What the Super Highway Should Be

[Excerpted from "The Hunt for High-Tech Information", Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1994]

The reason to build the information highway is to provide people with the opportunity to do things that could not be done without it. In education the problem is not getting great courses delivered to remote locations. While it is true that kids in small towns are often taught physics by the football coach, the opportunity that new information technologies offer is bigger than their ability to simply receive television signals from better, big-city high schools. Computers allow real interaction, and active exploratory education instead of passive listening. This means creating computer-based courses that allow students to build simulated rocket ships or to try running the country by playing the President in an interactive situation.

The success of these sorts of programs does not entail having all of America's experts on line to instantly answer questions from students. Nevertheless this sort of immediate access to experts is an idea which is seriously being proposed by proponents of the highway. Do they really expect that our top physicists have nothing to do all day but answer physics questions from high school students? What can be done instead is to create video libraries of experts that are accessed through sophisticated software, although this means investing in the creation of such software.

To facilitate government access we do not need electronic copies of government documents. We need meaningful dialogue with experts who can help us wend our way through government bureaucracy. This can be done by creating computerized dialogue help systems, but this again means investing in software. For libraries and art museums we do not need more books and pictures, we need someone to help us understand what is available or someone who can entice us into wanting to know something. New software again. For entertainment we do not need more movies and video games. These are easy enough to obtain now. We need better forms of entertainment. Really interactive entertainment would put the user in the middle of new environments, mixing adventure with education, mixing movies with shopping and one on one dialogues with experts, mixing history with tomorrow's decision making, mixing karaoke singing with theatrical productions in which we can be the star.

The reason that you don't see these kinds of things being proposed is that no one has set aside the money to create them. Innovative software requires serious investment. Businesses do not want to make the investment because they cannot be assured that such new forms of education, entertainment, or access to information will work or will make money. The government does not invest in these things because it has never seriously invested in technology for education, entertainment, or information access. Technological investment has always been for the technology itself, not for software applications. But, if money does not become available very soon for creating new kinds of educational media, ones that use the one-on-one instructional ability of the computer as an opportunity to allow the information highway to bring radical change to education, an important opportunity will have been lost.

The government must begin investing in new software ideas now, unless it wants a highway devoid of cars. Today the software development business is rather primitive. Not only are there no new and innovative cars, there are no tools to make such cars. Software development is still in the horse and buggy stage. The dominant software companies have concentrated on spread sheets, operating systems, and word processing for so long they have long since forgotten how to innovate. The federal government had better start recognizing the need for rethinking what rides on the information highway or there will be a lot of abandoned toll booths along the way.

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