Wired Words: Utopia, Revolution, and the History of Electronic Highways

Mark Surman <msurman@web.net>
Publications and Content Developer
Web Networks/NirvCentre


"Wired Words" explores our recurrent tendency to view emerging communications technologies as the ticket to a new era of democracy, activism, economic equality, and human-scale media. In particular, it compares the utopian visions of the "cable revolution" (1968-1974) with the excitement around the "information highway" (1992-1995). It also explores the possibility that the Internet is a wrench in this historical loop of technological utopianism. Finally, the paper outlines some of the ways in which history can point toward hard questions that might lead to real social change.

Here is a piece of advice -- beware of self-styled, wired revolutionaries bearing gifts. You probably know who I'm talking about. If you don't, you'll know them when you see them. They'll be carrying all sorts of shiny parcels with words like democracy, plenitude, equity, and knowledge emblazoned across the wrapping in big, fluorescent orange letters. They'll hand you the gifts of Christmas future while promising a return to the idyllic, utopian days of centuries past. They'll promptly inform you that all these gifts can be yours, free for the asking. All you have to do is believe that the "information highway" can magically cure the social ills that have plagued humanity for millennia. All you have to do is have faith!

Faith, revolution, and the wired world -- this is a combination that rules our popular mind in the mid-1990s. From Wired to Ladies Home Journal to The New York Times, there is a sense of consensus about the revolutionality of our technological times. Although we can't quite agree on what it is, many of us seem to be convinced that "the information highway" will somehow transform our society into a better place. Some think it will fix health care and education. Others argue that -- with enough wires, computers, and interactive television sets -- we can revive our ailing democracies. Still others propose an end to crime, a new age of entrepreneurism, or a revitalization of community life. But whatever we're saying, we're all talking about the same thing -- revolution. And talking about revolution feels real good.

Why is it that the idea of revolution feels so good? Well, utopia is just around the corner, for one thing. By employing all these computers, we'll be able to solve humanity's problems once and for all.

The idea of revolution also feels good because it gives us a sense of specialness, a sense that we're living through a unique moment in history. Grand technological revolutions don't come along every day, you know. If you look around at the information highway (or watch some of the corporate videos that explain what it's supposed to look like), you'll realize that we're living in the most special revolutionary moment since the age of Gutenberg. At least, that's how the story goes. Unfortunately, this warm, fuzzy special-moment-in-history feeling is in many ways the tip of a big pile of collective self-delusion.

You see, our information highway isn't really that revolutionary at all. It's just part of a historical loop that's been going on for at least 100 years. Every time a new electric communications technology comes along, we convince ourselves that we are in the middle of a communications revolution that is going to transport us to nirvana. In each new technology, we figure that we have found a magic wand that will save us all.

With every swell of the techno-revolutionary wave, there are at least three specific ideas that pop up: 1) that massive and positive social change will emerge from the introduction of a new communications technology; 2) that these changes will be caused by the inherent technical properties of the hardware; and 3) that the social revolution occurring as a result of the new technology is of a scale not seen for hundreds, or even thousands, of years.

The people who latch onto these three ideas -- let's call them utopian techno-revolutionaries -- figure they have found a way to turn water into wine, and cesspools into paradises. Whenever people like this find an instant route to utopia, they've just got to tell the world about it. They tell the media. They tell their families. They tell their colleagues. They tell their politicians. And so it is that the visions which have helped to define our thinking about electric technology -- the visions which fill our popular culture -- have been spellbound by the magic wand of technological revolution.

Of course electric communication technologies have transformed society. But the changes that have taken place over the years are neither isolated from each other nor driven solely by the nature of the hardware. Electricity, the light bulb, the telephone, radio, television, satellites, cable, computers, and computer networks all relate -- none is a revolution on its own. And the social changes that have taken place as these technologies have seeped into our lives have at least as much to do with how we've envisioned them, organized them, and reacted to them as they do with the machines themselves. There is an electric communications revolution. But it is a long revolution -- a revolution that started more than 100 years ago and that is not nearly over.

This is a revolution made up of people -- their visions, decisions, hopes, and fears. It is a revolution of openings and cracks where people can insert their own visions of communications and society. With this in mind, electric technology is a hotbed of opportunities. But to turn these opportunities into sustainable and equitable tools, we have to imagine them, work on them, and build them ourselves. Of course this is not the route that the utopian techno-revolutionaries would have you take. For them there is the obvious and almost predetermined flow of history that technology dictates. For them there is only hardware and paradise.

This paper is an exploration of one small section of the hardware and paradise loop which has defined our technological thinking throughout the electric age. It chronicles the words, images, and visions of utopia that emerged from the "cable revolution" of the 1970s and the "info highway" hype of the mid-1990s. Both eras demonstrate all the standard techno-revolutionary traits -- utopianism, a deep belief in the power of a new technology, and a lack of historical context. Both eras also use strikingly similar language and frame the issues in astonishingly similar ways.

