Global Information Infrastructure as a Metaphor for the Future

Jitka Hurych, Northern Illinois University, U.S.A.


We often hear that the National Information Infrastructure (NIT) - or from a global perspective - Global Information Infrastructure (GII) will change the way of our life, work, and entertainment in the future. However, nobody knows how this infrastructure will look because it is still developing. We read about it in books, newspapers, scholarly journals, and popular magazines; it is being discussed by governments, parliaments, and in the meetings of corporations. In my paper which is largely based on ideas presented in the book Internet Dreams, edited by Mark Stefik (1996), I would like to talk about the metaphor of a superhighway and about how our notions of digital libraries, electronic mail, electronic market, and virtual reality are influenced by archetypes which represent ancient human experience. It seems that by creating the information infrastructure, humankind will create its own future image.

Global Information Infrastructure from an American Perspective

Jitka Hurych, Northern Illinois University, U.S.A.


We often hear that National Information Infrastructure (NII) or from a global perspective-Global Information Infrastructure (GII) will greatly impact how we will live, work, and amuse ourselves in the future. Everybody talks about it, from governments and parliaments to corporations and the media, but nobody knows precisely what this information infrastructure will look like. Some see it as computer networks, others as cable television or telephone systems. It seems that the real shape of the information infrastructure will develop from our collective imagination and discussion.

In 1989, Senator Albert Gore (today's Vice President of the U.S.A.) introduced for the first time the idea of an all-encompassing national computer network. He used the analogy of the American system of interstate superhighways which was founded 30 years ago and which raised the productivity of private enterprise by improving transportation. In his proposed bill, he stated that this network should connect not only scientific and technical research institutions but also government, industry, and institutions of higher education. Also, President Clinton in one of his speeches declared that we must build a sophisticated network of communication, one that will allow research institutions to cooperate with each other, that will allow physicians to communicate throughout the entire country, and that will bring incredible resources of information to the hands of teachers and students.

Both of these statements represent NII as something that became a popular metaphor-Information Superhighway. Metaphors that are used in everyday language, influence our activities because they form our thinking. Let us consider some of them from a historical perspective.

Metaphors of the information infrastructure

In the 1950s the metaphor describing computers represented an enormous brain. In some sense, this metaphor described reality-computers were big. However, it did not take into consideration the real future of computers and their development. It might have been concluded that computers had to be bigger and bigger so they could think more and better. The opposite happened; in the last 20 years computers have become much smaller and today's laptops are much more powerful than the big computers of the 1950s and 1960s. Also, considering the brain, this metaphor is not accurate either because what computers do, can hardly be called real thinking. (And of course, it provokes fear. If the computers are brains, what are they thinking? Are they smarter than people? Can we trust them?)

The metaphor of an information superhighway, that is now being used by the whole world, is approximately 20 years old and it originated in the United States. It is often described as a complex web of communication networks and lines that connect computer networks on the map of the earth. It is probably quite natural that this metaphor developed in America because it is a general belief there that the system of interstate highways contributed largely to economic prosperity. This image makes us believe that as much as highways connect us to each other and to distant places, so will the information networks. The metaphor of a superhighway promises that investments in the information network will bring overall prosperity. Some futurists say that development of the NII will bring about an information revolution that will forever change the way people live, work, and communicate with each other.

Some of these ideas sound like a utopia or science fiction. For example:

However, as metaphors go, even this one, as popular as it is, is not really accurate. Highways are built and precisely projected, while information superhighways develop by themselves and there is no central planning. Highways are built from taxes on the population, while information highways are being financed mainly from private sources. Highways have a fixed organization and they connect fixed places, while information highways always change, connect forever changing information sources, and have no central organization. The metaphor of a superhighway is very useful when we consider information transportation, communications, speed, price, and infrastructure. To better understand the information infrastructure, it is useful to consider some other metaphors which originated earlier in different forms and which have influenced our thinking about the world of computers during the last 50 years.

Stefik's archetypes

In this connection Stefik in his Internet Dreams (1996) offers four metaphors and related to them-fourarchetypes that further explain the functions of the information infrastructure. These are as follows:

  1. Digital library

    The emphasis is on the depositing and preservation of knowledge for future generations and the archetype that fits this role is-"keeper of knowledge.”

