by John Gabree
John Gabree is editor of The Music Times. He uses an Osborne to write and produce movies.
Information gathering and exchange is, as William Rushton has said, "a foreign territory to most of the nation's planners." The federal government operates under communications laws passed in 1934, before most existing technology was even dreamed of, and state and local governments have failed to recognize that cable lines are the highways of the future. Now is the time to make public policy decisions that will affect the long-term health, safety and economic well-being of citizens as fully as public planning of housing or gas and electricity has in the past.
The Wired Community
Two years ago, I was appointed by the Santa Monica (California) City Council to its new Cable Communications Task Force. The old television cable system, pioneering by today's standards, is expected to be totally rebuilt with the franchise renewal scheduled for 1987. Our twelve-member group, made of up of ordinary citizens, was directed to study the cable industry and advise the council on the current and projected needs of the various segments of the community.
Home computer owners are now linked to vast caches of data in distant computers. Cable connections would make stored information available, presumably at much lower cost, to every wired home or "electronic cottage." A market survey conducted by our task force found a third of the people willing to pay extra dollars for enhanced financial services (compared, surprisingly, to only 5 percent who were interested in home safety devices connected by cable to a central alarm system). Another of our surveys indicated that by 1990 over a third of the homes in the country will receive some form of information wire.
The cable companies can choose to make available only those services that are most profitable to them. For example, a company might give a shop-at-home monopoly to one retailer or offer bank-at-home privileges from only one financial institution, thus limiting price and service competition. On the other hand, cable technology may be a key component in the information revolution. Still, home computers are too complicated for the simple tasks most people will assign to them, so it will take determined cooperation between businesses and cable operators if the home is to feel soon the full impact of the computer's potential.
The issues facing Santa Monica in the refranchising process had one thing in common: none was simple. Below are just some of the questions that must be answered if the maximum benefits from advances in cable and information technology are to be realized.
What uses would most benefit a municipality? The new capacity to store and communicate information makes possible a new era in government openness and responsiveness. And what is the proper role for the city in effecting the development and application of new technology? Unless we guarantee access, will not the cost of communications hardware lead to a further stratification of the information "rich" and "poor" and to an aggravation of the economic differences between the haves and have-nots in our society? Simple justice demands that citizens have universal access to the information system at affordable cost.
By itself, cable can be used to stitch together neighborhood communications networks. Connected to computers, a cable system can provide a conduit for government, education, library, travel and health services. In short, anyone attached to an interactive cable anywhere in the country could enjoy the advantages of an urban environment with none of the attendant urban problems.
Organized properly, moreover, the modern cable system could have a positive effect on the way government is conducted. Neighborhood associations, the business community, government bureaucracies and ordinary citizens would be able to communicate more expediently than ever before. With the help of the computer, television becomes more than the entertainer and passive oppressor that it has been throughout its history; it becomes an instrument for change.
Thus two-way cable could revolutionize the way we live. It will, for example, help reduce the cost of transportation in dollars, congestion and pollution. In fact, it already has. Every time someone watches a movie on Home Box Office instead of going out to the neighborhood theater, the cable has been substituted for the highway. Government and big business have begun to take advantage of computer and video conferencing via satellite to avoid the expenses of airline tickets and hotel rooms. The same benefits could be made available on a local level from any cable system with interactive capabilities.
Social cohesion, which depends in great measure on shared information and experience, is in danger of being shattered by the information revolution in that cable users will have direct control over the information they access, i.e., over their version of reality. If we are right that cable will be the instrument of systematic linking of electronic cottages, then the cable operators will have enormous ideological power as the "gatekeepers" of the information flow. By the same token, the biases of those who gather and administer the data banks will affect the way collective reality is defined.
Superficially, an enticing attribute of the electronic cottage is its potential to render political decision making more democratic. Electronic plebiscites enable pollsters, governments and so on to get an instant reading on the public's leanings. The likeliest outcome of cable voting is a reinforcement of the existing power structure, since both content and form of questions will be under its control. Although it might give some citizens the illusion of participation, the overall outcome could be to reduce the amount of public discussion and deliberation of political questions.
In recent experiments, some participants have admitted that they give false answers to electronic polls because they don't want "them" to know what they're thinking. And, of course, there's no way to know who is voting: it could be the same person voting twice or the four-year-old fooling with the keyboard. In addition, interactive services are usually expensive, so the results are skewed in favor of the economically advantaged subscriber. With cable penetration at less than 50 percent and interactive cable a paid service, government planning via cable becomes a new barrier to participation.
Bit Brother Is Watching
A worry expressed by the task force was that the electronic cottage will lead to a loss of freedom. We know that an enormous quantity of personal information is collected by the federal government in data banks belonging to, among others, the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, the Census Bureau, the Department of Defense, the FBI and the several internal security agencies. Many state and municipal governments have similar setups, especially for police and tax agencies. If all these data banks were linked together, which would be no great technical feat, little would be left of our vaunted freedoms.
There is no existing federal legislation to protect cable consumers from invasions of privacy. Some states, California among them, have rules providing limited protection, but the penalties are minimal, one has to know that a crime has been committed and somebody has to be willing to prosecute. The question arises about why cable companies are permitted to collect any information. Of what legitimate use is it?
And maybe it was because we were meeting by the beach in California, but some of us worried that there might be a danger in the computer's bias in favor of rational thinking at the expense of intuition and creativity. By working exclusively with formal symbols in a perfectly rational way, the computer strengthens analytic mental processes at the expense of those that are nonrational. In organizing human affairs, do we wish to introduce a mechanistic rationality into social relationships based more on feelings of identification, goodwill, and so on, than on rational examination and interpretation?
In more than a year of weekly meetings and study sessions, the questions and issues outlined above emerged as the most relevant and troublesome. Some will be resolved in the city franchise ordinance. Others might be addressed in state and federal regulations, if the pressure of lobbying and the flood of campaign contributions from the cable operators proves less than irresistible to legislators. In any event, the experience of Santa Monica and a few other cities has shown that complicated planning issues can be handled by committees made up of average citizens.
Return to Table of Contents | Previous Article | Next Article