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OF SOFTWARE AND EMPTY TOLL BOOTHS INVESTMENT MUST BE MADE IN CARS THAT WILL TRAVEL THE SUPERHIGHWAY

By Published on .

The action has started. Companies are merging. Roads are being built. Toll booths are planned. On and off ramps are busily being constructed. Everyone wants to be part of the information highway.

Isn't it odd that with all this talk about infrastructure no one is building cars? We will have superhighways, but they will support the travel of horses and buggies that might be well advised to stick to the old roads anyway.

Whenever new technology is introduced, it tends to look a great deal like what it isreplacing when the transition begins. The first cars were simply motorized buggies. Early movies were often just plays on film. Early TV was radio with pictures. It was a long time after Gutenberg before novels became a recognized art form.

So, what difference does it make if the great information highway makers can't think of anything better to deliver than movies that already have effective delivery mechanisms, or newspapers that are probably better read in their traditional form, or dial-up printouts of the "Mona Lisa"? Eventually the industry will evolve a new kind of vehicle for the information highway, one that will be worth the wait. Won't it?

Well, maybe it will, but it will be a long time coming, considering the lack of investment so far, and those backing the information highway cannot afford to wait.

With the massive investment being made in infrastructure by the federal government and with the mergers and buyouts going on in the industry, with a variety of companies poised to make their moves in highway building, it is amazing how little effort is being devoted to creating the content that will move on the highway.

No one seems to be thinking in an interesting way about what the cars on the information highway should look like, what they should be able to do, and who could possibly build them.

A recent announcement from the federal government entitled "The National Information Infrastructure: The Administration's Agenda for Action" asks its reader to "Imagine the dramatic changes in your life if: the best schools, teachers, and courses were available to all students, without regard to geography ... The vast resources of art, literature and science were available everywhere ... You could see the latest movies, play the hottest videogames ... You could obtain government information directly ..."

It is in this imagining that the problem lies. Is the government investing hundreds of millions so that it will be easier to play videogames and watch movies? Is the problem with our educational system simply that there are great courses out there that students are missing because they live in the wrong place?

Are the complexities of dealing with government going to be made easier if all the thousands of government pamphlets that nobody reads now are made available on computer? Is the reason that so few people use libraries or go to art museums simply that they can't do these things at home? Someone has misunderstood something profoundly.

The misunderstanding lies in the assumption that what people will want to do on the information highway is precisely what they have been doing all along without it. There are some tremendous needs in our society that the information highway could satisfy, but these aren't being talked about at all. Why not?

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 TV 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 online 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.

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 videogames. These are easy 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.

The reason 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.

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.

Software development is still in the horse and buggy stage. The dominant software companies have concentrated on spreadsheets, 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.

Roger Schank is director of the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

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