Supplying too much of the wrong thing?

Mon, 03/31/1997 - 7:00pm
Wendell Bailey

Perhaps that is a little too cruel. Let me try this: the primary goal of groups that seek to promote public technology is to make sure that no one is left out of the benefits that these technologies offer.

There, that sounds better. No matter how you say it, it still comes down to this: how do we make sure that the riches of the Internet and cable TV and telephone connectivity reach those who are not in a position to normally acquire them?

We should all be thankful that there are groups that work on behalf of the "have-nots" to make sure that as technology progresses, no one is left behind. I know that I'm glad.

A collective gasp

The conference got my attention when I realized that the single, overriding theme was the provision of a broadband, switched, two-way network for every single person and place in the United States of America. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a sensitive guy. I care about the potential of a world where only some of the lucky ones have access to everything that technology can offer. I mean, if the Internet is the be-all and end-all of human interaction, then can we afford to take lightly the people who can't get connected? I don't think so.

In fact, you will be pleased to know that the entire panel (of which I was only one participant) all said that they (or, more precisely, their companies) would also do everything they could to help this future world come into being. They (and I) only got into trouble when we said that, as public companies which need to show results to our owners, we would all need some incentives to make the massive investments that seem to be at issue here.

The trouble was nothing so ignoble as cat-calls or raspberries. It was more of a collective intake of breath. At first, I thought that someone had uttered an expletive that I missed — but no, it was the reaction of the audience to the idea that this goal must be weighed against the idea of corporate profit.

What about the "don't-wants"?

I am constantly reminded that not everyone can appreciate the good deeds of corporate America if they detect the tiniest hint of self-service in a project. It seems not to matter that a company could have chosen a less edifying project for its limited funds. No, there are those who believe that all ends should match up nicely with pure means.

I'm afraid that I caused another of those sharp intakes of breath when my turn came. I was doing OK until I mentioned, almost in passing, that not everyone might actually need a two-way, broadband, switched network connection. I mean, what about a person who just does not want to surf the Web? I'm almost sure that these types exist. Are we to wire up every nook-and-cranny on the off-chance that the non-surfer dude will rise up from the couch and have an urge to check out a homepage that he heard about?

I'm afraid that this last idea made me an enemy. When the part of the conference that I was speaking in was over, and the crowd broke up to go to lunch, I was accosted by a man who wished to take issue with my words. It seems that he has concerns about the people who will be left out of a world where some have wide bandwidth, and others (shudder) only have twisted pairs. "All," he stated with conviction, "must have the same access and capability."

"What about those who don't even have a computer?," I responded. "They might get one, if they had access to such a network," he replied. "What about those who have a perfectly acceptable 28.8 modem — do they also need a broadband connection?," I inquired. Once again, he said "yes."

The crime, it seems, is not that someone has such a marvelous network and doesn't use it, but instead, what if someone wants it, and doesn't have it? Good question. I could feel the gray matter sweating as this was digested. Should every home and place of business have a broadband, two-way switched network, even if 15 percent of the population is functionally illiterate and cannot use the keyboard on a computer? Some people drive four-wheel-drive cars and live in moderate climates. Does this mean that there should be a subsidy by auto manufacturers so that everyone can have four-wheel-drive for the two times it snows in the mid-Atlantic region? I must either be missing something, or have a defective empathy module.

The basics first

I have a hard time understanding the motivation of groups that latch onto the idea of the biggest, most capable, most expensive network for everyone, when so many need more basic things. Telephone companies, cable systems, broadcasters and every entity in the telecommunications world do good things for their communities all of the time. Is it enough? No, it never is. Is the broadband, two-way switched network enough? Maybe it's too much of the wrong thing.

The world will change in our lifetime. More people than ever before will have computer skills. More people than ever before will have a desire to surf the Web and learn new things, but not everyone. Not by a long shot. Many need other things first. Where are the groups dedicated to seeing that they get the other things?

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