Of course there are also differences between the two eras, the most significant being the emergence of the Internet. In many ways, the Internet exists as the arch enemy of the "information highway." It offers a real, working alternative to the top-down visions of a networked world offered by the cable and telephone companies. Those who saw hope in cable and other technologies did not have a parallel technological model as powerful and dug in as the Internet. Given this, the Internet may be a wrench in the historical loop of technological utopianism. We should take this possibility and run with it. On the other hand, we should be sure to keep our guard up and we should avoid repeating the mistakes of history.

Which is why this paper compares our current situation to the cable revolution of 25 years ago. It does this primarily by exploring the "keywords" that have appeared in both time periods. Each section looks at the repetition of words like highway, wired, revolution, bandwidth, flow, shopping, democracy, and politics in both eras. The paper pulls the words together by exploring both the political meaning of utopian technological revolutions and the imaginative tools which are necessary if we are to move beyond the politics of the electronic magic wand.

In looking at the popular culture of cable and the information highway, we see the utopian techno-revolutionaries in all their glory. We see that giving power over to the technology is the same as giving power over to the people who control the technology. We may even see that there is a little bit of the techno-revolutionary in all of us. Seeing this is one step toward smashing the magic wand of the digital revolution into billions of divisible, mutable pieces.

Brief history of cable

Before looking at the keywords of the historical loop, we should briefly review the history of cable television.

Cable television wasn't always the domain of daytime talk shows and fake news. It has lived many lives. It has been everything from a mundane system of television reception to an agent of democracy to a continent-wide religious phenomenon.

In its younger days, cable -- or community antenna television (CATV) as it was known then -- was used to bring broadcast television signals to communities with poor reception. From the 1940s to the 1960s, small time entrepreneurs would put aerials on the biggest hilltop they could find and then run wires to television-starved homes in the town below. Like the ISP explosion of the mid-1990s, this was a time when lone business people, with nothing but their own ingenuity and a little technical know-how, could strike it rich. It was the epitome of the American dream.

But as with all good small business ideas, the cable industry got a whole lot bigger real quick. By the late 1960s, modestly-sized startup corporations like Viacom and Teleprompter had started to buy up all the little "mom and pop" cable systems that dotted the countryside. While the broadcasting and telephone industries attempted to bar cable from urban areas, these stalling tactics didn't last for long. With promises of technological plenty for all, cable waded into the cites and began the consolidation and empire building.

As this small-time entrepreneurial industry was transformed into the corporate oligopoly we know today, a massive wave of excitement was building in the streets. Preachers, civil rights activists, bureaucrats, politicians, academics, journalists, and hippies all grabbed onto the idea that cable could be more than just television signals. (Streeter p. 181.) They saw the brave new world of the wired city. They envisioned ways that cable could serve their political and social goals. They started to view the cable industry as the underdog of the corporate world. As the cable fervor gathered steam, these ideas began to flood the media -- The Nation, Time, The New Republic, The New York Times, Financial Post, The Saturday Review, The Progressive, and Forbes all published articles on the wonders of cable. The "cable revolution" had begun.

The visions that cable advocates came up with in the late 1960s and early 1970s were almost always bigger, broader, and more bright-eyed than what we think of as cable today. Some envisioned two-way, switched common carrier information networks on which anyone could say their piece. Others saw an international network of networks made up of cable systems from around the world. Still others imagined a new world of home shopping, home voting, home banking, facsimile newspapers that would "roll off" a television set, movies-on-demand, electronic mail, interactive computer information services, and digital libraries. And because real two-way cable systems were actually up and running on a trial basis in a number of small American cities, many people believed that these services would be available within a few years. The cable revolution was a chance to grab hold of tomorrow today.

Cable became the magic wand of technological revolution and the utopian predictions started to flow. Cable would improve education, prevent crime and urban decay, break down social isolation, help people to communicate, and enhance democracy. The wire of the wired world quickly became a social elixir.

Of course not every cable advocate was a utopian techno-revolutionary with a hardware fetish. There were some who talked about the importance of system design, regulatory visions, software, the mixing of technologies -- all the variables that people control when they define what a technological system really means. There were also people who had very specific ideas about how to build community on the wires. They wanted to build community-access channels -- spaces on the cable system where anyone could air their own TV show. And they did.

In building community channels, public access activists did something that utopian techno-revolutionaries never do -- they tried to turn the real power structures of communication upside down. Instead of believing that cable would magically deliver democracy to the masses, they demanded and built democratic spaces within North America's cable systems. They helped TV consumers become TV producers. They made cable companies pay for community channels -- the public parks of the cable world -- instead of leaving public space to be ignored by the free market. They built a many-to-many medium from the raw material of one-way television. Although public access advocates didn't overthrow Hollywood, they did create space for people-based communications inside a system that would otherwise have had none.

But despite the utopian predictions of well meaning cable advocates -- and despite the hard work of those who pushed for community television -- a cabled utopia never emerged. As Thomas Streeter says, cable "is the story of repeated high hopes followed by repeated disappointments. Cable was to be interactive; instead it was just one-way as its predecessors. Cable was to end the television oligopoly; instead it provided an area for the development of new oligopolies. Cable was to cure social ills. Instead, it at best distracts from those ills." (Streeter, p. 195). The techno-revolutionaries dreamed of a cabled utopia. All they got was a whole lot more television.


