The information Superhighway under construction

In the 1960s and 1970s the words “Road Under Construction” were familiar and frustrating to American who traveled across states, much less across the nation, by car. No, it was not an epidemic of potholes. Rather the United States Federal Government together with private contractors embarked on a massive capital project to build America’s interstate highway system. The interstate highways brought Americans in general, and American consumers and producers in particular, together like never before. Most of us probably take for granted these highways that parallel the old US route system (e.g. Interstate 80 traces the route of US 6) while providing an unparalleled opportunity to go new places and see new faces (and distant cousins, aunts, and uncles). It is no wonder then that what many see as the next major change in America’s infrastructure is being referred to as “the super highway”.

Just as the interest highway system paralleled the old US highways, the information superhighway is designed to parallel the nationwide telephone network that we have long taken for granted. Whereas we travel the interstate system by car or van or motorcycle, entry to the information superhighway will be available at home or at work. Our access will be the telephone, the personal computer, the television set, and new hybrids of these familiar devices.

The term “information superhighway” refers to a number of changes in the way Americans can communicate with each other and with people around the world. The superhighway is increased capacity in the nation’s telecommunications networks. The superhighway is also multiple available means of communication, from traditional wired telephones to cellular telephones to satellite delivery to an antenna on your windowsill. The superhighway is also multiple forms of messages sent and received over the same network, even simultaneously. Cellular telephone users can send and receive voice and FAX message. Some home owners can receive over their telephone lines. Some television viewers can receive telephone calls over their cable TV lines. And voice and data messages can be sent together over a single line from one personal computer user to another. All of these possibilities and more rely significantly on fiber, optic cable, a high volume, versatile, low distortion, glass replacement for the copper wiring network that has connected people in the United States over the past century.

The information superhighway is developing into a dizzying array of business relationships between the Federal Government and all sorts of businesses, as well as among telephone companies, movie producers, computer makers, telephone manufacturers, satellite operators, and cable TV franchisers. If this superhighway is to be paved across the nation, these suppliers must cooperate on technical matters such as communications compatibility among their products and on economic matters such as who pays for the highway construction. Perhaps the ultimate question yet unanswered is: Will Americans use this road, or not?

The information superhighway has significant implications for the design, scope and uses of information systems at any one organization First, managers must decide to a greater extent ever before what information is and is not necessary for running the organization. The prospects for “information overload” are enormous as managers confront situations equivalent to a receiving 500 channels on a cable TV system. Ultimately, strategic planning is crucial in this decision. Knowing ‘who you are’ sets limits on what you need to know.

Second, following from the first issue, managers face new decision about investments in equipment and services with which they and their employees can “travel” the information superhighway. For example must all salespersons have a laptop computer and cellular telephone? Are so called “voice mail” systems more cost effective than having answering machines or extra secretarial staff? These kinds of questions, once again, can be framed by the results of strategic planning. Otherwise new technologies can become “playthings” rather than tools for running an organizations efficiently and effectively.

Third, managers and their employees can feel a loss of control over information that is key to their business, now that it becomes more and more publicly available over the information superhighway. Information about competitor’s products, market growth trends, impending regulations, and global prospects can be a source of competitive advantage if your organization has it and others do not. So, possession of information becomes less important than using that information in ways that serve customers distinctively in the new information superhighway era.

Fourth, and on the heels of the preceding point, the information superhighway continues the trend within organizations of decentralization of information systems management. If end user computing began to change the role of MIS professionals from remote experts working behind closed doors to advisors and teachers, the information superhighway portends continuation of that shift. With groupware, picture phones, and fiber optic cables, a buyer at one retail organization can simultaneously talk and compare sketches and send data to a supplier of children’s clothing, for example. In traveling the information superhighway, such buyers, more and more, become MIS professionals in the regular course of their job. Job redesign for MIS becomes a real possibility.

Fifth, ownership of information becomes more complicated than it already is under copyright laws. If more and more people are acquiring and transforming information on the information superhighway protection for those who created the information becomes a heightened concern for all. More extensive negotiations and new kinds of property protection will likely emerge.

Sixth, the spread of the information superhighway raises ethical concerns about who knows what about whom. In particular, more information about consumers will become diffused around the nation’s network and database. And those consumers might be testy, if not militant, about how that information is used. Managers must keep in mind that new terms of relationships with customers will probably become necessary. That requires sensitivity to consumers’ concerns, not merely assuming that more information makes everyone better off.

The so called Caller ID (or Automatic Line Identification) is a prime case in point. Available now in many states, Caller ID is a software feature of the telephone network that displays on an in expensive device or special phone the telephone number of the person making the call to the person receiving the call. Along the information superhighway, in other words, the caller’s voice and telephone number are transmitted simultaneously.

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