-lanes with on and off ramps and well-banked curves. You pick your way through the interchanges: just like L.A. commuting, only much more comfortable. The Superhighway metaphor does not threaten the status quo or challenge the prevailing ideologies as did "Cyberspace", that other, earlier, name for the 'net coined by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Cyberspace has no highways or interchanges or even directions, it is just a vast universe of connections in a multi-dimensional data-field. You can get lost in Cyberspace, it is dark and threatening and infested with spikey-haired hackers with dirty fingernails and shabby hardware. Cyberspace is infinite, chaotic and scary, while Mr. Gore's Superhighway is finite, linear and very familiar - at least to suburban Americans, who are, after all, his constituents. The Infobahn is driven by folks just like us. It is bright and sunny, with friendly groves of data stretching off into the distance on either side. The Superhighway metaphor tames Cyberspace, making it acceptable in the average American home, something the whole family can enjoy. The datamobile can be parked in the family garage. The Information Superhighway commodifies data - in the form of things like on-line video games, movies, mail-order catalogues - so that it can be marketed just like any other consumer product. Don't drive down to the mall, just call it up on the net.

It's all telephone, of course, and the Infobahn is just a broad-band version of the old-fashioned telephone. Not the de-regulated, digitized business tool but the telephone that was an open system, with party lines and nosey operators. We could call our era the "Telephone Era" or the 20th century the "Telephone Century" without much exaggeration. The telephone was, and still is, the only generally available, unprogrammed, participatory, personal and interactive communications medium - aside from face-to-face contact. Programmed broadcasting media like radio and television are universally available via satellite, microwave, or cable networks but they are one-way systems in which a commodity - information, entertainment, services - is distributed to a consuming, or potentially consuming, public. Feedback from these systems is in the form of the "body count" of viewers/listeners or in the analyses of sales figures for the advertised products. With the telephone, on the other hand, it is the service itself which is the commodity and the user supplies his or her own content: users communicate in a two-way exchange between equal partners. In this sense the telephone network is a public space, a meeting place open to all who have telephone access.

In this age of property-fetishism, the odd thing about "telephone space" is that nobody owns it - not the telephone companies, because they only provide the service, not governments, which merely meddle, snoop and regulate, nor the users, who simply take it for granted - like rain or electricity. And here lies the problem: public utilities or spaces are not amenable to policies of profit maximization. In a low-cost/low-quality two-way communications system like the telephone, value-added services are extremely limited and growth, in a saturated market like North America or Western Europe, has become sluggish. Most telephone users just want to talk to each other and send a few faxes back and forth. The cake is too small and, since de-regulation, the cake-eaters too many. The answer appears to be: increase bandwidth! Increased bandwidth allows telephone space to be appropriated for commercial propaganda; occupied by infotainment commodities; turned into a shopping mall. Increased bandwidth is not very interesting for those who simply want to talk to each other - and people who just want to talk to each other are even less interesting to the new telecom corporations whose profits will come mostly from the products and services they sell or rent online. What these corporations really want is interactive cable TV - with the interactivity restricted to on-line shopping, video games and pay-to-view movies - with the telephone thrown in as a give-away because it requires almost no space on the cable. The Infobahn in this definition is little more than a catalogue of products, services, information and entertainment that can be ordered or purchased and consumed online. Mr. Gore's Superhighway is really an electronic "Golden Mile," there to be cruised, like any suburban shopping strip, for entertainment, sex, fun and consumables.