More than 20 years before Al Gore became Vice President of the United States, Americans were already talking with great excitement about electronic highways. They spun visions of a wired nation -- a place where everyone could vote, shop, or pontificate from the comfort of their own home. They saw hope and possibility flowering from a garden of copper and plastic. They felt like they were living through the most significant technological revolution since the days of Gutenberg. The year was 1970. The electronic highway that they were so keen about was cable television.

Amid the thousands of people who spent their days proselytizing about the wonders of cable was a man named Ralph Lee Smith. Smith was a political journalist and Ph.D. student at Columbia. He was also the person who was instrumental in pulling together words like electronic, wired, and highway.

In the May 18, 1970 issue of The Nation, Smith wrote an article entitled "The Wired Nation." The article outlined the technical wonders of cable, the services we could all expect once the wires came to our house, and the David and Goliath rivalry between the cable and telephone industries. Near the end of the article, Smith laid out his vision of a nation linked by electronic highways: "In the 1960s, the nation provided large federal subsidies for a new interstate highway system to facilitate and modernize the flow of automotive traffic in the United States. In the 1970s it should make a similar national commitment for an electronic highway system, to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas." (Smith 1970, page 602) As Al Gore's speech writers would two decades later, Smith realized that using the mythical power of the automobile was a great way to sell Americans on the wonders of a new technology.

As the excitement about a cable revolution built, the metaphors used in Smith's article and others like him spread like wildfire. Talk of wired cities, wired nations, and wired worlds started to pop up everywhere from Radical Software (Radical Software was a magazine devoted to alternative video culture. One of its major themes was cable.) to The New Republic. A March, 1972 issue of Canada's Financial Post included a special "Wired World" section which discussed the unprecedented changes that cable and related technologies would bring to our lives. Talk of communications superhighways and information railroads sprang from the mouths of civil rights activists and journalists alike. (Oppenheim p. 46 and Head p. 28) "Wired" and "highway" had become central metaphors in the cable revolution.

Not surprisingly, the language of the wired world and the electronic highway reemerged in the early part of the 1990s. Magazine racks and TV screens filled up with news about the "new" highway. Headlines screamed "Welcome to the Highway of Hope" and "The Info Highway: Bringing a Revolution in Entertainment, News and Communication." (Globe and Mail, May 13, 1994, cover and Time, April 12, 1993, cover.) Conferences were organized to talk about wired cities, and the most popular, profitable, new magazine of the era was just, well, Wired.

With the reemergence of words like "wired" and "highway," we see both the historical loop and the lack of historical context that pervades the world of techno-revolutionaries. In terms of the 1990s highway metaphor, it is a matter of asserted assumption that it was invented sometime around 1992. In the New York Times Magazine, Paul Keegan refers to 1990 - twenty years after Smith's article--as a time when "the term 'information highway' doesn't even exist." (Keegan p. 38). An article in Wired talks about the 1970s as a time "when only geeks had computers and highways were strictly for cars." (Wired 3.02 p. 152) The implication is that the words are new, the technology is new, the revolution is new. But as we see with the wired and highway metaphors, the more techno-revolutionaries think things have changed, the more they have actually stayed the same.


The techno-revolutionary feeling is all about the overwhelming importance of "now." It's pretty easy to convince people to get excited about a technology that will make them into significant participants in history. You just fire up some inspiring rhetoric about how this is the most important moment since the invention of telephones, steam, printing, writing, or fire. From there, you spin off a few ditties about how profound -- and positive -- the revolutionary change will be. This is the formula for a popular culture techno-revolution. And this is what we've seen with cable, the information highway, and many other moments of electrical hype.

The cable-as-revolution soundbites came from all directions. A 1969 report filed with the FCC stated that the "mushrooming growth in available information (via cable) is bringing about a revolution that will produce a profound change in the way society is structured and the way we live." (Streeter p. 533) Similarly, ACLU cable advocate Jerrold R. Oppenheim wrote in 1972: "The technology of CATV (cable) is so innovative that it may totally alter your lifestyle." (Oppenheim, 1972.) In a 1973 speech to the San Francisco Society of Security Analysts, cable executive William J. Bresnan came right out and named it -- his speech was entitled "The Cable Revolution" (Bresnan). And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of other authors, advocates, and activists were walking around North America talking about the revolutionary powers of cable.

Of course, the cable revolution wouldn't have been complete with out a little of that special-moment-in-history feeling. The proliferation of cable was regularly compared to the invention of the telephone, the industrial revolution, and the age of Gutenberg. (Streeter p. 178.) Looking back over twenty years of more sitcoms, more movies and -- recently -- more home shopping channels, it is hard to imagine that so many people could believe so strongly that the proliferation of cable could transform our lives and create utopia. It is hard to believe that they saw cable as a revolution of Gutenbergian proportions. But they did.

