Altruism and benefit in Cyberspace

By Børre Ludvigsen

In times of great change
The development of public electronic information systems
Interaction in public broadcast and personal communications

In times of great change

One of the major reasons for the acceptance of change is to meet and presumably resolve new challenges. In spite of apparently accelerating change, challenges to society both local and global appear to outstrip that justification of progress at an even greater rate.

As I write this on a fairly ordinary September evening, the past 2 hours have seen me send 13 scanned postcards from Lebanon to a colleague in Sweden, pick up some software in Oregon, 'chat' on screen with a friend at Lillehammer, advise a student working on a project, carry on a discussion by email with a friend in England, send a fax to the US and read a few articles in my favourite electronic news group. All from the comfort of my home office, all from my personal workstation and all in real time at fairly satisfactory transfer rates. On the same screen, or one of the other screens of several personal computers in my home office, I can watch and digitise live television from a choice of more channels than I care to count. Running an experimental remote workplace for the Norwegian Telecom, I have, as the expression goes, the world at my fingertips. I can communicate with a substantial number of people all over the globe. A very important factor is that we communicate in many modes, with respect to time, place and action. We can relate as individuals and groups in both transmission and reception. Most important of all we can act, not only communicate. In other words, our communication can provoke actions influencing not only ourselves as participants, but others as observers, and consequently propagate both knowledge and action.

The project has allowed me to look into and experience permutations on ways in which information technology (IT) might develop. That development which is necessary to accommodate the degrees of knowledge augmentation necessary to meet the challenges that seem to overwhelm us. For it is not in specialised fields that there are particularly great needs for knowledge augmentation. Those classes of society and professions that already have access to the information they need are doing quite well. For the most successful, aptly exemplified by our own Middle East negotiators, the necessary information for problem solution is actively collected in the field as a matter of course. But those communities in this global society, which has increasingly come to rely on interacting information and information about interacting processes as guides for collective action, who do not have interactive access to information, are increasingly left behind as disadvantaged.

It is that majority of society on which we will have to rely in meeting and resolving those challenges that increasingly threaten the fabric of inter-communal survival. The informationally advantaged can only provide suggestions subject to confusing debate by their peers. The results of that debate have only in a few instances provided solutions that form the basis of guidance to communal solutions. More substantially, that debate, while being evidence of measured democracy, has also provided the basis for rejection of political and social stability, more often than not resulting in turmoil at worst and decadence at best.

The development of public electronic information systems

This year sees the 70th anniversary of Norwegian broadcasting. As with many other broadcasting endeavours, it started as a mainly technological achievement. But even during the first broadcast, the aims of the effort was declared. It was clearly understood that it was necessary that the enterprise have a clear purpose and one that was understood to be reasonably altruistic. The opening broadcast stated quite clearly that public radio broadcasts in Norway would be run with the purpose of public information and enlightenment.

The development of electronic information systems for public use which started with the telegraph have been successively complemented by the teleprinter, telephone, radio broadcasting, telefax, television broadcasts and digital computer networks. Each system has its own very particular characteristics and implications for the way in which information is disseminated and used. The latest one is that which concerns us the most, as it is the least mature and represents the greatest potential in merging the characteristics and potential of all the previous combined.

Before we dismiss them as primarily corporate and technically removed from the public at large, it should be noted that both telegraph and teleprinter represent unique and far-reaching changes in the societies that took advantage of them. Both telegraph and teleprinter were essential to the industrialisation of western society. It is also interesting to note that the teleprinter, which was basic to the development of the financial supporting structure of western society through dissemination of stock market information, was the immediate precursor of the interactive computer network.

These electronic communication systems have two basic modes of operation that characterise their influence on society at large. While radio and television broadcasting is technically non-interactive and transmits one-to-many, the wire based telegraph, telex and telephone systems are essentially interactive, transmit and receive in one-to-one patterns. These very different modes of use determine strongly the way in which they are used and the way in which public authority view their usefulness. Tempting though it may be to follow the development of public IT along technological lines, it is the social relationship to the various technologies that set the conditions for the way in which they are used both by authority and public.

