Veteran teacher Kay Toliver was optimistic about the information highway,
but pointed out that her Harlem school has only three TV sets and a small budget.
"This all sounds wonderful, but I still don't have a VCR,
and I still don't have a phone line, or a television that works,
so could somebody help me?"

'Will we have the same largeness of vision?'

Panelists question how well information highway will serve public good

Originally published in Current, Nov. 15, 1993

By Diana Claitor

AUSTIN--Against the backdrop of recent power plays in the communications industry, participants at a PBS-cosponsored conference in Austin Nov. 4-5 worried that the widely anticipated information superhighway will be built without lanes to serve the nation's educational and cultural needs.

"I'm both chastened by the future and my concerns about what will be delivered across all these razzle-dazzle delivery systems," said Ellen Wartella, dean of the College of Communication at the University Texas in Austin, which cosponsored the two-day conference.

"[W]hen I see organizations like AT&T, who have historically been common carriers, moving into the information highway ... I wonder, what will they consider educational?," she added. "Just because we have the technology doesn't mean we'll realize the vision."

During the conference--"Bringing Home the Electronic Highway: Public TV and Universal Access"--participants focused on the role of public broadcasting over the past 25 years and examined how it will fit into plans for the electronic highway, the much-touted combination of video, data and other digital information services that promises to dominate future communication.

Many suggested that the new technology must be explored as more than a commercial medium. Panelists questioned whether, in the frenzy to employ the new technology, there will be a failure to address important issues of funding and regulation.

"People can't even relate to how fast this is all being created," said Howard Miller, PBS senior v.p., as he described the fast growth of the Internet and the home shopping channel QVC, as well as PBS's own satellite systems.

For those in public TV, the chief concern seemed to be in getting--and staying--on the highway. A PBS promo shown at the conference confidently stated that public television was growing in strength at the same rate as the information highway itself. But several speakers noted that public TV has no guaranteed niche in this new environment.

In fact, there seemed to be few certainties for anybody since the technology offers so many possibilities and is developing so quickly that it cannot be compared to earlier forms of communication.

"The past 25 years doesn't offer a model," said Bruce Christensen, former PBS president and now dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications at Brigham Young University.

Speculation about content to be carried on the highway was a dominant theme, as many of the 50-plus participants suggested possibilities. According to some, consumers will be able to tap into a web of customized news, obtain "virtual" counseling, or debate with the instructors of their telecourses. Using tele-medicine, a patient could consult with a physician via an interactive link that would also permit the doctor to take the patient's blood pressure or transmit an x-ray to another doctor for a consultation.

Then there was the recreational angle. "They're creating MUDs or multi-user dungeons," said Christopher Dede, researcher at George Mason University. He explained that players of games like "Dungeons and Dragons" are linking up through synthetic environments. "This 'meta-media' is equally strong in escapism and propaganda. And there's this danger of not having couch potatoes, but couch fungus," Dede said.

Perhaps the only consensus about the information highway is that it is indeed a brand new animal, and "not TV on steroids," as computer columnist and networking innovator Tom Grundner put it. "What we're talking about is an fourth medium," he said.

Keys to the highway

Ervin Duggan, FCC member and once an assistant to President Johnson, stood in as opening speaker for his former White House superior, Douglass Cater, who was unable to attend because of a family emergency.

Duggan said he spoke for both of them when he urged that the educational aspect of the meta-media be developed in a way that would serve the public good. He referred back to the American traditions of the land-grant colleges created in 1862, and the FCC's reservation of noncommercial TV channels in 1952.

"Will we have the same largeness of vision now, to do a public set-aside ... for noncommercial, education and cultural use?" Duggan asked.

Several speakers concluded that for the past 25 years, the public good has been well-served by public television, especially in the educational area. From the long-term triumph of Sesame Street to the recent success of a satellite-driven interactive instructional system in rural Kentucky, public TV advocates touted the system's educational expertise. Citing this history of leadership, PBS representatives spoke of public TV as the logical guardian of the education lane on the information highway.

Others asked how much of an education lane there will be. Most agreed that some schools will have difficulty accessing the information highway, since access requires tremendous capital outlays for user equipment and "on ramps" to the highway.