And so do many people in the 1990s. That is, they believe that their technology -- what has been called the information highway -- will redeem society. They believe they're living through "once every 500 years revolution." (Keegan p. 40) The ubiquitous talk of digital revolution which fills newspapers and TV programs echoes the hopefulness that drove cable activists in the 1970s. We see lines like: "Everything has changed in the Wired World: technology has reinvented how we live, work and play" and "We are in the midst of sweeping technological changes that will affect our lives even more than the industrial revolution." (Globe and Mail Information Highway supplement, May 1995, cover, and Futurescape, p. C4.)

But the techno-revolutionary ante has also been upped since the 1970s. Bigger and broader revolutionary visions are needed to convince people of the momentous changes that are going on. In the first issue of Wired, publisher Louis Rosetto related the Digital Revolution to "...social changes so profound their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire." (Wired 1.1, p.10.) In typical Wired style, Rosetto had to prove that his revolution was bigger, better, and cooler than anyone else's.


Someone keeps building bigger, faster, wider highways on this continent. They seem to think it will make life better in some way. And so it is too with information. An idea keeps popping up that the bigger our highways of information, the better life gets. In the 1970s, 30 or 40 television channels was all it would take to change the world. In the early 1990s, people seemed to need 500 channels. No matter what we do, we always seem to crave more bandwidth.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, North Americans received very few TV channels. The three American networks. The CBC if you lived in Canada. Maybe an NEA (the forerunner of PBS) or independent channel if you lived in a big American city. No matter what the case, the pickin's were slim and the slimness of the pickin's made many people angry. A lot of the people who took the time to be angry saw bandwidth as the cause of their frustrations. If there was just room for more channels, they'd say, all the injustice and lack of diversity and blandness that made up television would go away. For these people, cable was a messiah.

The narrowness of over-the-air bandwidth was literally seen as a form of "tyranny." (Head p. 28.) In a Saturday Review article entitled "Asleep at the Switch of the Wired City," ex-CBS news president Fred Friendly chastised those who chastised television. It wasn't that Friendly liked the way the networks provided a narrow range of homogeneous feeling culture. Rather, he just wanted to point out that this cultural narrowness arose from narrowness of bandwidth. Friendly proposed a wired city whose homes would be filled with "forty picture channels, several digital display screens, virtually unlimited stereo music positions, (and) a facsimile newspaper." (Friendly p. 58.) Such a system would provide the channels needed for cultural diversity and creative expression. Wider bandwidth meant wider culture.

A 1970 issue of Radical Software included video artist Nam June Paik's vision of the kind of televised diversity one could hope for in a broadband world. His article -- entitled "Utopian Laser TV Station" -- starts out with the statement that "very very very high frequency oscillation of laser will enable us to afford thousands of large and small TV stations. This will free us from the monopoly of a few commercial TV channels." (Paik, pages unnumbered.) Once freed from this monopoly, anything and everything we ever wanted to see would start to fill the boob tube. The rest of the article -- Paik's planned viewing schedule for March 1, 1996 -- is evidence of this. Sitting back on his couch, Paik would be watching chess lessons with Marcel Duchamp, the confessions of a topless cellist, a symposium of modern platonism, and a midnight editorial on art and politics. Although Paik's viewing list was meant to be fantastical, cable advocates really did believe that more channels would lead to a substantially different kind of television. Although daytime talk shows and fake TV news probably wouldn't have emerged without the extra bandwidth of cable, the 50 channels I have in my living room really haven't changed the world.

And since 50 channels haven't made a difference, we might as well try to save the world again by building 500. Or so the information highway advocates of the early 1990s argued. Time's first major info highway article talked with glee about the mega-channel systems that were already being built -- 150 channels from a pizza sized satellite, 150 channels by cable in Queens, New York, 540 channels just around the bend from TCI (Elmer-Dewitt, p. 50). In the early 1990s, the words "information highway" became synonymous with the phrase "500 channel universe." More channels again became the reason to believe in technological revolution.

There is an additional facet to the 1990s discussion of bandwidth. To many, the amount of bandwidth required to deliver all of the other services envisioned for the commercial information highway meant that smaller, narrower networks of information would have to be crushed and replaced. There was a feeling of consensus that the information highway was going to be built by private hands and that it was going to be driven by video services. (Kapor p. 54.) This being the case, there is no place for slow little networks like the Internet. Early on in the discussion, Newsweek boldly stated that the information highway "is expected to supplant the present computer web known as the Internet." (Schwartz, p. 56.) In this statement lies a major difference between the 50 and 500 channel dreams. The corporate visionaries of the 500 channel age have to live with people who have already experienced the Internet. And Internet users knew through experience that 500 channels flowing from network headquarters could never touch the power of a single channel flowing from the back of a computer to anywhere where else in the world.


In preparation for his documentary on the television revolution, Moses Znaimer came out with his very own "Ten Commandments of Television." The second commandment states: "The true nature of television is flow, not show." The question remains: flow between what and what? Between television and more television? Although television may swirl around into itself, it ultimately only flows in one direction -- from the rubber stamps of people like Znaimer into our living rooms. Both cable and the information highway were supposed to change all this. They were supposed to make flow a two-way thing.

