Although the term Information Highway has been called a flawed metaphor, it serves an important role in providing a catch-all term for developments that are in chaos and are poorly understood. It is used to refer to such diverse phenomena as interactive television, video on demand, home shopping, multimedia and distance education. While the INTERNET provides a crucial model for the future, it is only one aspect of the revolution in communications, as it has been supplemented by other technologies.
While the initial media hype has abated and some skepticism has emerged, the communications industries are showing no such ambivalence about the Information Highway and, in doing so, are supported by governments across the world. Japan alone has committed $450 billion to building the Superhighway by the year 2015, whereas the US has pledged $100 billion, Europe $200 billion and the UK $45 billion. In Canada, concern over the potential loss of "competitiveness" in these developments led to the formation of the Information Highway Advisory Council in 1994 by the federal Department of Industry to aid government in forming public policy.
Industry and government have concluded that the Information Highway will be the driving force behind economic growth of the next century through new services delivered to home and business and through the transformation of existing services. Success in the new regime will require that each of the traditional information and communications industries re-evaluates how they do business and how they interact with consumers - or in the case of government, how it interacts with the public. All the traditional media producers, from television and film to book publishing, will need to reconsider the means by which they deliver their content.
The ability to translate all media into digital form is fundamental to all the changes associated with the Information Highway. Digitization refers to the process by which all media, from video to text, are processed by computers, manipulated, mixed, transformed and delivered in new ways.
The spread of the personal computer to offices and to homes brings increasing power to a wide audience that will soon equal the audience available to television or radio. Computers not only provide the means to receive and display information, in the way that television sets do, they also allow the added dimension of interactivity and control. In a related development, the invention of optical storage devices such as CD-ROMs and DVDs provides computers with the means to handle huge amounts of digital information. This has led to the development of multimedia and allowed producers of content (games, information, training tools and the like) to invent new products.
Spread of the Internet
The Internet has provided the true metaphor for the kind of connectivity that will lead to future developments. By linking millions of computers all over the world, the Internet has revolutionized the exchange of information be it for business or private purposes, and through the World Wide Web it has lead the way in showing how multimedia can be delivered directly to the computer.
Whether driven by predicted opportunities, fear of being left behind or by unexpected developments, the coming of the Information Highway has brought chaos to the traditional communications industries. Like all major historical changes, the Information Highway has rapidly blurred the lines between old technologies and given rise to new connections (see MEDIA CONVERGENCE). In 1995, the CRTC recommended that cable and telephone companies be able to compete in formerly exclusive domains. In book publishing, traditional publishers see themselves forced to form new partnerships with graphic arts and computer programmers. The outcome of these technological convergences will depend on innovations in a highly competitive market.
In an area of vast private investment, many people worry that a revolution driven starkly by profit will ignore the public good, that, for example, convergence of content producers and content deliverers will result in biased sources of information. The new technologies obviously offer great new opportunities for education both in the schools and at home, but the question of who will invest in the rich content needed to raise the Information Highway above the consumerism and entertainment culture that dominates television remains open. In Canada the potential that the vestiges of Canadian culture will disappear in a world-wide culture dominated by a handful of media conglomerates is likely to persist for the time being.