Anything We Don't Want, Anytime We Don't Want It


Boston. -- I haven't heard such hype about the future since the days when they were pushing fins on automobiles. When it was announced that a phone company and a cable company were going to merge like two roadways into one superhighway, the talk accelerated faster than a Maserati.

Go interactive! Jump on the speedway to information! Get your red hot movies whenever you want them! Shop 'til you drop (the remote control)! Put your technological pedal to the metal! The blissed-out, wide-eyed technophilia that has greeted the announcement that Bell Atlantic is buying Tele-Communications Inc. harked back to the 1950s.

Those were the days when announcers glowingly predicted: "The Future Lies Ahead!" TV was going to bring opera to every living room. Computers were going to make living and learning easy. And highways -- the asphalt kind -- were going to take us where we wanted to go.

But today, just the use of the word "superhighway" to describe the new network that will bring phone and video services to the home ought to be enough to make any of us check the speed limit. Highways? Remember what the engineers promised? Freedom, speed, a vast connecting network of wheels across America. Remember what they delivered along with automobility? L.A., air pollution, car payments.

They built it -- the American highway system -- and we came. And went. The highways emptied the cities. Commuting destroyed communities. We built suburbs for the cars, subdivisions without sidewalks which have now trapped the unlicensed elderly and children while the rest of us have become chauffeurs. We're in the driver's seat, but we're in a traffic jam and somebody is drive-by-shooting at us.

The asphalt highway should be a cautionary tale for the electronic superhighway. It's a tale about the unintended consequences of technology. The unintended human consequences. Before we join this fast lane, we ought to ask where Americans in the '90s want to go and will this technology get us there. I, for one, am glad to help my hospital or office get a quicker dose of data. But I have some reservations about an information superhighway roaring through my front door.

For one thing we are already overwhelmed with information. Databits are clogging our arteries. What we are lacking is not facts, but meaning. Moreover, this highway is not heading for the library; it's heading for the marketplace. The early offerings are going to be in the not-so-wide world of entertainment and shopping.

If you want a taste of the exciting new entertainment possibilities coming your way by this wire or wireless networking, may I suggest that you channel-surf through cable television. Now go down the video store. There you have it: a much vaster wasteland punctuated with games of "Mortal Kombat." You will, however, be able to get the movies you don't want to see any time you don't want to see them.

As for shopping, the highways took people from Main Street to the Mall. The superhighways hope to turn our homes into a domestic versions of Great Mall of America in Minneapolis.

Has anybody asked for this? It seems to me that the 1990s are a time of frugality, cheap chic and tightwaddery. The superhighways are promoting, indeed betting on, superspending.

Today Americans feel isolated. Our neighbors are often strangers. We miss the sense of shared community, human connection. We often feel overwhelmed by choices and are more aware of the need to live within limits.

But this technology is geared to an audience of people who live one by one in front of their own separate electronic hearth. The products are artifacts of individualism. They offer a further way out of the mass transit of communication by personalizing it. They call the technology "interactive" when in fact people will only interact with a television screen and a remote control button. They call it progressive when we'll end up spending even more time with equipment than with each other.

Technology doesn't always give us what we want. But we're expected to want what it gives. In the 1950s, we built highways for cars and only later learned the effect on people. Now we're building a superhighway for information and we're expected, once again, to go along for the ride.

Before you get behind the wheel of this one, buckle up. Keep an eye on the breakdown lane.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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