The forbidding challenge of the next Century looms over the Present.
Rapid growth in population and consumption will place unprecedented
stresses on natural resources, on the global environment, and on current
economic and political systems . The outcome of this fateful confrontation
between humankind's inexorable growth and the planet's finite carrying
capacity will ultimately depend on the behavior of billions of diverse
individuals, who develop in and identify with an enormous range of
Communications technology has progressively extended individual
awareness beyond the child's face-to-face community since at least
Gutenburg. Books, newspapers, transistor radios, cassette players, and
video have each contributed to major historical change. Some new
communication technologies like magazines in the late 19th and first half of
the 20th Century have proven to be an integrating force socially. Some, like
broadcast video, have undermined traditional communities more than they
have helped develop new functional communities based on shared values
and mutual obligations.
New interactive electronic communications during the early decades
of the 21st Century will strongly impact individuals and groups , perhaps as
profoundly as broadcast radio and video shaped the 20th Century.
Inexpensive access to easy-to-use, two-way, content-rich networks are
likely to attract enormous participation, at least in the developed regions of
the world. Thus, it is important for those trying to fashion policies and
actions leading to sustainable and enlightened conditions through the next
century to envision how the transition from one-way electronic mass
communications to interactive and networked communications may impact
communities of all kinds and thus modify the basis of behavior and
governance in the century ahead.
That was the objective of a small exploratory workshop sponsored by
the Markle Foundation of New York City and hosted by The Aspen Institute
Communication and Society Program at Aspen, August 27-29, 1994. The
participants are listed in Appendix A. Here we present a brief summary of
the general views that emerged.
- COMMUNITY AND COMMUNICATION
2.1 The Nature of Community.
John Gardner has singled out the unifying notion of "community" as
the key to viewing social and individual behavior generally* . At the most
basic level, members of any community are fundamentally bound by
shared values and a sense of mutual responsibility. Face-to-face
communities ( the family, extended family, school, neighborhood) are
where individuals first learn these shared values and mutual obligations.
As individuals mature they identify to varying extents with larger, dispersed
communities-- professional and economic, recreational and sports, ethnic
and religious, political and geographic, social and "moral". However, for
communities to be harmonious externally as well as internally they must
provide not only a sense of belonging and wholeness for their members,
but incorporate and tolerate diversity as well. This intrinsic tension
between bonding internally and a sense of separateness - even hostility -
externally is a universal attribute of community!
2.2 Worldwide Obsolescence of Hierarchical, Command
has characterized the second half of the 20th Century. The abrupt collapse
of the Soviet Union was the most dramatic example of the diminishing
power of central governments worldwide -- but, similar patterns are
prevalent in the US, Western Europe, China, Africa, Central America,
Japan. The prevailing global trend now is strongly toward dispersion of
authority and responsibility downward and outward with the need for
increased two-way communication, as manifested by privatization of
traditional government functions, downsizing of large corporations, and
growth of small enterprises worldwide.
2.3 Dispersed, Self-organizing Leadership on an Unprecedented
is required in this emerging post-Cold War world. There is the necessity to
go beyond just interacting to enhancing positive relationships and problem
solving. Communities must offer members bonding beyond shared
materialistic needs ( they must incorporate subjective values. There is a
uniquely modern need to reinvent community with each generation -- the
consequence of the unprecedented rate of social and economic change
driven by accelerating technological change.
2.4 Conflict Resolution -
Leaders need to receive feedback from community members. Hence, the
importance of interactive communications. Interactive links are needed to
bind communities large and small, nearby and remote, familiar and
strange. There are successful examples of conflict resolution through
interactive face-to-face communication, especially at the city level , but
also in more dispersed communities. The potential of interactive networks
to resolve or to exacerbate conflict needs to be better publicized and
2.5 New Interactive Communication Technology
(NICT for the rest of this report) can help communities to function better by
facilitating dispersed leadership in the post-Command Era. But it also can
erode a community's hold on members who will become more capable of
interacting remotely with other , competitive communities. Like nearly all
new technologies it offers hope and problems simultaneously. Our goal
here is to help identify these potential benefits and liabilities, and to
delineate near-term actions and policies that will tend to shift the balance
toward benefits. First, however, we must consider the emerging nature of
- ENABLING TECHNOLOGICAL TRENDS
The new interactive technology bursting upon the scene in
industrialized countries is the result of the confluence of diverse technical
developments . Here we summarize the most important trends which we
believe foreshadow a very broad and deep penetration of NICT.
