Libraries based on clay documents enabled priests to monopolize knowledge in ancient Babylon. Papyrus scrolls supported the limited democracy of Greek city-states, and the rule of law in ancient Rome. Paper and the printing press, used to reproduce texts in the language of the common people, precipitated the Reformation, the end of feudalism, and the emergence of parliamentary democracy, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution.
Technology continues to transform our lives and forward the aspirations of people around the world. Who can forget, for example, the student dissidents in Beijing who used computers and facsimile communications to make their case before the world and launch communist China's first democratic uprising?
Individual technologies like the fax machine can make a difference in our lives and even influence events. The convergence of interactive multimedia and the information highway marks a truly disorienting, potentially liberating step ahead for humankind. This phenomenon, like that of the affordable mass-produced automobile and the interstate highway system, can change the economy, the physical landscape, and the very nature of community in America.
TV, video, computers, networked communications, and a host of new digital, microprocessor-based applications are all, it turns out, pieces of a puzzle that is only now coming into view.
This dynamism of convergence is extraordinary. As people explore its possibilities into the future, the interactive frontier will unfold in ways that its pioneers today can't possibly imagine. In fact, any presumption today about how convergence will ultimately change the lives of our children and grandchildren is not likely to be a sound basis for public policy. Though Vice President Albert Gore (as a U.S. Senator) predicted an explosion of activity and innovation on the "Information Superhighway" 6 years ago, few others gave much credence to the Internet or the then emerging phenomenon of the World Wide Web.
The data are finally catching up with Gore's optimism. A Newsweek poll published in February 1995 found that 13 percent of adult Americans said they had gone online, 4 percent had perused the Web, and 2 percent had logged on for an hour or more each day. As interest among consumer and business computer users climbs, online activity accelerates exponentially. Growth of commercial online services (e.g., Prodigy, America Online, and CompuServe) remains in the double digits. Products promising easy World Wide Web navigation, such as Mosaic and Netscape Navigator, are proliferating, and modem ownership doubled in the second half of 1994.
Interactive television, video teleconferencing, work group computing, and other important interactive media are also gaining footholds as the so-called "killer" applications that will catapult them into the mainstream begin to emerge. Together, these applications will justify a national information infrastructure (NII) analogous to basic telephone or cable television service.
Today's convergence of interactive electronic media is unique in more ways than one. In addition to the novelty of the new interactive media and their intriguing capabilities, we have witnessed unprecedented public input and participation in their development. In large part these new media are closely linked to the ascent of the personal computer. Unlike other communications infrastructures, most recently cable TV, the new media owe as much to the individual PC developer, engineer, and enthusiast as they do to any corporate, institutional, or government initiative.
This, in part, explains the popularity of new interactive media among educated, middle- and upper-income American families. These are people who use computers and online services at work and at home for both serious tasks and leisure. There is an enthusiasm for interactive media among this group akin to the frontier spirit that propelled individuals and families westward in search of opportunity and adventure.
The new interactive frontier, however, is a "virtual" one, defined by the fact that it is always changing and not limited by traditional constructs of geographic proximity, time, or self-actualization. It is at once infinite in scope and capable of redefining one's sense of community. It provides a forum in which individuals, organizations, and social groups are empowered to create, collect, exchange, and distribute information in previously unimaginable ways.
This virtual frontier is predictably confounding many existing standards and ideas about legal jurisdiction. It is also dredging up new versions of old questions about what constitutes social equality. And