TOLL ROAD OR FREEWAY?
TONI CARBO BRINGS A NATIONAL ADVISORY COUNCIL TO PITT
TO TACKLE DIFFICULT QUESTIONS OF THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY.
WRITTEN BY MARK COLLINS
ILLUSTRATION BY BRUCE MARION / SIS
One of the viewers steps forward--the one wearing the "primary goggles" wired to the computer's brain. Instantly the televised perspective changes to match the viewer's motion, moving deeper into the heart's chambers as the primary goggles move closer. Now the viewer cocks his head, and the heart image obliges, turning to offer a sidelong perspective.
"You can see this heart valve doesn't fully close," says Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center's Joel Welling.
"That's called prolapse, right?" asks the goggle-wearer. "Prolapse of the mitral valve?"
"Are you in medicine?" asks Welling.
"No," says the viewer, shaking his head (and sending the TV image into spasms). "I have mitral valve prolapse. But I've never seen it like this."
Across the room at another demo, Edward Galloway of the Heinz Electronic Library Interactive Online System clicks through the archives of the late Senator H. John Heinz III. Onscreen are Heinz' notes from a 1981 meeting with then-transportation secretary Drew Lewis. (Heinz mistakenly writes "Drue," as in Drue Heinz, the Senator's stepmother.) The typed agenda seems innocuous, but Heinz' handwritten notes--no competition for Chessie or coal? and Pgh--different problem/infrastructure poor--indicate the senator's points of interest. To the outsider it seems like scribble, but it's exactly the kind of marginal minutiae crucial to historians.
In the east corner of the ballroom, Michael Becich, assistant professor of pathology, runs through a series of color slides. He stops at a particularly graphic close-up of a cancerous femur that had been amputated in a last-ditch effort to save the patient's life.
"You can see the extent of the tumor at the edge of the bone," says Becich, pointing to the dark, protruding mass, looking like a calcified sponge soaked in dirty motor oil.
"It doesn't look good for the patient, does it?" asks one observer.
"Too early to tell," says Becich. "This image was taken only a few hours ago."
The future is here, in this room. It arrived at 28,800 bits per minute, riding fiberoptic cables and silicon chips. Color slides from this morning's surgery. A senator's 15-year-old meeting notes. A 3-D tour of mitral valve prolapse. Just press a button, and welcome to the Starship Enterprise.
"It's all so primitive," says Toni Carbo, Pitt's School of Library and Information Science dean.
This computer carnival was brought to Pittsburgh to coincide with the National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIIAC), which is meeting in the adjacent assembly room. NIIAC, the brainchild of Vice President Al Gore, has come to Pitt partly because of Carbo, the council's only representative from academia. The Pittsburgh meeting is part of NIIAC's ongoing mission to decode the future--to provide guidance in formulating a national policy toward the Internet and the World Wide Web.
Truth is, what seems like a seamless technological marvel is more like a thriving jumble. Carbo and her cohorts hope to provide some road signs for the nation's new cyberspace drivers.
The issues surrounding this new technology are endless, but most boil down into three categories: When no one really "owns" a publicly accessible communications system, what are the rules of access? What rights protect the user? What rights protect the creators of new and often unique content? Added to these crucial questions of universal access, privacy, and intellectual property are issues such as the Internet's role in education (including libraries), health care, public safety, electronic commerce, and government information. And every question is interrelated; it's impossible to parse out one part without overlapping another.
For Carbo, the question is one of value. Information alone is value-neutral; what about the integrity of information? "How can information be distorted with so many people having access?" she asks. Integrity applies to simple logistics, too. "We now have medical images coming across electronic lines," she notes. "There have to be standards. It has to have the proper resolution to decide if something is a tumor or not."
These are the topics tossed about by NIIAC. Many of the panel's three dozen members are used to such roundtable discussions; the assembly room crowd has the look and feel of a business board meeting, only here there are no subordinates. Everyone feels free to speak up, and speak up they do. Roughly half of NIIAC's roster reads like an alphabet soup of Who's Who in American Communication--Bert Roberts of MCI; John Cooke of the Disney Channel; William Ferguson, CEO of NYNEX; Robert Johnson of Black Entertainment Television. But the other half is not so well-known--Bonnie Bracey, an Arlington, Virginia, teacher; Deborah Kaplan of the World Institute on Disability; LaDonna Harris, founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity. Such diversity is bound to engender some tension. During a discussion on developing a reward system for elementary school students who learn Internet etiquette, one member thought the idea of handing out badges and certificates seemed silly and a little demeaning.