3.1 Access to and use of nets for information and services will
be fueled by enormous increases in ease-of-use and affordability:
- Continued cost reduction in computing and communication capabilities
is universally expected by producers and users alike.
- Local-to-global access to nets is already drawing major corporate
investment, including the prospect of universal wireless connectivity
through very large numbers of low-cost, low altitude satellite relay links
accessible even by hand-held devices.
- Easier use by a growing number of diverse individual users will be
enhanced as networks incorporate automatic language translation ,and as
speech synthesis and recognition simplify the user interface.
- An increasing level of individual capability worldwide due to growing
education and experience will continually expand the potential user base.
- The recent availability of color graphics on Internet with Mosaic
and Netscape,and the prospect of video, highlight how rapidly user
interfaces for networks are evolving to fully engage users. Ultimately,
virtual reality can be expected to be commonly included in user interface
- The prospective merging of interactive TV, phone pad services, and
virtual reality with cable and telephone networks to provide entertainment
and a host of services has become the basis of major evolution of the
entire communications and media industries.
3.2 Self-organizing properties of net users
has been exhibited most vividly in the explosive , bottom-up growth of
Internet. Although originally driven by a highly expert core of
professionally-involved computer users, the current growth reaches far
beyond such origins and indicates that self-organizing patterns of
unsophisticated users will grow rapidly as more capable and easier-to-use
access becomes commonplace.
3.3 The motivation for widespread use of the "Net"
will derive from:
- Individual empowerment, "private" 2-way communication, multi-point,
anonymity, multiple personalities, virtual personalities.
- Increasing availability of attractive and affordable services, individually
selectable, not driven so much by least common denominator tastes as are
broadcast TV and radio.
- Emergence of new benefits for both customers and suppliers of goods
and services alike, such as record-generating capability of transactions,
and cooperative relationships with potential consumers to receive relevant
comparative product information when interested in contrast to present
inefficient use of mass media to reach a tiny fraction of mass audience who
are actually potential customers.
- PRIMARY CONSEQUENCES
4.1 NICT enhances horizontal relationships and institutions,
often at the expense of vertically-organized endeavors. This tendency
reinforces the broader trend toward organizational downsizing and
flattening which is already accelerating in developed locales and regions.
It also might help empower villages in the future, where most of the world's
peoples still live, and perhaps help stem the devastating mass migration
from the countryside to urban sprawl that looms in the coming decades.
4.2 NICT generally will enhance the operation of markets and
participation of individuals and groups in governance.
However, it also facilitates instantaneous assessment of opinions, which
may lead a representative governing system to be so driven by short-term
mass opinions as to become incapable of sustained governance. A
Representative Democracy, which traditionally incorporated to time for
leaders and citizens alike to evolve attitudes and compromise, may not
survive in the face of instant polling and publicizing of those instant
opinions. "Wholeness incorporating Diversity" may be difficult to sustain in
an era of instantaneous opinion generation and tallying.
4.3 The role and structure of societal "intermediaries" will evolve
NICT will enable individuals and groups to bypass existing sources of
"news" and information, as well as established controls on access, e.g. 900
telephone numbers, etc. New intermediaries will arise to authenticate
"information" and to facilitate access and use. Who will play this key
political and social role in the future?
- POTENTIAL OBSTACLES
Any new technology usually threatens the previous infrastructure in
some way. New capital investment is usually required as well. So there
are inevitably institutional and other obstacles to the introduction of NICT.