In the age of the info highway revolution, it is an article of faith that whatever systems we build should and will allow for a two-way flow of data. Whether we use our wired world for shopping, watching movies, or publishing our own electronic 'zines, we will all need to put some amount of information into the system. There is much debate (although not nearly enough in the places that matter) about what two-way systems will look like. People who know the Internet and advocate it as a model for future networks -- even if they are built by cable or telephone companies -- figure that there should be enough outgoing bandwidth for people to create content and participate in a networked society. People who run the cable and telephone companies which are going to build broadband networks across the planet think that there only needs to be enough bandwidth leaving the home or office to send a credit card number or a pulse saying "Yes, I would like to buy that expensive car." But despite this disagreement, there seems to be consensus that we are going to build a whole bunch of networks with two-way capacity.

At the peak of the information highway hype, there was a feeling that broadband, two-way networks are only a few months, or maybe even days, from emerging as a reality. In 1993, a Time magazine article on this info highway stated: "Suddenly the brave new world of video phones and smart TVS that futurists have been predicting is not years away, but months." (Elmer-Dewitt p. 49.) The same article stressed that America's biggest cable companies would be building two-way systems for the "post-channel" world within a year or two. It wasn't just that two-way systems would arrive some day, it's that they a were on our doorstep.

It's interesting to note that the same feeling that two-way networks were just around the corner also filled the air in the 1970s. Predictions about how quickly two-way systems could be built came fast and furious. In a 1972 issue of The Financial Post, Canadian cable mogul Ted Rogers stated: "I'm a great believer in two-way services. ... I would say we would have (them) within two or three years." (Financial Post, p. 18.) This kind of prediction was typical of cable executives and media pundits of the time.

The reason that many people have gotten excited about two-way networks is that they could help us to dump Znaimer's definition of flow as something that swirls around inside the closed world of professional television production. Two-way systems could help us to be producers, as well as consumers, of information. They could help us to initiate input as well as receive output. They could help us to communicate. In the early 1970s, FCC chair Nicholas Johnson wrote a book entitled How to Talk Back to Your Television Set . It suggested that one of the best ways that people could talk back to the boob tube -- could help define what TV was about -- would be over two-way cable. For many, talking back to TV became the raison d'être of the rush to wire the nation.

But there was also another reason that the concept of two-way cable was so popular -- some people thought they could make a lot of money on it. They thought they could use it for home shopping and pay-TV on demand. Given the predictions that were flying about, it's little wonder they thought this. A 1972 report from the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy estimated that revenues from two-way cable would reach $99 million by 1980, $3.8 billion by 1984, and over $19 billion by 1989. (Bresnan p. 448.) One cable executive was quoted as saying that 80 percent of all cable revenues would be from two-way services by 1992. (Oppenheim, 1972 p.4.) The people who believed in the revolutionary money-making power of cable couldn't have given a damn about people who wanted to talk to their television sets, but they liked the idea of two-way technology just the same.

It's important to note that people's excitement about two-way systems, and their belief that they would arrive so soon, was not unfounded. Two-way, switched cable systems where subscribers could request a variety of information on demand were actually up and running in the early 1970s. (Oppenheim, 1972, p. 10.) But the business and political environment was not ripe for a large-scale expansion of two-way cable. Some systems were built -- and continued to be built into the 1980s. But the cable industry realized that two-way systems would cost more and make less than they had predicted. In addition, the "talk back to you TV set" crowd was advocating that cable operators be regulated common carriers, meaning they would be forced to sell bandwidth to anyone who wanted it. This didn't jive with the cable mindset. So, despite the technical feasibility of two-way systems, cable operators decided it was easier to make money by dumping a ton of one-way TV signals into our homes. So they did.

As cable and telephone redesign their networks to become two-way, broadband information highways in the 1990s, it's likely that the ease of making money will continue to be the primary design principle. A recent Canadian Business article entitled "Talking Back to the Boob Tube" foreshadows this fate. (Barlow pp. 46 - 53) The article describes a system called UBI (Universal, Bidirectional, Interactive) which is being built by Canadian cable giant Videotron. Beside the article's opening text is a full page picture of the perfect baby boom nuclear family huddled around a television. On the screen is Videotron CEO Andre Chagnon. The picture points directly to UBI's true nature. Like most other experimental two-way systems being developed by big cable companies, UBI allows you to do little more than enter your credit card number when you feel like talking back to you television. In other words, it's just like watching TV in the 1950s, except you don't have to go to the store for the things you see advertised. Systems like UBI are one-way wolves in two-way sheep's clothing.


For a couple of super-duper revolutionary technologies, the services that have been envisioned for cable and the information highway are pretty uninspiringly unrevolutionary. Sure, some people know that two-way networks are an excellent way to give people a creative and political outlet. But -- in both the 1970s and the 1990s -- many of the people who sat down to write about such things couldn't think of anything better to do in a wired world than shop.