As recent events have illustrated beyond reasonable doubt, it is the measure of democracy that determines the relative success of societies whether they be rich or poor. And it is the measure of active citizen participation which determines the success of democracy. In his article The Economics of Life and Death (1), Amartya Sen argues convincingly that 'It is significant that no democratic country with a relatively free press has ever experienced a major famine (although some have managed prevention more efficiently than others). This generalisation applies to poor democracies as well as rich ones.' So what has been the role of IT in the success of democratic societies and what are the prerequisites for successful progress in that development?

Let us first look at the various ways in which public IT have been applied and used. The simplest IT-system, the telegraph, has virtually disappeared from public use. It is used only in the most difficult of radio conditions for point-to-point communications where its very concentrated bandwidth has the ability of penetrating noise that would otherwise obliterate comprehension of message. Similarly, the telephone is a fairly uninteresting form of public communication as it is essentially also limited to one-to-one communication and not very suitable for broadcasting. Although both the telephone and telegraph have been extremely successful as strategic implements in both personal lifesaving and national campaigns, it is probably the attitude to their position in relation to public awareness that is the true measure of their significance. It is noteworthy that in his biography of Kemal Ataturk, the 'father' of modern Turkey, Lord Kinross often mentions the importance of the loyalty of the telegraph service as a weapon in the struggle against the allied victors of World War I in forging a nation from the remnants of the Ottoman empire (2). It might at first thought appear odd that the telegraph would survive a war situation. Much in the way it might appear curious that telephone is not the target of suppression by occupying forces at time of war.

Broadcast radio on the other hand is often the immediate target of suppression and control. The confiscation of radio sets during the early days of the German occupation of Norway during World War II is indicative of the attitude of public authority to important public IT systems. While telephone and telegraph is just as important as a source of surveillance as it is a means of communication, the geographical coverage and character of content in broadcast radio was considered too dangerous for it to remain freely available. The lengths to which various Eastern European nations have gone to jam western radio broadcast up until the end of the 1980s is adequate illustration of similar politics. What is so significant in the way radio is used?

At the height of its development as public communication system, broadcast radio was singularly well adapted as a means by which to disseminate the information that built the knowledge base that caused the tremendous social and political transformations during the first half of this century. It appears to have been particularly significant in the building of democratic forms of government. Norwegian radio had the declared aim at its launching to be a source of information to the public. During the pre-war years and during the period of national reconstruction after the second world war, radio was actively used by the government in providing public information. The information appears to have been used by the public in a peculiarly interactive way to augment popular knowledge in order to meet the challenges that faced the country during those two periods of national construction. Radio reached a measure of maturity in the pre-war period of heady independence from the union with Sweden. The educational lecture had long been established as a source of information for serious discussion among listeners. In the post war years that form of entertainment became even more significant.

Families would gather round the radio to concentrate on the message emanating from Oslo. Lectures of up to an hour and twenty minutes without breaks might be considered ridiculous in countries where the nature of broadcast radio was of a more entertaining nature. In Norway, however, the 1950s were years of relatively high deprivation. The radio provided significant information both with respect to material well-being such as preventive health programs, the efforts against tooth decay and regular exercise. Radio was in a curious way interactive. Not in a technical way, but in the way the information content it presented was utilised. Not only would families and extended groups of listeners gather round the radio and discuss what they had heard immediately after the program, the information sent would be debated in the workplace. Discussion groups, especially those instigated by labour unions, were both popular and important during those years.

It may quite successfully be argued that workplace discussions were as important in the destruction of the workplace itself as they were in its building. There can, however, be no doubt that this activity was quite earnestly directed at making social conditions better, both at work and in the home. Even though newspapers also were sober sources of news and debate, broadcast radio was a source of information that commanded the attention of the population at large during the extensive period that someone has termed internationally as the 'golden years between V-J day and OPEC'. Even during the early years of television, broadcast radio commanded significant popular attention in the population. There was a heightened sense that while television represented entertainment, radio was responsible for impartial information and debate. I personally remember quite vividly listening to radio lectures and debates during the late 60s and some time into the 70s.

With the advent and dominance of television, the character of popular information through IT systems changed significantly. This article will not go into the debate on the degenerative social effects of television, but rather touch on its position in the gradual development of popular IT communication systems. For various reasons, primarily political, but also economic - the informational quality of television in this country as it matured into the late 70s was quite astounding, even though the transition from an awareness of adult education to adult education was quite marked. A significant number of talented and acclaimed authors and dramatists were engaged in adapting material for television, an effort that appears to have culminated in the wealth of British TV productions in the first half of the 1980s.

