THE Information Superhighway, at present, is defined entirely by bad metaphors.
"We need to give everyone an on-ramp to the Information Superhighway," intones one politician.
"We need drivers ed for the Information Superhighway," cautions another. Meaning what? Grim granite-pants instructors showing us bloody films of people who perished trying to order a pizza from their TV without seatbelts?
One legislator stressed the need for government policing by warning of "drive-by shootings" on the Information Highway.
The only thing they haven't warned about are silicon hookers in the virtual truck stops.
This is what happens when silver-tongued techno-illiterates scramble to regulate something that does not yet exist. (There's probably a committee drafting emission standards for faster-than-light spacecraft, just in case.) All the politicians know is that Al Gore makes a lot of speeches on the subject, and rumor has it that the vice president actually has some power and influence.
What is the InfoSupWay? Well, once the sludgy copper cables that make up the phone and cable systems are replaced with brisk and nimble fiber-optic strands, a firehose of data will stream into your house until you are knee-deep in useful information. You won't just order a pizza from your InfoSupWay machine -- you'll track the delivery person using the Global Positioning System satellite network while your machine simultaneously requests the North American Mean Delivery Interval from the Library of Congress, so you can see how long it should take, and tip accordingly.
The pizza's cold? No problem! In the modern world, your pizza will still be cold, but now you'll have the tools to know why. Call up a databank in Helsinki for a full statistical abstract of heat loss by tomato-based circular objects. Cross-reference with the Delivery Interval data and satellite information. Ah hah! Empirical proof the pizza should have arrived hot! You can now shame the manager into giving you a free pizza while you simultaneously ruin his credit rating, and have the driver deported. (This option will be available only on upper tier packages.)
What a wonderful world it will be. Except -- it's nonsense.
I am not a stodgy quill-and-ink Luddite. I am as plugged in as a fellow can be nowadays, and my experience with the Information Footpath we have today tells me that vast problems await. America Online, one of the nation's most popular computer services, is a fine example.
Just last week AOL, as it's known, rationed access in the evening hours. When too many people sign on, AOL computers whine like beaten dogs and the system slows to a point that moist pasty-fleshed keyboard-pounders having a live chat about foot fetishes take half an hour to get to the subject of the little toe. Now when you call in the evening, an invisible bouncer throws you off most of the time. It's supposedly a temporary problem, and management insists that trainloads of HAL 2000 computers are arriving daily, singing "Daisy" in a lusty chorus, ready to make things better.
Fine. But I had E-mail to send. Unable to get through to AOL, I signed on to Compuserve, another major, nationwide computer service. Some bizarre hiccup in my software tossed me out on my tailbone as soon as I tried to do anything useful. I decided to send the mail through the Internet -- but the phone number for that fabled global construct went unanswered.
Feeling like a sober man who is unaccountably refused service at his favorite bars, I dialed up a Florida computer I knew would put me in touch with my friend. Instead of the welcoming whistle of another computer, a sleepy human voice came through my computer speaker. "Hello?" she said. "HELLO?"
This is the present, but it smacks of the future, too. Machines are blind narcoleptic instruments that fall inert just when you need them the most. The day you get used to the InfoSupWay will be the day the system crashes, and your pizza order is lost in the ether. The immediate future is not 500 channels, or the whole of Western Civilization quivering off-stage, waiting for your question. The future is video-on-demand and an improved Home Shopping Network, meaning instant porno movies and faster delivery of collectible porcelain plates, and interactive movies where you can control which plates the porn stars trade.
I want a fiber-optic, full-access, multi-option world as much as the next person. But when it comes in whatever form it takes, remember a simple fact: Nature is a system, too, and it's never down for maintenance. Leave the house now and then; walk up the street; talk to people. A better information highway they'll
James Lileks is a columnist for Newhouse News Service.