In his 1973 "Cable Revolution" speech, William J. Bresnan said "cable will become, in effect, an all-purpose credit card. ... Think about the new vistas that this will open up to your wives. Better yet, don't think about it." (Bresnan p. 447) The idea, it seems, was to build an electronic version of the Leave it to Beaver utopian suburbs -- whitewashed sexist social relations and all.

Of course tele-shopping is only one example of the standard suite of services that were envisioned for cable. But most of the other services -- newspapers that "roll off" your television set, movies-on-demand, and home banking to name a few -- were also of a passive, consumption-based nature. (Radical Software volume one, number 2 and Smith 1972 p. 2.) Of course there were plans for services like home voting and remote access to public libraries. But these concepts were almost always overshadowed by an overwhelming excitement about the revolutionary potential of shopping at home.

The same pattern emerged when the info highway hype swung into full gear in 1992 and 1993. Despite some talk of the civic good, most journalists and pundits were going ga-ga over all the nifty things that we could buy once we had built malls in cyberspace. A "map" from Time's first cover story on the info highway is an excellent illustration of this. The first page of the map shows all of the people and organizations who will provide content on the information highway -- TV networks, record companies, interactive shopping channels, banks, and many others. The second page of the map shows all of the nifty services that the content providers will be delivering in the post-revolutionary age. Peppy little blurbs describe what you'll be able to do with these services -- "View merchandise and place an order -- all by remote control" and "Track stocks, transfer funds, and figure out how to pay for all this stuff." All of the links between items on the map include big, one-way arrows indicating a tidal wave of information flowing from the studios of content producers to the homes of consumers. (Time, 1993 pp. 50-54.)

It's not that virtual shopping is, in and of itself, a bad idea. There are times it would be nice to pick up a new modem or motorcycle or meatloaf without having to leave home. It's that shopping and other kinds of consumerism are so central to the way cable and the information highway have been envisioned. This being the case, people who design the technical systems which make up the information highway will be thinking about how to deliver transactional services. But it's likely that they will not be thinking about systems design that lends itself to everyone being a producer and a consumer, or to interaction with other human beings on a substantive level (as opposed to interaction with catalogs and video servers).

One can already see this in some of the "trial" information highways that have been built. Take the UBI system in Quebec as an example. The technical design of the system focuses almost totally on information and product consumption and provides little room for subscribers who want to put information into the system. There is enough outgoing bandwidth for subscribers to provide a credit card number or request a pizza, but not enough for them to upload their own information for use by other subscribers or the system as a whole. The reason for this is that UBI has been primarily envisioned as a consumption tool rather than a communication system. In Videotron's promotional brochure, UBI is divided into two types of service -- video (pay-per-view television) and transactional (shopping and advertising). Since the designers of UBI didn't think people would want to do anything other than shop and watch TV, they didn't build the potential for other functions into the system.

Both Time's map (a fictional information highway) and UBI (a real, up and running system) are focused almost solely on consumption. They both take two-way, interactive technology and turn it into a one-way system with a fancy channel changer and credit card slot. Most importantly, they both duplicate the creative and economic power relationships that already define our society. We already get our movies, clothes, financial services and almost everything else from the companies that are on the content provider end of the wire. Electronically accessing the products that these companies sell may be nifty, but a once-in-500-years revolution it does not make.


Renewed democracy is one of the central promises in almost every technological revolution. New technologies are often connected to a mythical time when everyone had real and substantive opportunities to participate in civic life. Images of the golden age of American democracy are conjured up. The ghosts of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine are revived. Visions of electronic town hall meeting and a new age of conversation are laid out. The new technology becomes synonymous with the democratic past.

In terms of the cable era, the opening of Chuck Anderson's book Video Power is a good example of the technology-equals-democracy vision. The book laments the loss of active democratic dialogue that Americans supposedly had before they moved to cities too big for the town hall meeting. But in cable, Anderson saw a solution. "By using the television set that is in everyone's living room as a forum for community self expression, we may be able to revitalize the democratic dialogue." (Anderson, pp. 11-13) Many others echoed Anderson's vision. At a 1971 Congressional committee hearing, Americans for Democratic Action argued that cable provided a chance to "regain our constitutional heritage of freedom of communication." (Oppenheim, 1972, pp. 4-5) Plainly enough, cable was the democratic savior.

Similar connections have been made between the information highway and early American democracy. In an Wired article on the use of the Internet by the White House, a government official said: "The prevailing view at the AI Lab is that control by the mass media over all things political is coming to an end. In its place will be a back-to-basics Jeffersonian conversation among the citizenry." (Schwartz, 1994 p. 92.) As soon as we get rid of the mass media -- the certainty of which is an article of faith with information highway revolutionaries -- we will automatically enter a new age of classical democracy.

