Masthead CMC Magazine / May 1, 1996

Metaphorically Speaking, the Information Highway is Dead

by Wade Rowland

When I was a network TV producer, I used to worry a lot about the metaphors we used in the news. It was the habit of the hard-bitten pros in our newsroom to liberally salt their copy with sports metaphors in writing about politics: an election was a "race" or even a "horse race" if it got tight; a debate was a "bout" in which we looked for a "knock-out", and so on.

I worried that sports metaphors tended to trivialize politics and I still believe that's true. Metaphors create powerful images of the things they're used to describe, but they have a boomerang effect as well. They tend to remake whatever they're describing in their own image, if not in reality, at least in our minds. They stifle the imagination.

If the metaphor is honest and accurate, none of this is much of an issue, but, as in the case of sports and politics, a bad metaphor can cause real-life injury. It is not socially healthy for people to go around thinking of politicians as prize fighters or elections as sporting events.

[]December comments on the Nynex-Bell Atlantic merger in terms of monopolistic control of networks.

Our loose talk of the "information highway" is another case of a weak and inappropriate metaphor and it has contributed to decidedly non-metaphorical grief in the corporate world of telecommunications. If you're imagining building a highway, you can also imagine putting up a toll gate and charging admission; you can imagine a linear world of content flowing to a destination where it is consumed in the shape in which it was delivered; you can imagine making a killing because you can control the highway and access to it. But that's' about all you can imagine.

At this stage, a year or two after all the initial excitement about broadband "full service networks" and video-on-demand, it is difficult to know whether it was this misguided "highway" image that led early corporate misjudgements or whether the metaphor came later.The fact is, though, it revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of what digital media are all about. And it wasn't just business; governments got it wrong as well. Here in Canada, the report of the Federal Advisory Committee on the Information Highway released late last year in Ottawa, talked a lot about fostering the production industry and mandating Canadian content and imposing regulations in the public interest.

The thing is, the digital world is not at all like the analogue, linear, time-based universe we occupy in Real Life and which has moulded our conventional media. In effect, the process of digitizing data gives it an extra dimension in which time is not a constraint and random access is immediate. Applying the conventions of a linear world in this environment is like trucking airplanes around on tractor-trailer floats. Yet, the broadband video-on-demand services currently being tested are really little more than an enhanced VCR: they give uses remote-control access to a selection of programming and provide VCR-like control (pause, fast-forward etc.) once the programs are rolling. Big deal.

It's a truism that, for one technology to displace another, it has to be ten times better than what it's replacing. Hence, the eight-track audio cassette failed to displace the vinyl disk because it offered only incremental improvements in usability. But the CD revolutionized the industry and wiped out vinyl because it offered random access, reduced size, better sound quality and greatly improved durability. Video-on-demand is merely a marginal improvement over conventional TV and VCR combos; it is the eight-track of digital services.

The Internet, on the other hand, takes full advantage of the possibilities of digital media, by allowing full interactivity and universal access. On the Net, anybody can be a content provider, and text-based search engines and hyperlinks allow true random access to data. The power and potential of the medium are immediately obvious to anyone who looks at it, and the result has been the explosive, unprecedented growth in use we've all been witness to. I think the Net will displace the video-on-demand model and it may well, in time, displace broadcast television.

We're already beginning to hear more talk about the Net as a bazaar, or digital agora, or virtual city, or a electronic megalopolis. In fact, much the lingo of the Internet resembles terminology used in architecture and urban design, the most utilitarian of the fine arts. With its home pages, corporate "domains," "multi-user domains" and communities of all kinds, there is a strong architectural flavor to the online world. It seems a good match-up: if architecture is often defined as "the art of organizing space," the Web designer's efforts to organize sites in cyberspace might be called --Web architecture. [TOC]

Wade Rowland ( is a an award-winning television producer of news and documentary programming and a partner in Blue Cat Design. His list of program credits include: the Canadian Television Network's CTV News, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Marketplace, YTV News, Inside Canada and the creation of CTV Radio News. He is currently writing "Points of Convergence", a history of communications technologies from the telegraph to the Internet, slated for publication in fall 1996, by Sommerville House.

Copyright © 1996 by Wade Rowland. All Rights Reserved.

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