Teacher Bonnie Bracey leveled a withering look at her fellow board member. "When is the last time you've been in a public school?" she demanded. "A plaque or a ribbon might seem silly to you, but it's all a lot of our students have. Maybe in some rich private school you don't need something like this, but don't take it away from us."
Such fundamental questions--about access, governance, even school ribbons--are yet to be resolved. Is this what Carbo means by "primitive"? For all the ballyhoo about how the Internet will one day permeate our lives from poor schoolrooms to Bill Gates' living room, there's little consensus about how to get there.
"Technology is only a tool," Carbo says. "We have telephones, televisions. Does that solve our problems? Of course not. And technology isn't just giving people a laptop, but teaching them how to use it, providing access to the kind of content that will make a difference in their lives."
Carbo points toward a building on Forbes Avenue, just a block and a half from her North Bellefield office. "Andrew Carnegie gave people in communities a library building. He planted the seed by helping the library get started, but then local communities had to carry on. They had to support it. They had to decide what would be on those shelves, how it would serve people," she says. "That's the kind of opportunity we have here."
The reference to Carnegie seems apt. His is a complex legacy: a man who practically built Pittsburgh into the Steel City, but did so thanks to his immigrant labor force--a troubled, sometimes violent relationship. And yet he bequeathed millions in the form of free public libraries, a revolutionary concept where access to information would never be determined by wealth or level of scholarship. Now the descendants of that immigrant labor stock can share ideas on the Pittsburgh FreeNet, a free Internet access node (and resource for local online information) developed at Carnegie Library in cooperation with Pitt's library school faculty.
Carbo phrases this idea of access to the Internet in terms of "information haves and have-nots."
"To me the right to access information is a fundamental right," she says. "Sixty percent of the jobs by the year 2000 will be information-intensive, so people need to have those skills just to work. It would be like saying, 'Well, it's fine that you know how to read, but we're not going to let you learn how to write.'"
As dean of one of the leading schools of library and information science in the country--as well as US representative for information policy to the G-7, the summit meetings of the world's greatest industrialized nations--Carbo can speak with authority about matters of information access. But something else motivates her: a lifetime commitment to those still trapped on the back roads of economic opportunity. In the '60s she worked for CORE, the Congress for Racial Equality, in Rhode Island; as a grad student at Drexel, she helped organize minority recruiting efforts. And she's worked behind the scenes in adult literacy programs both here and in Philadelphia.
"I remember when I was a kid, maybe eight years old. My family was traveling from Connecticut to Florida. We stopped at a restaurant. It had two water fountains--one for white, the other for 'colored.'" She stops as she talks about that image, still frozen in her mind four decades later. "I remember being outraged. And it never went away. I don't ever want it to go away. If we lose our sense of outrage we won't keep fighting to make it a better place to live. And I know that sounds lofty, but I still remember that sense of the incredible injustice. I felt the same way about the adult literacy programs--that fire in the belly. I guess I've always had that concern for people who have less access to resources, whether they're informational or economic or educational."
And that, it turns out, is what Carbo means by "primitive." The technology isn't backward; neither is the content or the software. But all this wizardry is barren--primitive--without an easy, cheap, user-friendly access. We live on the edge of an information revolution, but that edge is really a precipice, one we have yet to cross with any grace.
Imagine: In Toni Carbo's cyberspace future, we're not replaced by beeping machines and soulless silicon, but masters of it. We don't buy new techno-ware simply because we can or to keep up with the Joneses but because it enhances our lives, because it eases our information burden rather than adding to it. And we don't isolate ourselves--or those less fortunate--from the world around us, but add all our voices to the human song, even if it's sung over fiberoptic cable a half a world away.
For all of our ooohhing and aaahhing over today's wunderwerks, we see more clearly what yet needs to be done. The Internet is still full of holes, so to speak. What we harness in our homemade nets will depend upon a cast of thousands.