tranquileye > contextualizing the internet, 1995 > Hyping the Highway search

A Critical Analysis of
Heather Menzies’
“Hyping the Highway”

March 1995 ~ In “Hyping the Highway,” Heather Menzies presents a critique of the discourse surrounding the development of new broadband communication technologies, popularly called the “Information Highway.” According to Menzies, the development of the Information Highway is being driven by a combination of forces: “technological convergence, corporate hype, government subsidies for economic renewal ... [and] corporate mergers and consortia,” all of which need to be examined in a critical light (22).

Menzies suggests that telecommunication, broadcasting, and computer companies are becoming trapped within increasingly saturated markets, forced to find new markets in order to prosper. Menzies identifies the aspiring creators of the Information Highway with those elements of business who once “brought us canals and railways, then pipelines, hydro-, media- and communications-transmission lines” in an attempt to create new markets and new profits for themselves (18). The Information Highway, hinted at in existing cable, telephone, and computer networking services, is another of these huge infrastructural giants, promising us jobs and education, but carrying the threat of economic dislocation and the erosion of state sovereignty (22). The danger, claims Menzies, is that since communications technologies “structure our lives and our consciousness,” an Information Highway built and controlled by commercial interests will see our existence dominated by the “commodity principle” (24).

Menzies envisions two possible futures for networking technology: the “non-commercial, grassroots-community model” she identifies with the Internet, and the “commercial model” being “hyped by big business” (20). The writer suggests that the Canadian public and policy makers have come to a metaphorical “fork in the road”; an opportunity to create, through the building of network operating systems, a new “social charter ... for the information society” (26).

According to Menzies, the discourse of the Information Highway is the discourse of business; though a vital and important “grassroots” networking movement exists, as represented by community computer networks (free-nets) and the Internet, potential users of the Information Highway are being seen only as consumers, not citizens, and the grassroots are being ignore (20). Without a say in how the infrastructure develops, the Canadian public will find themselves economically and culturally dis-empowered.

Menzies basic thesis, that the form of communication systems affects the people who use them and the culture in which they live, echoes earlier Canadian media theorists such as Innis and McLuhan. At first glance, the notion is attractive, and effective as a call to action. But on further examination, one begins to question notions of technological determinism which suggest that “commercial” media forms can only be manipulative and coercive, while “grassroots” forms can only be empowering and open. It would be difficult to argue that the history of Canadian communication has been nearly so cut and dried. Rather, Menzies should have examined aspects of media beyond structures of ownership, such as flow of information, interactively, freedom to access information, and cost.

Interestingly, the Internet, which Menzies holds up at least in part as a model of an “empowering open architecture,” was designed and implemented by an odd alliance of commercial, military, and educational interests at the heart of the American economic establishment (25). For the past ten years, much of the Internet has been owned and managed by commercial entities, often in the form of non-profit consortia. And in terms of hyperbole, few media forms in recent memory have generated higher expectations then the Internet, an entity which does not, under close study, fit many of the labels (anarchistic, democratic, chaotic, co-operative, and so on.) which are applied to it. Rather, the Internet has been a system defined by many users with differing objectives, as much as it has effected or modified the behavior of those who use it.

Most damaging to her argument is Menzies’ failure to deal with Canada’s failed interactive technologies of the 1980s, driven by commercial interests and leading nowhere, including the first pay television licensees in the early-1980s and Bell’s ALEX video-and-text system. ALEX in particular shared much hyperbole with the Information Highway, and is a clear example of the failure of communication monopolies to impose a way of communicating on the Canadian public. Canadians do seem to possess, at least from time-to-time, the ability to reject systems of communication.

Ultimately, Menzies argues for an approach she references to as a “mixed economy,” where government requires the industrial builders of the Highway to work closely with educational institutions and community organizations to insure the creation of empowering content (20). Curiously, she does not carry this logic backward to existing media types, or more broadly to institutional and business forms. For instance, a similar argument could be made concerning television or radio: that government require collaborations among existing media and potential public interest content providers. She does not suggest, as some activists might, that we find some mechanism by which to transform Rogers Communications and similar large communications businesses into organizations which are accountable to the public as a whole, perhaps because under present economic and political circumstances such a notion seems so far-fetched. However, Menzies’ suggestion does raise questions about the appropriate role of government in determining content for both existing and future media forms.

Succumbing to some to the hype surrounding technology without examining it thoroughly, Menzies’ reading of contemporary technological and corporate “convergence” is somewhat superficial. She states that the “real money” will be made from the development of the Information Highway operating systems; so far, however, there is little agreement on the great majority of the technical standards which must be fixed before the serious creation of a new information infrastructure can proceed. It could more accurately be argued that we are seeing a technological divergence, with a growing proliferation of technological methods are available or in the process of being developed and with no single standard so far emerging in such supposedly critical areas as video-on-demand. One need only look to the current difficulties in implementing digital radio in North America to see some of the challenges ahead for the cable and telephone industries as they attempt to build the Information Highway.

Menzies’ core question remains, however: who will build the Information Highway, and will the public interest be served? Her first concern, that the Information Highway discourse is primarily a corporate one, and that technology is driving the agenda of government, remains valid. Clearly, the CRTC appears to be engaged in a regulatory water change of sorts, preparing to revise or eliminate once-sacred polices in such areas as Canadian content, talent development and subsidization, and balancing American and Canadian services, all in the name of increased competition and “consumer choice.” Already, the public debate is being limited to those with the resources to participate, while the cable and telephone industries are using real and imagined technological change to leverage greater freedom from regulatory control and concentrate power in even larger monopolies.

Menzies’ seems to have an understanding of the need for the form of new communication technologies to be empowering. Her notion of the operating system as a kind of constitution for an emerging information society is an attractive one, although it is difficult to see how it will address such challenges as increased centre-margin disparities which she suggests will result from a new broadband infrastructure (23-24). It may be best, as she suggests, to look to the successful development of imperfect but clearly empowering communication technologies at the grassroots to determine how the Information Highway should be built. ~ John Stevenson


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work


Copyright © 1995, 1996, 2001 John Harris Stevenson,