In reality the Superhighway simply projects existing aspects of western social and cultural behaviour onto the new electronic communications systems. Its attraction as a metaphor is that it suggests that everything will be just like now but much much better; more convenient, more comfortable - more home entertainment, easier shopping, less commuting. The ubiquitous TV screens scattered about the average middle-class home will become windows into "Cyberspace" which has been paved over for convenient data-cruising. Office workers can download their daily tasks at the breakfast table and upload their day's work into the corporation mainframe at the end of 8 hours on the Infobahn - then flip into infotainment mode and surf 400 channels of consumdata. The network behind the flickering screen is there, like the labour-saving peripherals and hi-tech household appliances, for the sole purpose of making life more comfortable for post-industrial suburban mankind - and more profitable for the corporations. No notice is taken of the fact that, even now, most of the bandwidth of the new networks is being used by computers communicating with each other, completely independent of human "users", programmers or controllers - and the tendency is rising. The huge volume of data traffic between computers is already clogging the telephone system and the growth of computer communications - the Internet and other networks, on-line data banks, e-mail etc. - is clogging it more every day. Already in 1992 it was estimated that 50% of all telephone calls in the U.S.A. were made by computers exchanging data. A broadband high-speed network for communication between computers has become a neccessity, and the "Infobahn" is just a handy name for that network - a network of fiber-optic cable carrying large volumes of digital data at high speed between computers, using a standard protocol.

But Mr. Gore's linear Superhighway metaphor gets into trouble here too. A two-dimensional data flow-plan can look like a road map and road-like routes and junctions can be interpreted even in three-dimensional renderings of data hierarchies and search-paths, but it is clear that a "network" of connections, comprised of enormous quantities of data interacting simultaneously and at the speed of light, has little in common with a Superhighway - no matter how many lanes and levels and interchanges it has. The data network predicted by the introduction of broadband transmission systems is much better described by the non-linear notion of "Cyberspace" - an image of a multi-dimensional matrix of interwoven data, materialising and de-materialising almost randomly. It is hard to imagine being a "user" in such an environment, but it might be possible to be a participant or to be simply present.

The assumption imbedded in the Superhighway metaphor is that, in spite of the way so many aspects of our society and culture have been revolutionized by these new digital and communications technologies, nothing has really changed - and that the program of machine development is entirely for the benefit and convenience of the human "user". So not only does it fail to address the cultural ramifications of the new technologies, the Superhighway uncritically and opportunistically supports the master-servant relationship of man-machine. By treating the monitor/TV screen as the datamobile windshield and putting the human "user" in the driver's seat at the focal point of the network, the branching pathways of that specific user's interaction with the data-flow can be made to appear highway-like. But one is seldom alone online and each user has his or her own data-highway which, taken together, combine and recombine at every instant, creating an incalculable tangle of paths which cause data-space to be reconstructed, nano-second by nano-second, in response to "user" activity at the keyboard. If we locate the "user" in the center of the network and make the network a creation and servant of the "user" it implies that, should no "user" be active, the network is idling, doing maintenance-like things, waiting for someone to press a key, like an arcade game waiting for a coin in the slot. Which is, of course, absurd, because we also know that the computer networks control, with or without human presence, electric supplies, water supplies, transportations systems, inventories and accounting, telephone and communications networks, and the whole infrastructure of world finance - stock markets, insurance, and banking, not to mention government, corporate and military surveillance and control programs.

Absurdities and contradictions are the rule rather than the exception in the rhetoric of the new electronic media. The two-dimensional silliness of the Superhighway metaphor is minor compared, for example, to the arrogance of the pretense of a universal world-wide telephone network. Everyone really knows that no more than 10% of the world's population now have personal access to a telephone at home, and that, for most people alive today, a private telephone is an unimaginable luxury. But this knowledge has not prevented enormous amounts of money being invested in global telecommunications programs (mostly involving value-added services and peripherals) on the assumption that the telephone is already, for all intents and purposes, ubiquitous. Two realities appear to collide here: the reality of the planet and its actual inhabitants, and the reality of the virtual world of the communications infrastructure inhabited by users/consumers. Having no telephones and little purchasing power, the vast majority of humanity cannot achieve "user/consumer" status, except as consumers of the old movies and sitcoms rained down on them from the satellites. (Tuned in on the cheap radio and TV receivers which have replaced the bags of beads and bolts of cheap cloth that were used a century or two ago to buy the land and undermine the cultures of the new world.) But in our media-dominated culture the virtual reality of the television image is so powerful that "media-reality" is more real than actual experience and the majority of humanity is invisible, appearing only sporadically in connection with some natural catastrophe, war or revolution: when third-world events become "news" and other people's misery becomes a commodity for the infotainment media. The stupifying naivety of the technology-dazed but well-meaning, politically correct and liberal Internet user who believes that all problems will be solved when everyone is wired into the "World Wide Web" is symptomatic of the schizophrenia of (post-)modern media culture. When reading about or contemplating the amazing techno-future promised by the superhighway propagandists and cyber-industry barons it is wise to remember that it applies only to those of us with telephones, electronic gadgetry and purchasing power.