None of the programming of television has been as acutely well attuned to the informational needs of society as radio was in the initial post-war period. Information from radio was blatantly transmitted and consciously used as knowledge augmentations on the adult and school age population to meet the challenges facing Norwegian society at that time. That has neither been official policy in television, nor has it been the effect. To put a not too fine point to the argument, it is difficult to see what contribution in-depth knowledge about the digestive systems of Galapagos sea-iguana can make in solving the present lamentable state of employment in the country. Even the character of debate in Norwegian television has turned from the hour long lecture (that admittedly became intolerably dreary in the end) to the rapid fire of holster talk-show where nothing but irritation with both the audacity of the interviewer and subservience of the interviewed are perceived.

At this point in time we are at another significant cross-roads in the development of popular IT communication systems. I would venture the argument that the inherent apathy of television, that characteristic which makes it singularly addictive to the viewer, attractive to the investor, and aggressive to those it seeks to present, is its absolute monological way of communicating its message. In its most popular forms, it is no longer used as a significant source of information for discussion. People do not gather round the television as a group intent on information gathering. Its significance as a source beyond that of tomorrow's weather and traffic conditions on the way to work are minimal.

Clearly, the measure of success in the development and use of communicative IT in the past has been its contribution to the way in which it disseminates the information necessary to meet important challenges in the society it serves. At this point in time that part of IT seems moribund in a profusion of radio and television channels that compete not for the serious attention of listeners and viewers, but for the more important interest of sponsors and advertisers. It appears that the ratings are a much more important measure of the significance of communication IT in society than the ability of that technology to contribute to the common problem-solving process.

Norwegian Telecom has traditionally been the carrier for all telecommunications and broadcast in this country. That is as it should be. It would be catastrophic if we were to be dependent on a conglomerate of carriers serving only a selection of broadcasters in the way the cable television companies have carved out their respective territories in various parts of the country. The same Norwegian Telecom is now peddling the mass communication technologies of the future. The reasons are many, but significantly without any conscious foundation in a public mission. When we first had a telephone installed in the early 1970s, there was a fairly long waiting period. The installation was costly. The initial down payment of several hundred dollars was extended as a long-term loan to the Telecom company which was used to build modern transmission systems in a country with an extensive and difficult geography. Now that we have one of the most modern cable and satellite based communication networks in the world, Telecom is eager to cash in on its investments.

Technologically, Norwegian Telecom has come a long way. It has not only grasped that digital communication is the foundation of both personal communication and public broadcast, it has also understood that it must somehow be involved in defining the role which many of the future forms of communication will take. On occasions where such services are presented, it is the technical side of matters that are presented as overwhelmingly important. While it is undeniable that the plain ability of glass fibre and copper wire to carry streams of data wide enough and quickly enough that determine the type of service that can be provided, it is the character and demand for that service which dictates its acceptance by those who will use it. It is often stated that all those involved in the use of future communications services will profit from them. Historically it is important to learn the lesson that 'profit' in public communications systems is first achieved when the system matures to a state where it is perceived to augment the public level of knowledge contributing to social challenges.

Successful communication systems are not always those introduced by the public carriers. The telefax is a fairly good example. The success of the telefax is not perceived as being due to any active marketing by the international telecom carriers, but rather because of its popularity in ease of operation and added functionality over ordinary telephone lines. The fax, however, has all of the public communications appeal of the telegraph. Its greatest appeal is unattended personal messaging. Telefax is a communication technology waiting for electronic mail to 'get its act together'. Probably the most important lesson of the telefax 'revolution' is that it is accepted by an ever increasing public not primarily for economic reasons, but for reasons of functionality and convenience.

