Harvard Conference on the Internet & Society, May 1996

Press & Politics Track - Chairs: Bill Kovach & Mark S. Bonchek

Universal Access Session

Moderator: Nolan Bowie

Speakers: Prudence Adler, Richard Civille, Jock Gill

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Bowie: Jock Gill, will you tell us your version of universal access and how we learn about our own definitions through the stories we are told--how it either expands or limits what we think about it.

Gill: Thank you very much. I need to answer Nolan's question, but I'd also like to comment on Scott McNealy 's very amusing presentation. Cowboy capitalism and market fundamentalism are interesting phenomena, but they're only one story. I'd like to get on with perhaps telling some other stories. I like Prue's question, "Access to what?". But I'd like to also suggest: Is it important? Why should we have it? I mean, maybe it's irrelevant. Maybe only 10 percent of the people are going to use it and the other 90 percent are going to ignore it. So it's a moot point and we can all go home. But I think that you'll see I believe [universal access] is incredibly important. How we handle this is going to determine the markets that emerge.

Part of the access/service question is that it is not only about the market. I'd like to question whether, in fact, the Web-Net is about markets, and whether it's really even about information. Maybe it's more about stories. And maybe "access to what" is the access to the most powerful storytelling mechanism that has emerged in the last 50 years. Maybe the reason it's so important is that the stories we tell ourselves and each other determine who we are. If that's the case, then we must have universal access in order that all of us may be storytellers.

Now on this map (please see this area of my web site for the slides, or look under "What's New" at http://www.penfield-gill.com/gill), for which I am indebted to Dr. Michael C. Geoghegan from Dupont; you'll see that information is on the bottom left, where there's a lot of it but it's relatively low value. Knowledge is more important. It's in the middle. It's sort of the "how" that we get from the "what." But understanding is really much more interesting and more important. And wisdom is--well, there's much less of it, and it's of much higher value.

President Neil L. Rudenstine's talk last night was absolutely splendid and extraordinarily important. However, I did afterwards ask him, "Where does knowledge come from? And what is the role of knowledge creation?" As we move forward into the new economy, where we're not going to be competing with our backs or with natural resources or with access to capital or manufacturing technologies, we're going to be competing on our ability to create understanding and wisdom. I believe that the Web/Net is fundamental for this process. And I believe it's therefore fundamental that we have universal access to this new tool for creating understanding and wisdom from knowledge, information, and data.

Now, a little history is in order, in part to rebut--or to question-- Scott McNealy 's and Bill Gates 's comments. The 1920s were, I believe, historically the last period of rip-roaring cowboy capitalism, which led to some rather interesting events in the 1930s, sometimes known as the Great Crash or the Great Depression. Not exactly shining, glorious moments.

However, it also led to the Communications Act of 1934. And one of the interesting questions is if, in 1930, between 30 and 40 percent of the people had dial tone, did we need the Communications Act to promote the concept of universal service or access, or not? We had the Rural Electrification Act in 1936, because the Great White Way ended at the town limits. The companies, the private sector, were more interested in building power trusts that generated capital profits but did not deliver electricity to Americans. In fact, Lyndon Johnson rose to political power, in some sense, by his ability to bring electricity to west Texas farmers.

Clearly there was a market failure in the delivery of wired services. The Rural Electrification Act was expanded to cover telephony in 1949, by President Truman. An interesting question is, why was this necessary? I do not have the answer. The NII, the National Information Infrastructure, had field hearings in 1993 and 1994, which were published by the IETF [Internet Engineering Task Force] in 1994, about the need for universal access. They had meetings scattered around the country. That's great research. If you do a search on "universal access" in AltaVista, you'll find references to the field hearings, and you can read the report. There is a substantial body of research and evidence that this is, in fact, a very important issue, not only for health care, for politics, for education, for the sense of community and culture, but also for the creation of social as well as market capital.

We then had the Communications Act of 1996, which was the first revision of the 1934 Acts. And we now have, peculiarly, the FCC [Federal Communication Commission] hearings, dealing with universal access. I'm not clear why it's in the FCC. But history shows that this is not a pure market phenomenon. One might speculate, at least within the realm of education (and since we're at Harvard, that would be an appropriate speculation), that there is a terrible mismatch between markets and education. The market has a tendency to look in 90-day time frames. The market in general will not invest in R&D that doesn't show a positive return in six to seven years, because of the projected value of the dollar that far out. Education at Harvard is a 16-year experience. You have 12 years before you get to Harvard; you have four years at Harvard. And somehow, a 90-day time frame maps very poorly to a 16-year time frame. Therefore, I would suggest that we need a rich and diverse set of metaphors, of which the market is but one.

The book changed both how we told stories and the context in which the stories were told. And I love President Rudenstine's discussions of what Germans thought about reading, and the great impact of the library program on Harvard in the late 19th century. Clearly, the book made certain that nothing would ever be the same again.

I would suggest, as we have heard in the entire conference, that the computer is changing how we tell stories, and again, the context in which we live. Nothing will ever be the same again: the landscape in which we live is very dynamic.