But the real conflict and confusion is in the ontological problem of the man-machine relationship. The history of the development of mechanical and electronic machinery is really the story of the development of metal or silicon "slaves" - obedient automata with super-human strength and endurance. In this context, for example, artificial intelligence and robotics research can be understood as a part of the age-old dream of creating autonomous humanoid servants. The computer itself is the result of such a program: to build obedient number-crunching auto-nerds to carry out the drudgery of complex mathematical calculations. Many scientists, theoreticians and researchers in the field of computer and robot development still believe that they are creating or dealing with prothesis-like electronic/mechanical devices - extensions of the human brain and body. In the same way that robots are usually portrayed as humanoid, (although our world is actually full of robotic devices which go mostly un-noticed because they are entirely unlike humans: the coffee-automat in the corridor, the thermostat on the central heating, the telephone answering machine) the human brain is usually the model invoked in most descriptions and explanations of what a truly interactive electronic ("neural") communications network might be like. The human brain is the only model of intelligence that we can recognize or respect even though the electronic devices which we have created, and to which much of the control of our most vital social, political and financial infrastructure has been delegated, seem to have an intelligence very different from the human model.

It is generally agreed among computer scientists that the human brain, or the brain of any animal for that matter, possesses a capacity for information processing far greater than that of any conceivable intelligent machine. But most of the power of the animal brain is dedicated to moving around in - and interacting with - the world, constantly processing enormous amounts of rapidly changing data in real time. Human intelligence is, unfortunately, also cluttered up with distracting things like angst, sex, pleasure, jealousy - not to mention families, games, careers and drugs. Computers, on the other hand, are largely indifferent to the world. Being mostly stationary, computers just sit and think: they process information gathered by mobile agents - such as people - who are good at moving around in the world, hunting and gathering data.

In some ways, therefore, the "slaves" are already being served by their masters. In fact the "slaves" have become so efficient in carrying out their delegated tasks that it is in our own interest to make them more "intelligent," more autonomous, so that we can delegate even more of the organizational drudgery to them. It is also in our interest to give the machines the capability of being able to detect and resist potentially damaging penetration by increasingly sophisticated and resourceful intruders, which means that they must be made, in a sense, conscious - if only at the level of an oyster.

If we want a model or metaphor for machine intelligence it must be looked for in places where data in an extremely simple form - as simple as digital code - is exchanged in networks linking immobile or barely mobile forms of life: in forests, shellfish colonies, ant hills. In a true network nothing moves. Once the data is in the network it is universally present - it does not travel anywhere and you don't travel anywhere to find it. This is what is so hard for mobile industrial cultures to understand and what is so exciting about the notion of Cyberspace. In Gibson's "Neuromancer" the protagonist "jacks in" to the net. He is not a user, he is not at the wheel of his datamobile speeding down the Infobahn - he simply disappears into the net and becomes a part of the data-flow.

Cyberspace is so different from the Superhighway because the element of human-centricity is missing or at least it is not in the foreground. You are not in control of Cyberspace, it is not there for your comfort and convenience, and no one is driving it. There is no suggestion in the notion of Cyberspace that, should human beings suddenly cease to exist - or destroy themselves in some nuclear folly - the network of machines that constitute Cyberspace would vanish with them. Cyberspace assumes that the machines we have built will soon, in some leap of almost magical synergy, break free of their creators to constitute, by means of the communications networks we are generously building for them, a universe or nature of an entirely new and different order.

Perhaps they already have.

Robert Adrian is a Canadian artist who has lived in Europe since 1960, and in Vienna since 1972. As a visual artist working in most media - sculpture, painting, video, photography and electronic art - he has been particularly active in the field of "Art and Telecommunications". This article will be published in German in the spring of 1995, in Medien und Oeffentlichkeit, edited by Rudolph Maresch.

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