The Infoway: Don't Mess with Mr. In-Between

For those who haven't lived long enough to recognize this column's heading of for those who have lived long enough that they tend to forget, it is from a catchy tune that you now hear only on nostalgia radio:

`You got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative and don't mess with mister-in-between'

For most of us the Information Highway may be mister-in-between. We are so focused on it that we forget to pick a destination for our society. Information technology is not so much `changing our world' as suggested in te opening line of the final report of the Information Highy Advisory Council, as it is enabling us to change our world for the better.

Europe seems more preoccupied than we are with the social consequence on designing their information infrastructure. The European Commission established (May '95) the High Level Expert Group on the Social and Societal Aspects of the Information Society. The chairman, Professor Luc L.G. Soete, in submitting the `first reflections' of the Group in January, noted:

`All these opportunities for renewed growth, higher welfare and quality of life depend crucially on what we would call the congruence between the technological, economic and social dimensions of the information society. No outcome is predetermined. Thus, just as in the case of industrial and commercial enterprises where the adoption of new technologies will be the subject of cautious analyses and rarely be based on speed only, so too should the societal adoption of new technologies be based on policy debate and on the search for measures necessary to achieve an economical and socially integrated information society.'

The Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, European Commission, Padraig Flynn, in the foreword to the report, says that the experts lay out some key dimensions of a `European Model' of the information society:

`They point the need to create a Learning Society. This is an important issue in developing a stronger social dimension to the information society, [which] will be a Knowledge Society, based on the know how and the wisdom of people, not the information in machines.'

High emphasis on learning illustrates that, although access to the Infoway is important, it is insufficient to ensure rapid development of a knowledge-based economy

The report suggests that there could be different models of information societies, as there are different models of industrialized societies. It recommends a European Model characterized by a strong ethos of solidarity. The Group emphasizes four features of such an active solidarity:

High emphasis on learning illustrates that, although access to the infoway is important, it is insufficient to ensure rapid development of a knowledge-based economy;

There are trneds towards individualization of aspects of life (e.g. targeted benefits, personalized health care) that will make services responsive to individual needs, but also raise major risks of invasion of privacy;

Human activity (e.g. work, leisure, banking) will occur over networks. These activities will be based increasingly on representations of reality. Some of us will not be able to cope with operating, primarily, in virtual reality;

The balance of social costs and advantage will shift. The place of work in peoples' lives will pose difficult problems, particularily for the large number of people faced with unemployment, under-employment, or unstable employment patterns.

In my judgement Canadians would do well to follow this European lead and raise the level and content of the debate on these broad aspects of the information highway.

more information from the High Level Experts Group my be found at their website,

Fred Belaire may be reached by fax at 613-733-0263

Last updated September 9, 1996