Interaction in public broadcast and personal communications

The last couple of years have seen developments in the relationship between digital communication technology and its application that should make the developers of IT systems sit up and watch. I am not at all sure of the consequence of the following observation, but we ought to be convinced that the implications are important: In 1935, president Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act (3), the tangible evidence of his New Deal policy. The challenges that appeared almost to overwhelm American society at the depths of economic and social depression gave rise to two significant and oddly inter-related phenomena. A time of deep and new-found social consciousness gave rise to an unprecedented use of information technology. For it was with the implementation of the Social Security Act that one of the greatest single efforts at data-gathering and processing was made. Computation was set to work for the public good on an unprecedented scale. Almost 60 years later, the United States government is again enacting legislation in the same two areas of social significance. Collective public and government concerned with reform of the American health care system is accompanied by quite significant public investment in national data communications systems where contribution to education and research are important expectations.

To me, the single most important observation to be made from the above 'coincidence' is the apparent (conscious or unconscious) lack of fear from transfer of informational power in the impending digital broadcast systems that will develop on the basis of the 'highways of information' program. The reason for this may simply be the fact that American government has never been involved in using public broadcast for controlled information dissemination purposes. The result has been public IT communications system that entertains both the adulation and contempt of the American public.

In countries such as ours, where public broadcasting still commands some degree of respect, it is important that planners of future digital broadcasting pay attention to basic long-term effects in IT development as it relates to entire communities, rather than short-term interests. While lists of possible services including 'movies on demand', credit ratings services, and so forth are singularly boring, mundane functions like file transfer and interactive, public information are often absent. As the most important innovator and contributor to the development of new communications technologies, Norwegian Telecom has the responsibility of injecting an appropriate measure of altruism in those services. It is also responsible for providing those authorities, public or private that have information on which knowledge can be built, with the necessary basic information on which to form their policies toward interactive broadcasting. For it is unquestionable that digital communications of the future will be interactive in various forms.

My own experience with a home and (remote) workplace wired into the international Internet on a 64 kb/s digital communications line has convinced us of the importance of a wide scale of interactivity in communications services. Our entire family has actively been using a local Ethernet with 5 computers, television in various degrees of integration. The single most important observation after half a year of immersion in a domestic digital information system is the personal satisfaction and sense of control that has come with complete involvement in the choice and contribution to the pool of information flowing in the net. It has brought out a degree of enthusiasm and anticipation that was inconceivable in front of the television set.

So far, our experience seems to indicate that digital network communications ranging from personal interactive communication to one-way entertainment broadcast should be based on a few basic tenets.

Of the more important challenges to our highway providers is the policy of giving the lowest possible initial pricing to build volume and available information sources. Simultaneously, our politicians should duplicate the policies of the late pre-war and early post-war years of providing public libraries and forums for knowledge augmentation, debate and developing democracy.

Even though there is good reason to believe that great efforts will be made at creating lucrative markets for variations on arcade games and similar forms of entertainment, the fear should not be that vast sections of the public will inevitably become vegetables. Digital networks will certainly not look the way they do now, and they will most certainly be more than video games and TV shopping. If the popular press is to be believed, the public seems already aware of an alternative, 'virtual worlds you can hook into - and get hooked on - are the latest rage on the computer networks' (4). And beyond the initial infatuations with entertainment in various guises will come the digital convenience and functionality of practising and sharing the common experiences and interests of everyday life with friends and like-minded both in the local community and the world at large. Wasn't that what we always wanted, but found postage stamps too slow at, and jet age pollutant travel too expensive for?


[1] Sen, A. The economics of life and death. Scientific American, 268(5), 1993.

[2] Lord Kinross. Ataturk: the rebirth of a nation. Cyprus, K Rustem & Brother, 1981.

[3] A computer perspective, background to the computer age. Boston, Harvard University Press, 1990.

[4] Elemer-DeWitt, P. The Amazing Video Game Boom. Time Magazine, 39, 44-50, 1993.

[5] Germain, E. In the Jungle of MUD. Time Magazine, 37, 51, 1993.

[6] I begynnelsen var støyen. TV programme on NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting) Oct 2, 1993.

[7] Ludvigsen, B. Cyberspace som møteplass. OLUFF, 2, 1992.

[8] Wig, K A. A series of programmes about Norwegian public radio. NRK, broadcast in 1993.

[9] Hjeltnes, G. Krigshverdag, bilder fra norske familiealbumer 1949-45. Oslo, Schibsted, 1990.

[10] Walther, R. Gamle Virksomheter i Fredrikstad, Mindre Alv. rbok III. Fredrikstad Museum, 123, 1986-89.