Transcription of a 'Your World' program discussing the Internet and the Information Super Highway

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This is a transcription of the Your World program on the Internet and the Information Super Highway. It was broadcast on National Radio Friday 27th January 1995 at 7:30pm.

Your World is a BBC program of topical debate. For those who are interested, the BBC has a WWW presence at:
'bbcnc' stands for the BBC Networking Club.

This transcription is by Russell Street (email Corrections are welcome.

grams: Theme

MF: From the BBC World Service in London, I'm Mike Fulham [MF]. Welcome to Your World.

MF: The 19th Century saw the Industrial Revolution. The 20th Century may well be remembered for the Telecommunications Revolution --- the advent of the Information Super Highway.

Al Gore: Its time for new hope. Its time for a new beginning. Its a time for change. And a time for challenges.
MF: US Vice President Al Gore, a leading proponent of the Information Super Highway, which he says could revolutionise business productivity, offer education worldwide, and even spread democracy. High ideals but will they be realized? And if so at what cost. To discuss these issues I am joined by two experts in the field: Alan Lewis [AL], broadcaster in science and technology and Eddie Robinson [ER], a journalist specialising in computing. Alan, this buzzword or phrase "Information Super Highway", what exactly does it mean?

AL: Its the latest stage in something people have also heard of called a thing "The Internet". The two go hand in hand. Very simply, the Super Highway is part of a system which is no more than a lot of very big computers joined together. I mean very big computers --- not your lap tops --- joined together around the world with a network of highways that join then all up. That is where the information sits, that is what ever it needs to be is residing, and the rest of the network is in fact people like you and me with a lap top computer or a desktop computer which plug into that and form a vast network. That is how it all started it was just a vast network which you could do all sorts of things on. What Al Gore is really talking about is, to say that for this to go on and to become absolutely truly international, these big computers with the repository of knowledge, have to actually be joined together with Super Highways so that everybody can use it. So its the motorways of information.

MF: Eddie Robinson, to what extent are we close to achieving this global network Alan was just talking about then?

ER: I think we are some way away from it on a global level. I mean, here in the UK and Europe we have very highly advanced communications technology, and the same in America, but unfortunately we can't say the same thing about Africa, South America, [South East Asia], and of course the former Soviet Union. And until we have better communications technology all over the world, people in countries with less than perfect technology are going to be kind of disenfranchised by this.

MF: We are going to discuss some of these issues. If we look at the ideal that people who speak in glowing terms of the Information Super Highway are aspiring towards, what will be achievable once this network is in place? How will it change our lives?

AL: One way in which it certainly changes your life is that you sit in front of a computer for hours learning how to make it work. 'Cause like all computing --- it is not easy. And that is with people who have got desktop computers, people who know how to turn them on and make them work. Connecting into this is actually quite difficult. So you spend a lot of time doing it. When you do finally get connected, maybe 40 million people have already done, what you find is in these computers that you are now connected to there is incredible amounts of information. So it is the world's biggest library -- you can get pictures, you can get information, you can go and read authors you did not know existed. But that's actually, I don't think, not what people really use it for. 'Cause all that is free, its wonderful, its virtually free. However, what comes on the back of that is the fact that you can write a message on your computer and send it to another person. And actually what people really use it for is talking -- its a chat line. It may be an alien concept to some people, but it is literally no more than a lot of people being on the telephone and just chatting away. Except that they don't speak to one another, the write messages to one another. That comes free too, or virtually free. So in fact, it is really just a big message passing system.

MF: But again looking to the future, Eddie, the idea is that we will be able to sit in our homes, be able to shop, work from home, that sort of thing?

ER: That's pretty much it. I actually make part of my living this way already. That is not to say it is an entirely good thing. I don't think it would be very, very satisfying to live your entire life through a keyboard. But I think in the future, it is going to be the ultimate convince tool --- more than having a video or having a microwave or any of these things. It is going to be something that you can use for so many different purposes, that it is going to become like the telephone is now.

MF: That is an interesting analogy because some people would argue that the telephone has not been a good invention. The fact that it actually distances people --- your are talking to this instrument to people you don't see.

ER: No no that is not true at all. The telephone allows people to talk to each other. There are huge numbers of people who are separated by distance who without telephone would never communicate in the first place. I think that can only be a good thing. One of the other things that is happening on the Internet is as well as sending messages directly to other people you can send messages and put them out in the public where hundreds of thousands or indeed millions of people can all read them at once and again usually for free. And I think this provides a absolutely wonderful avenue for people to get opinions and information out across the world that they think should be known.

MF: Will it be the case that because that all you need to be is connected to the international telephone network, it is going to be very very difficult for certain governments to stop this sort of information flow that you are talking about.

ER: That is certainly true

MF: So totalitarian regimes, for instance, might in a sense be quaking in their shoes?

ER: Well many governments that have fairly strict security regimes already have laws saying that it is illegal or you need some form of licencing in order to use a computer over a telephone line. And this is largely because they are worried about people in their country having free access to discuss what ever issues they like with people in other countries. Obviously other world views will creep in that don't suit a dictator. The biggest problem is getting around precisely these sort of people. People like this are not going to be encouraged to spend huge amounts of money on educational computing technology for the benefit of their population, so it is up to us in the west to try and bring them the benefits of that technology so that they can take part in this as well and get the full benefits of it both economic and social.

MF: Isn't there a certain degree of cultural imperialism here? You say 'we in the west must bring this to the rest of the world', aren't we just trying to inflict our own values and our technology on them?

