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Revisiting "Information Superhighway" -- maybe more apt than we thought?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2013

March 27th, 2012

Hi, all -- as metaphors go, "The Information Superhighway" got hyped to an early grave, associated only with Al Gore's claim that he "invented the Internet."  Too bad; the metaphor is actually quite intriguing. 

Yesterday, I drove to Three Rivers Community College in Norwich Connecticut.  For some inscrutable reason, my GPS took me to Norwich (from RI) via I-95 but took me back home via state road 165, an uniimproved 2-lane highway through lakes and hills and tall white pines.  The contrast in the two driving experiences was extraordinary.

I learned to drive when our only long-distance driving options were these same 2-lane highways.  Across the country, this was the US road system.

These roads were minimally graded, unpredictably curved, variably built based on vague standards.  They had evolved from the first wagon trails created by the first white settlers based on Native American trails that in turn were based on game trails.  In other words, the highway system in this country until the 1950s had a long history dating back thousands of years.  In some sense, they were "natural." 

Or, in some sense, they were analog roads, limited by physicality.  You drove (or still drive) next to houses, through towns, seeing the utility wires that connect houses, seeing ancient trees that grew next to these ancient trails before even many wagons used these routes.  You are part of human history driving on our US highway system.

The skills you need to drive any distance on these roads:staying on the road and still maintaining speed (even at night)seeing far enough ahead to stay on the roadavoiding people and cars coming onto the roadpassing slower cars -- anticipating and speeding up before passing and knowing the distance needed to pass and how to bail if you miscalculate, etc.knowing how far the next town is where there will probably be a gas stationpassing trucks in the rain while being blinded by sprayand so onAnd then, the Interstate Highway System was built. The Interstate Highway System broke with history.  Whole new rights-of-way in almost all cases had to be acquired, cleared, graded and paved.  These rights of way are almost never embedded in human history and have none of the social artifacts of the previous US highway system.  This is, in a way, like moving from analog to digital (although the IHS is of course manifestly physical):  the new system yanked people into a new unfamiliar landscape and new "rules of the road."The skills you need to drive on the Interstate Highway System:driving with the flow -- neither going much faster than other cars or much slower since neither is safe. merging into traffic -- initially, entrances to limited access highways had a short ramp, essentially a right turn, so entry to the highways was like a drag race -- getting up to speed before someone rammed into you.  Now, merging has become a science and we have culturally become good at mergingstaying with the flock to avoid getting a speeding ticket -- traffic is almost always going above the speed limit, so you learn how not to get picked off and ticketed.  changing lanesand so onThe two skill sets, beyond just the basic skills of operating a car, are very different.  The entire milieu of the IHS is strikingly different form the two-lane roads of the state and US highways.Driving yesterday on state Rt. 165 I was immersed in history, culture and society.  I was close to everything.  I was driving where people live.  I could see the history in New England of mill towns and the rivers that provided power.The Web and Internet are similarly an unfamiliar milieu for most people.  Within that milieu, we are creating a new human history and a new culture.  Despite Al Gore, the metaphor of the Information Super Highway may be useful. 

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