  2. Electronic mail

    The emphasis is on a medium of communication, on ways of sending messages to each other and messages to entire groups and communities. Fulfilling this role is another archetype-a "communicator” or a "networker.”

  3. Electronic market

    In this case, the emphasis is on the selling and buying of products and services and the archetype of a "trader” is probably the one of which mankind has been most conscious.

  4. Digital world

    This metaphor can be understood as a gate to new experiences and explorations, as for example in the virtual reality. And the archetype of an "adventurer” or "traveler” falls into this category.

These metaphors describe aspects of our personalities-gatekeeper of knowledge and wisdom, organizer and communicator, trader, adventurer and traveler.

As we have heard many times before, the information infrastructure should have an enormous impact on our lives in the future. It is obvious that when we are describing it, we describe more than technological development; we also have to consider people as users of computer networks and participants in new Internet communities. Understanding the information infrastructure should lead society to understanding itself and its power to influence its own future.

We understand that highways connect civilizations. They are important for moving people, products, and services, and they are usually financed as a part of that infrastructure which contributes to the general prosperity. The most important highways that are being built today are the information highways. They enter our lives, they connect us with each other and they shorten distances between us. They can be used for establishing electronic communities that extend beyond our closest environment and they help us think globally. By developing the information infrastructure, humankind is selecting its own image.

Benefits of the NII and the GII

After presenting a more or less theoretical introduction, I would like to mention some practical advantages and applications of the NII and the GII, especially in the areas of:

(a) Economic advantages

The NII should help with the development of new kinds of jobs and also stimulate the economic development of the country. (According to the forecasting of futurists, the U.S. National Product should grow by $194-321 billion by the year 2007 and productivity should grow by 20%. In the next 10-15 years there should be 300,000 new kinds of jobs.) Electronic services should decrease the time needed for design, production, and marketing of new products.

(b) Health care

The NII should contribute to decreasing costs of health care. Further development of the s.c. telemedicine will make possible mutual consultations among physicians, especially in remote areas and should thus contribute to the quality of medical care. The electronic billing and filling out of insurance forms should also decrease the cost of medical care. Electronic personal health systems with an access to medical information for the general public will facilitate selfcare and prevention.

(c) Services for the public

The NII should spread social services to all local institutions and at the same time facilitate universal access to information for all citizens.

(d) Scientific research

With the help of the NII scientists will have access to a greater number of information resources and to more effective means of communication with colleagues, so they can work together on solving the problems of our civilization (e.g., weather calamities and epidemics of diseases). Some scientific problems will be solved by remotely controlled instruments (e.g., electronic microscopes and radio telescopes).

(e) Life-long learning

The new jobs will require problem-solving skills rather than the memorization of facts. The NII will facilitate many applications necessary for continuing education and life-long learning (e.g., access to digital libraries and virtual excursions to museums and scientific and technological exhibits). It will thus facilitate preparation for living in the 21st century.

(f) Strengthening democratic government

The NII should help to support a type of government that works better and costs less, first of all through the dissemination of government information to the general public, and second by facilitating certain functions electronically, (e.g., paying wages, pensions, and unemployment benefits). It should save on the cost of an unnecessary bureaucracy.

The role of government

What is the role of government in the development of the NII?


The value of the NII will depend on the quality of all its elements:

It is obvious that the potential benefits of the NII and GII can be enormous. It should contribute to the economic development of nations and possibly also enrich the lives of individuals mainly by neutralizing the obstacles of distance and isolation. Will it also eliminate our sense of alienation?


1. Arms, Caroline R. "A New Information Infrastructure.” Online (Sept. 1990): 15-22.

2. Ching-Chih, Chen, ed. Planning Global Information Infrastructure. Norwood, NJ: Abler Publishing, 1995.

3. Gray, Paul. "The Global Information Infrastructure: From the Internet Toward Worldwide Commerce” Information Systems Management (Summer 1996): 7-14.

4. Stefik, Mark, ed. Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths and Metaphors. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1996