Wrong metaphors can lead you astray
April 3, 1997

The phrase "Information Super Highway" is currently used to describe the Internet of the future. Some would try to say it represents the Internet of today. They are usually government officials, sales people and those who haven’t tried to use it recently.

As any person who has used the Internet for more than 30 seconds could tell you, this description simply is not valid, particularly if the user is not located in the United States. Those of us here in Argentina attempting to obtain information and programs from the USA can readily agree with the concept of "The World Wide Wait."

Today, the Internet is more of an "Information Dirt Road," complete with bumps, potholes and roadkill. To continue with the metaphor of a road, today’s Internet is well described by a joke that has been circulating for some time:

"The Internet is a highway hundreds of lanes wide with each intersection containing many on ramps but no signs. If you want to find your way, you have to yell out the window at a passing truck and ask for directions. Bridges and overpasses are privately owned and the laws are vague and always changing. There is no highway patrol or other law enforcement operations, just some "rent-a-cops" on bicycles with broken whistles. Vigilante groups with 500 members and nuclear weapons enforce their own concept of what is right. Users of some lanes are allowed to vote on the creation of laws while other lanes are left as anarchic wastes where users shoot first and ask questions later. Some vehicles have lawnmower engines and are only capable of crawling while others burn high-octane fuels and pass by at twice the speed of sound with the engine only idling. There are no license plates and vehicles are painted like World War II bombers with huge teeth or vampire eagles. Bumper mounted machine guns and anti-aircraft missile batteries are standard equipment for defense from abuse, but what constitutes abuse is up to the person holding the trigger."

While this makes for amusing reading and reminds many people of their Internet experiences, it is still linked to an incorrect metaphor. Consider any transport structure based around a Super Highway. To start with, you cannot walk, ride a bicycle or drive a tractor on a Super Highway. You must follow certain laws about the direction travelled, the speed you move at, the signals you must give before changing lanes, etc. You often must pay tolls and, of course, you pay many taxes for the vehicle you use, the fuel that keeps it going and so on. You cannot build a road yourself, you must rely on the government to create it. This implies that the government determines where the road goes and where it lets you get on and off. Any town or city not serviced by a set of on and off ramps is bypassed, ignored by the travellers as they whiz by. Users must rely on the government to determine what is safe and what is dangerous, protecting them with laws and then providing the resources to enforce them.

If the metaphor of the Internet as a Super Highway continues, it will be only natural that taxes will be imposed, the types of devices that can be used on it regulated plus laws and limits established with enforcers to ensure they are followed. Additionally, the government will determine where the Internet goes and what places it can access. They will determine for the “protection” of the users what is safe and what is dangerous. Is this truly what we require from a source of information, education, entertainment and communication?

A more accurate metaphor for the Internet would be "The Information Game Reserve." In this picture of the Internet, all information and users are "out there." You can walk, ride, drive or fly to where you want go. Information is all around you and, if you sit still, you can watch the animals passing by. Guide services are available to point the way and assist the people who are making their first expeditions. There are lions hunting zebras and occasionally poachers hunting everything. Eventually, the zebras learn to avoid the lions and game wardens deter the poachers. Occasionally, the lions deter the poachers as well.

In this view of the Internet, information is not selected, filtered and then fed to users at high speeds like a new form of television. Destinations are not imposed by ruling bodies but are allowed to establish themselves in their own space and be found by those who are interested in them. Information is made available for users to find as they require, without censorship or control. This means the good is mixed with the bad and it is up to the user to determine what is true and what is false, not a government working like a nanny for "the greater good."

Perhaps if more people describe the Internet with this metaphor, users will realise that the Internet is not just some grand expansion of television, but rather a place where you actively participate. Users can learn to think for themselves and ask questions without relying on the government to "protect" them. Maybe this is why the government prefers the "Super Highway" metaphor where information is controlled and piped to the passive masses rather than the "Game Reserve" where users seek answers to their questions and learn to determine what is wrong and what is right for themselves.

First published in the Buenos Aires Herald on April 3rd, 1997. Also printed in the Personal Computer Club of Torronto's "read.me" publication (September 1997).