But what is a good story? A good story is relevant. So when is it relevant? When it provides a useful description and it maps to observed situations. I would argue, in fact, that stories are maps. A good story provides useful explanations. It helps us to understand the process of our lives, our businesses, our education, even our health. It provides useful suggestions for action. And one hopes it will improve or maximize our evolutionary success, or the prospects for evolutionary success. So storytelling is critical, because the way we tell our stories--the ones we tell inside our heads in traffic jams, the ones we tell each other at dinner parties, at lectures, at the movies, when we read a newspaper, and so on--determines what we know, how we know it, and in fact, the dreams we dream, as well as the stories we tell. It's a self-referential, circular, nonlinear process. The one influences and changes the other.

One of the things we have not yet talked about at this conference is the difference between old media and new media.[3] We have not described the new media as a storytelling mechanism. I find it extraordinarily useful to do so. But part of understanding the importance of new media is to understand the difference between the old and the new. My web site contains several slides on "a difference" matrix. Let me just review them with you briefly.

We're moving from an age of objectivity, sort of a Newtonian physics approach, a Cartesian ideal, to a more constructive reality. We're moving from an industrial paradigm to perhaps a more biological paradigm. We've heard a good deal of talk about ecologies.

We're going from a situation where information is strictly controlled, with concerns about copyright and intellectual property rights, to an area where I would suggest information is largely out of control. (Some of you may have read a book by that title, published by the fellow Kelly at Wired magazine.[4] )

We're going from a system of communications, a storytelling mechanism, where we rely on very few intelligences--simply linear text, pretty much black and white--to something much more complex. Howard Gardner, a very famous professor here at Harvard, suggests in fact that human beings have many intelligences. There are many ways of being smart and knowledgeable. The new media allows us to use music, multiple links, sound, graphics, and call on many more forms of our human intelligences, and therefore it is far more satisfying to use than the more limited old legacy media.

Information is much more static in the legacy media. It comes to you in dead, flattened trees (which is really not very useful). Or it can be very dynamic on a screen. There will be interesting changes in what a document is. A product has been demonstrated called FutureTense, which uses Java. Scott McNealy would be very happy. It allows you to have areas on the screen that change dynamically every time you call it up, which calls into question the definition of a document. In fact, the definition of a document will be the set of programming commands that create the document, because the actual presentation will be different every time. And what that does for information rights and policies, I don't know. But it's clearly very different.

Community. Because we can all participate, the new media is an inclusive community. The old media--I don't think very many of us own newspapers or TV stations, movie studios, radio stations, so forth and so on. We're leaving an exclusive era, I think--all to the better.

The legacy media has a very high barrier to entry. Computers are cheap. I've been on the Internet in Washington with a computer we saved from a dumpster. I put in a $100 disk drive, a $100 modem, and I was broadcasting on the Internet.

Communications flow is one-to-many on the legacy media. And more accurately, in new media, it's many one-to-many, which looks like many-to-many. But we don't really have this "and both" operator yet.

The organization in the old media is top-down. In the new, organization is more bottom-up. But in fact, it's "and both." There are components of top-down vision, and there are components of bottom-up innovation and application.

It's linear versus hypertext. It enables dialogue. This is critical. You can tell stories in a one-way fashion. But you can't engage in the storytelling process unless you can all talk to one another. Critical difference.

If I could use just two words to differentiate the old media from the new media, I'd use the words "targets" and "partners." For the last hundred years, those of us who do not own media outlets have been treated as targets. We have become passive. In the new media era, we can become partners. We can become (as Prue [Adler] helped me see today) participants, and it's a very active process.

So you can see, given these differences, that the storytelling capabilities of the new media are radically different from the storytelling capabilities of the old media. Because of this, they will enable entirely new sorts of stories to be told. And because the stories we tell determine who we are, we will see ourselves in remarkable new fashions.

Let me quickly give you a couple of examples. The United States used to be the largest market producing over 50 percent of the world gross product, and the reserve currency was clearly the U.S. dollar. (I thank Lester Thurow at MIT for these facts.) Europe or China will be the largest market. The U.S. now produces, I believe, less than 25 percent of the world gross product. And the reserve currency of the future is probably not the U.S. dollar. Who's telling us that story?

Another story. This is more chilling. Television tells us that there are lots and lots of crimes, and the TV shows (stories) best solve these criminal problems with guns. The FBI wants to tell us that all Americans have a "realistic" chance of being murdered. But the statistics in 1992 show that only one percent of violent crimes required hospitalization, and less than one half of the armed robbers showed a gun, and those armed robbers who showed a gun harmed fewer people. Very interesting why television tells us the solution to the crime problem is through guns. I suggest it may be a logical consequence of treating people as targets for 100 years. We are so numb, you've got to poke us hard. If we were actually being engaged in dialogue, would we need to have crime and violence and blood and guts on television? What will the new stories be? And who will tell the new American story? And if we do not tell it, who will tell it?

In the end, I would suggest it's the trust we build with the stories we tell that really matters; and that the best stories increase the ideas we have access to, maximize the diversity of the ideas that we have to work with, reveal new solutions for problems, and improve our chances for evolving...but not necessarily in a market context. Some of it is market-driven, some of it is government-driven, some of it is entertainment-driven. It's a much richer model than pure, simple market fundamentalism and cowboy capitalism.

Bowie: Thank you. Perhaps no one will tell the stories. I point to the fact that the Telecommunications Act passed in February [1996] with very little public awareness, apart from those who were following it very closely as a business story, as opposed to a story that had a great impact on the way society will be governed in the future.

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Presentation Date: May 25, 1996
File Date: 11 April 97