In addition, the enormous potential impact of NICT on beliefs and actions
will inevitably lead to attempts to control or subvert it. Some of the
possible obstacles to NICT we foresee are:
5.1 Consolidation of providers of access and services,
resulting from normal market forces, could lead to price barriers to access,
monopolistic control of access, and even to supply-side filtering and
manipulation. Thus, the possibility cannot be entirely ignored of an Internet
"wasteland" arising analogously to how a few channels of black and white
broadcast television once seemed to promise a widely available and
affordable source of information but instead evolved into many tens of
color channels completely dominated (and corrupted) by entertainment
5.2 Will Net anarchy lead to Net control?
How can diverse and decentralized users who never meet face-to-face
incorporate mutual obligation with shared goals and thus become a
continuing community? If this cannot be maintained on a voluntary,
communal basis (continuing the bottom-up approach of Internet) there
inevitably will be a call for top-down control.
5.3 Tendency of political and religious authority to seek control
of such a powerful new means of human discourse and interaction is likely.
For example, will there be:
- Attempts to control receivers?. This practice may be unworkable, like
Fax machines in China.
- "Moral" prohibitions from listening and, especially, from interacting?
That approach may be tried in Fundamental religious communities, e.g.
5.4 Information Overload and Saturation
could become the most significant barrier to utilizing the potential of the Net
for all but the most sophisticated users. Will software "agents" and "filters"
really empower ordinary individuals and small groups to navigate the vast
ocean of information, trivia, misinformation?
5.5 Equity Issues.
Lack of sophistication, expertise, and capital in the countryside, as well as
within the urban underclass, could lead to:
- Technical interference as a manifestation of anger and
- Opposition to government funding on the basis of unfairness and
unequal access and preparation.
- NEAR-TERM DESIRABLE ACTIONS
6.1 Encourage societal activities that can accelerate growth and
broad use of NIAC, such as
- Encouraging inexpensive and user-friendly connectivity for schools so
that skills are developed early and naturally.
- Mandating and funding NIAC in government services and operations.
- Creating additional private incentives , such as accelerated
depreciation for investment in NIAC.
- Mandating and encouraging separation of ownership of entities
involved with content production from those that provide access.
- Enhancing the education of potential users of all ages leading to
increased ability to select, use, and interpret what they can access on the
6.2 Develop Means to Enhance Participation of Countryside and
- Expand positive city experience with interactive communication to
countryside through subsidized demonstration links.
- Increase the ability of countryside and urban centers to compete in
use of refs with city dwellers through subsidized access and training.
- Make more credible the oft-promised benefits of telecommuting and
the ability to work from rural and inner city locations through networking.
- Encourage local ownership of access systems and encourage local
involvement in some content production.
- Develop incentives to mitigate possible negative reaction by
developing peoples and regions to perceived "cybernetic colonialism", such
as early, subsidized involvement of poorer regions.
- NEXT STEPS
The purpose of the small, informal Aspen conference was to explore
how new interactive communications were likely to affect human behavior
in the coming century. This is a useful way to engage part of the larger
problem of collective visualization of future possibilities and the developing
of consensus for near-term moderating actions. From the point of view of
the participants, the Aspen conference was quite successful in better
defining the topics and the issues. Indeed, some well-focussed
conferences start with a well defined "terms of reference". In our
exploratory case, we were delighted to end with such which became the
basis of this report.
The ultimate objective of this kind of work is to catalyze visualization of
the future, especially concerning well defined technological themes like
interactive communication. Such widespread visualization can stimulate
constructive responses by the very communities we allude to in our report -
governmental, private, and non-profit at local, national, regional,
As far as the direction now for the effort reported here, it is desirable to
broaden the dialogue and discussion and to improve and extend the
analysis. Secondly, it is important to gather relevant, factual information.
For example, are there examples of interaction on electronic networks that
have been important in conflict resolution and in building community? We
must also ask if they have had the opposite effect. Thus, we are circulating
this report for comment.
An immediate approach by Murray will be to make this report available
on the World Wide Web and solicit discussion of and inputs to it through
Internet, especially factual current and past examples that may be relevant
to our projections.
The resulting improved analysis, with richer details, then can form the
basis of other kinds of interactions in other media.