Kay Toliver, veteran teacher and star of the PBS documentary "Good Morning, Miss Toliver," was vocal in her support of public television as an educational tool and optimistic about the information highway, but she pointed out that her Harlem school has only three TV sets and a small budget.

"This all sounds wonderful, but I still don't have a VCR, and I still don't have a phone line, or a television that works, so could somebody help me?" she asked.

To develop an infrastructure allowing schools to use the new technology, panelists said, will require partnerships between PTV, the private sector, individuals and government.

Who pays, gains and regulates

Funding questions were integral to almost every discussion in the two-day conference. While most agreed that allowing the system to be entirely market-driven would endanger the public interest, nobody could agree on who should pay for what.

Christensen and others suggested that public aspects of the information highway should be funded with public help, just as the railroads were built across the West with federal land grants. A few supported the idea that investors and shareholders should share the risk and the gain. All agreed it would be expensive.

"There needs to be substantial funds and I believe that it should come from auctioning the spectrum, which is worth billions of dollars," said Henry Geller, a communications fellow with the Markle Foundation.

Harry (Chip) Shooshan, co-founder of Strategy Policy Research Inc., said major investment and modernized regulations are needed: "The technology is inadequate, whether you're talking phone or cable." The regulatory environment must be changed to make it possible to develop new technologies, he said.

Others argued in favor of private-sector funding. Paul Jones, senior v.p. at Time Warner Cable Ventures, said that the shareholders who take the risk should reap the benefits.

James McConnaughey, senior economist at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), spoke to some of the funding issues in his address on the role of the agency. In addition to advising the President, the NTIA was recently charged with promoting private-sector investment and with providing matching grants for schools, libraries and others to establish "last mile ramps" to the information highway.

Meta-media, jobs, and society

Former Labor Secretary and economist Ray Marshall placed the new technology within the larger economic context. Speaking at length to an attentive audience, Marshall discussed how new technologies displaces workers, both blue- and white-collar. He also noted that the U.S. was failing to strategize and develop policies to avoid that kind of negative impact.

At the same time, technology is responsible for improving productivity, he said, which allows the nation to triple output while using less physical resources. "This technology has the potential to improve lives and jobs, but there is also the risk that it will polarize society," Marshall said.

Brian Turner, president of the Work and Technology Institute, described that risk.

"This technology could produce a kind of technological caste system, with a small elite, a semi-literate group in the middle, and a large class of illiterates--especially since it's estimated that 40 percent of our adults are illiterate."

Like Marshall, he thought worker training, new forms of education, and universal access to the infostructure would be necessary to prevent that result.

Deborah Kaplan sounded a different cautionary note. Speaking on the issue of "electronic curb cuts," the founder and executive director of the Disability Rights Center said that it was essential to consider the disabled when designing the new technology.

"We are still designing many tools and services for a 19-year-old male," she said. "For example, the new access information kiosks in California use graphic interfaces and touch-screens that don't work for those with impaired vision." She said it's cheaper to make communication systems accessible from the start rather than retrofit them later on.

Specialize on public affairs?

While public television was generally given credit for doing what it does well, some proposed that PBS shift gears. In an often humorous speech, editor and columnist Roger Rosenblatt suggested that public television should focus entirely on public affairs, rather than compete in areas covered by the other 499 channels that are coming.

"There will already be a polka channel," he said, slyly referring to the PTV stations that carry reruns of the Lawrence Welk Show. "And A&E has declared its province. But nobody has claimed public affairs. PBS should play to its strength, which is public affairs."

Rosenblatt would also have public TV be more entertaining and daring with its public affairs programming. "Think more expansively," he advised. "Entice 20-to-40-year-olds to watch public affairs."

Professor Dede proposed, half in jest, that users could be enticed to earn credits to "pay" for the right to have fun on the highway. "Maybe they would have to watch a video on childhood immunization to get the credits necessary to watch world wrestling," he said.

Participants in the conference included academics, PTV executives and representatives of government, labor, business and nonprofits. The conference celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of public television (at KUHT in Houston) and commemorated President Johnson's signing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Lady Bird Johnson attended the first morning's panels.

The telecommunity conference was sponsored by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, the LBJ School for Public Affairs, the Alliance for Public Technology and the University of Texas at Austin, as well as PBS.


The reporter, Diana Claitor, is a freelance writer in Austin and a former PBS staffer.


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