AL: No I do believe that is part of it. We think it is perfectly normal in this country for you to have a PC. In America it is the norm, most of Europe it is. In Asia it is becoming the norm. There are vast tracts of the world where having a PC is a major thing to do, and basically only sort of academics and business men and a few enthusiasts can actually afford it. Well then again they are connected but they probably have avenues of information connectivity which the ordinary man in the street does not want. Again, it is an elitism --- the haves will just continue to have even more. And it is getting down to the grass roots where I don't see the information super Highways --- the Internet --- reaching the grassroots in the Third World for a very long time.

MF: I suppose if you are going to look on this whole thing positively, and I trying to, it is making the world a smaller place. It is bringing this concept of the global village into reality. Is that true?

ER: In the long term, I would certainly say 'yes'. But I don't think that is really much of a problem. One of the biggest advantages I've found is that I get to know people that I would never had had the opportunity or may be even not have taken the trouble to get to know previously. About six months ago I was taking part in a public discussion on the Internet and I noticed two people discussing the situation in the Middle East, and they were having a good rational discussion. And it emerged during the conversation that one of them was Jewish and the other one was Arabic. Now the chances of them sitting down and having the same rational discussion if they had known that at the start would have prejudiced the discussion and they would not have made as much progress. As it was they said 'well your Arabic I'm Jewish: so what we are all ready having a conversation.'

MF: The flip side of that: alienation. You sit at this inanimate screen and in a sense you don't embrace life you do it through the screen. Isn't there a danger that people will stop co-existing together? They will work from home, they will talk through the Internet and they won't actually get out there and meet people as much?

ER: I don't think that leads to alienation, really. For a long time we have been complaining about the fact that the telephone has lead to the demise of letter writing. Here is something that can bring it back into effect. And satisfying though it is and interesting though it is, it is not a substitute for actually going out and meeting people in the flesh when you want to. And in my experience people who use these networks get together whenever they can.

AL: You can't spend too long in front of a computer screen. Very quickly it becomes boring. The conversations are generally pretty boring. At first you think 'a wealth of information'. Then you very quickly say 'I am only interested in that, only interested in that. Shall I turn it on today? No, I'll leave it 'til tomorrow. I only have 20 messages, maybe I'll read them tomorrow.' Then you think 'what can I do with this', then you use it as a tool. At the moment everyone is flushed with the first flush of excitement of discovery of this thing. It will settle down. I think there will be a lot less enthusiasm in a few years.

ER: The big question is there is going to be lots of money going into funding both the computers that run this Internet and there is also a vast amount of money that goes into funding the computers at the ends of it in offices and homes. And I think one of the things that we need to do if we are to really make this grow is to try and channel a bit of that money into other countries and interiors where it is going to be useful and where people are going to benefit most from being connected to this. Universities are an obvious place to start. For every computer that goes into a university in say somewhere in Africa now, in about 5 years time we are going to have people coming out of that university who are going to have a different vision of the world. And they are going to look at it in a completely different way than previous generations, and they are going to want to change it because they know they can.

MF: Alan, is it necessarily a good thing, people coming out of Universities with a different and industrialised view of the world?

AL: Yes that is a great problem, they are going to turn to the rest of the world for information and here is a very access to information. It is the old business of appropriateness. Is it appropriate for somebody in Tanzania to be able to get information from Lockheed. I use Lockheed in America simply because they are one of the core computer hardware [makers] .... So Lockheed has a vast amount of extremal technical information, and all the newspapers of the western world stored on some of its computers. So there you are sitting in Tanzania you can read these newspapers for the cost of local telephone call. You can spend hours sitting on it. Is that appropriate for the needs of the country you are in? There are two halves to the Internet. One is that it is a huge amount of information sitting there in computers and you can go and access it. Or you can use it as basically a rather peculiar telephone system. And it is no more. It depends on what you use it for. And i can see most of it just coming down to passing messages around, just like the fax machine.

ER: I think that is what is going to be the most important aspect of it.

AL: But That is not what is being sold. What is being sold is 'The Information Super Highway' ... *Information* Super Highway. The idea that you and me talking to one another, its 'getting information about anything all around the world, pictures and everything'.

ER: We have got people now who are looking at selling television over the telephone, and that I do think is cultural imperialism. And looking at the way commercial television has gone in recent years I am not very very hopeful about the content.

MR: So, all in all, progress seems to be irresistible. All in all, is the Information Super Highway going to be a 'good thing' for the world? Eddie?

ER: I think yes, because I think anything that allows people to communicate roe effectively will always leads to better things. I also think that it is going to lead to a lowest common denominator for the kind of information that is available, and unfortunately some of it is going to wind up looking like bad TV, but that is the price you pay.

MR: Alan?

AL: I think if the Internet survives, and I am not sure that it will, because already it is highly clogged. It is very overloaded, so many people are using it, more are joining. It is being provided as a free service at the moment, and there is very little way to make people pay for it. The only people making money out of it are the people who rent the telephone lines. They make a little bit of money out of it. But the actual people providing the network, nobody actually makes any money out of it. How long will they continue to say 'lets provide a bigger and bigger computer in here to allow more and more people to talk'. If it goes on, yes it will be a global communication network which is different to and adds to the telephone network, the fax network and television. It is an addition. If it survives, I think it will be another useful tool. I don't think that the hype that we get at the moment is right. I don't think it is a world changer.

MF: One thing that this discussion has convinced me is that I must try the Internet before it is too late. Anyway it is time for us to 'log off', as they say, so my thanks to Eddie Robinson and Alan Lewis. You've been listening to 'Your World' from the BBC World Service. I'm Mike Fulham. Thank you very much for joining us.

grams: closing theme

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The program was played on Friday, 27th January 1995 at 7:30pm.

Russell Street (
Last updated: 30th January 1995