A similar argument is made in a 1995 Wired article that named Thomas Paine as the philosophical father of the Internet. The article's basic premise is that Paine's era -- like the age of the Internet -- was a time of individually controlled media. Technological changes wiped out the likes of Paine and paved the way for evil mass media corporations. But there is hope. According to the article, "media history is being reversed. With computers and modems, individuals are flowing back in." (Katz, p. 156)

Both the cable and information highway visions of renewed democracy rely on a particular view of communications history. In this view, there was an active "public sphere" supported by pamphleteering, soapbox speeches, the town hall meeting, and cafe culture when America was founded. Over time, technological changes, economic shifts, and urbanization eroded the vibrancy of the public sphere. Now that we are stuck in an age of communications tyranny, it is argued, we just need to find the right technology to rebuild the public sphere. Jon Katz writes: "If Paine's vision was aborted by the new technologies of the last century, newer technology has brought his vision full circle." (Katz p. 154) While it is important to envision a renewed public sphere, believing that we can fix the problem by magically waving a wire or a modem at it is ridiculous.


Politics is a pain in the butt. That's why most people don't like politics. They'd rather be playing baseball or watching TV or gardening. So it's not surprising that techno-revolutionaries throughout the ages have proposed an end to politics. From the invention of electricity onward, many people have proposed that their favorite technology would make life so good, would create so much wealth and plenty, that politics would become unnecessary.

In discussing the early history of electricity, Carolyn Marvin writes: "the defenders claimed that electricity was unprecedentedly revolutionary because electrical prosperity would end politics, conceived as the struggle of groups over scarce resources. The social architecture of the future was detached from every suggestion of political upheaval. The introduction of electricity was seen to have no political consequences, no winners or losers of power, or winners called to account for abuses of power, since politics would exist no more. The ominous meaning of the term revolutionary was thus neatly transformed and appropriated." (Marvin p. 206). The zealots of the cable and information highway revolution often make this same argument--once technology reaches a certain point, the state will wither away.

In 1971, the Raindance Corporation -- a group of portable video activists and publishers of the magazine Radical Software -- put out a book called Guerrilla Television. A third of the way through the book, there is a chapter entitled "Death of Politics." Although it is not the central point of the whole book, the time is still taken to point out that -- if we apply cable, video, and other technologies in the right way -- we will cause the end of politics. (Shamberg pp. 29 - 30) In talking about the death of politics, Michael Shamberg -- the book's primary author -- describes an anarchist, hippie, do-your-own-thing kind of world. Brought on by information technology, this new world of ultimate freedom would eliminate the need for oppressive state bureaucracies and boring, leftist, radical politicos. Mocking the campus Maoists who were his contemporaries, Shamberg wrote: "In cybernetic culture, power grows from computer print-outs, not the barrel of a gun." (Shamberg p. 30.)

The end of politics is a theme that reemerges in the 1990s with the discussion of the information highway, but on a very different and much more widespread level. This time around, the end of politics is about the relationship between information technology and the evolution of capitalism to a state of ultimate purity. With the help of information technology, capitalism has ended all injustice and created a world where we are all equally free to pursue life as entrepreneurs. Since injustice is gone, the state is superfluous and will crumble under the weight of its own uselessness. Or so the argument goes.

Wired is an excellent place to find this end of politics" vision. It underlies almost everything they do and write. From flippant comments about a world "beyond politics" and "the end of what used to be called the class struggle" to an active anti-regulations-on-anything editorial stance, Wired hates government. (Keegan p. 39 and Peppers & Rogers p. 108.) In this view there are only two extremes -- evil-socialist-like-economy-destroying government and the end of politics. Government is about 19th century machines and the Second Wave. The end of politics is about individual empowerment and the information highway. There is no room for any technology or ideology in between.

This idea is expressed over and over in stories about the radical fact that people are able to make a living without working for big corporations. In a story on two successful video game authors who live in the Midwest of America, Wired author Jon Caroll wrote: "things keep changing ...the engine of democratization sitting on so many desktops is already out of control, is already creating new players in the game. ... We are used to the idea that rebels can find cracks in the new systems; we are not used to the fact that rebellion doesn't matter anymore. It is pure imagination now, unfettered by trend or anti-trend; it can happen anywhere the hardware lives." While people haven't been able to end the need for political solutions over the course of thousands of years, computer hardware has been able to do it in 30. Amazing.

The business press is another place where the hardware-equals-ideological-change view rules the sea. In a special technology issue of Canadian Business, editor Arthur Johnson casually points out that "totalitarian regimes are no match for the subversive (and democratic) power of fax machines. ... Seen from this perspective, it is no coincidence that the Berlin Wall fell during the middle of an electronic information revolution." (Johnson p. 9) This is a line of thinking that suits many of its proponents very well. If the hardware defines social relations, and they like the way social relations are being defined, then all is well and good. Unfortunately, the social relations envisioned by most of the 1990s end-of-politics advocates are either far from democratic or conveniently blind to what's really happening with the balance of power in the world that exists outside of California. Oh well.

Breaking the Loop

There are definitely similarities between the cable revolution and the info highway explosion. The future visions, economic transitions, democratic hope, regulatory battles, and media coverage from the two areas fit so well, it's almost scary. And I suspect that we would see similar patterns if we went back and looked at the cultural history of radio, the telephone, or electricity. Great hopes for a new society slowly shrivel away into just another medium defined by big corporate or government interests.

While this historical loop may be disheartening, it is not a reason to give up hope. In fact there is probably more hope than ever. The information highway hype of the mid-1990s has been overshadowed by excitement about the Internet. There are hundreds of thousands of people online. People have been able to voice their opinions and engage in debate on the Internet in ways and in numbers unimaginable with cable and its community channels. Unlike the superhighways of hype, the Internet is in many ways a real example of democratic electronic public space.

But before getting too excited and declaring victory, we should step back and get a little perspective on the Internet. It is far from preordained that the Internet as we know it will be the network that people will use when they eventually do gain access. Commercial online services, cable companies, and telephone companies are all creating inter-networked environments of their own. The explicit hope is that people will pick these services instead of the Internet, or as their route to the Internet, so that they don't have to deal with all the "junk" that is out there. In this form, the not-so-interactive info highway of 1993 may in fact rear its ugly head in a very real way.

We should also keep in mind that we are constantly redesigning and rebuilding the Internet. While in many ways this is a good thing, it also has the potential to redefine the values of the system. A few years back, Mitch Kapor wrote "the openness (in all senses) of the Internet reflects, I believe, the sensibilities and values of its architects. Had the Internet somehow been developed outside the world of research and education, it's less likely to have had such an open architecture." This thing is that the Internet is now being developed outside of the world of research and development. It is being developed by the likes of Microsoft, Sprint, TCI, and other corporate giants. And the goals of these companies in evolving the Internet don't have much to do with democracy, equality. or global cooperation.

Of course, the Internet might just trundle along as it has and everything will be just hunky-dory in the end. But there are enough reasons for concern that we cannot be complacent about how our networked world develops. We cannot be naive about the benevolent new economy and its power to create a good world. Rather, we need to develop principles and develop systems that truly do promote democracy, fairness, access, and communication. I would like to suggest four starting points on this journey:

Firstly, we need to communicate that there are billions of people who haven't been lifted up and saved by the wonders of new technology. Despite the assertions of the people at Wired and other end-of-politics theorists, class stratification and oppression have not been eliminated by computers or any other technology. Of course, technology has helped change the nature of class relations over the last 100 years. In fact, electric technology and the automobile have been used as key tools in fortifying class disparity on a global level. Lower class people who used to live in the same town or village as the rich folk have been cordoned off into areas which are physically or socially isolated. They are then managed by corporate executives who need not step anywhere near the workplace. Middle and upper class people who don't make frequent trips to "free trade zones" in Mexico or the Philippines can go a really long time without meeting any poor, hard-working people. I guess that's why they can believe Wired's assertion that technology has ended "what used to be called the class struggle."

Second, we must get involved in political action to assure open cyberspaces and redesign or fend off closed ones. This is action which must take place online, in the halls of government, in the corporate boardroom, and around the kitchen table -- it is not just about lobbying politicians. This means that people who make important decisions in both business and government need to be educated about the meaning of network design. It means taking our own time to understand that the open cyberspaces are not natural entities that will live on like glacial rocks -- they are structures built by humans. Such structures can just as easily be rearranged by humans. It also means that we may have to force certain large corporate interests to build openness into their systems. When people have trusted them to do this on their own in the past, they haven't.

Third, we must continue to build the systems that work for people who want to communicate not just for buying and selling. This is the kind of work that happens every day on the Internet and at community networks. And it is very hard work. The openness we have on the Internet comes mostly from the fact that people have put their blood, sweat, and tears into making it that way, and not from the magical powers of packet switching.

Finally -- and most importantly -- we must promote a way of thinking about technology that includes people, engages history, and encourages opportunities for real social and technological change. It should be widely known that the introduction of electricity, the light bulb, the telephone, radio, television, satellites, and cable generated the same hype that we see with the information highway today. It should also be known that, where people other than the inventors and corporate sponsors got involved in defining the use of technology, some things did change for the better. But where people had faith that the technology would fix society on its own, power structures just stayed the same or got worse. From this historical understanding, we can develop a vision of technology that will lead to the development of sustainable and equitable tools. This is a way to counter the historical loop of the utopian techno-revolution.

It is people-centered principles and visions like these that will allow us to grow the Internet in a positive direction and help us to avoid the fate of the ugly, anti-interactive superhighway. Of course, people are already building the systems and the movements needed to make this happen. There's a global internet within the Internet committed totally to equality and social change called the Association for Progressive Communications. There are people using doing very concrete and worthwhile community economic development projects online. Activists and citizens are building community networks left, right, and center. There is a momentum to create a system that will help us find the things we've always been looking for in new communications technology. We just have to remember that that this momentum does not come from the magic wand of the network or the new economy. It comes from real people, real work, real community and real vision. These are the things that we must continue to nurture.


Mark Surman currently works as an online content and publications developer for Web Networks, the Canadian member node of the Association for Progressive Communications. He is involved in policy and research work through the Toronto Information Highway Working Group, the Alliance for a Connected Canada, and the Union for Democratic Communications. He has written and spoken widely in Canada on electronic public space, community television, and the history of electronic media revolutions. In a previous incarnation, Mark spent eight years working in the cable and commercial television industries.