Editorial: Off the highway

If a metaphor is figurative language intended to improve expression and amplify meaning, the time has surely come to put to rest the expression 'information highway.'Not only is this overused phrase losing its meaning as a catch-all definition loosely applied to...

If a metaphor is figurative language intended to improve expression and amplify meaning, the time has surely come to put to rest the expression ‘information highway.’

Not only is this overused phrase losing its meaning as a catch-all definition loosely applied to the new media and where it is all heading, but it probably wasn’t even the right metaphor in the first place.

An information ‘highway’ suggests a particular route, filled with a blur of activity, heading towards a particular place.

The implied picture of frenzied action seems appropriate. But, the concept of a defined destination just doesn’t sit right.

A more apt metaphor, and one that brings a more appropriate sense of adventure, and, in a way, optimism, to the story, comes from David Harrison, president and chief executive officer of the Toronto-based media company Harrison Young Pesonen & Newell.

Harrison prefers to imagine this brave new world as ‘a vast digital sea or ocean, which already has a few well-charted shipping lanes,’ and is now being opened up much further by daring explorers in search of new frontiers.

Speaking to a seminar on multimedia sponsored by The Canadian Institute last month, Harrison said his image is ‘more reminiscent of the 15th and 16th centuries when, after the discovery that the world was round, explorers sailed off in all directions from European ports, looking for India or China, and with dreams of gold, silk and spices waiting to be found just the other side of the horizon.

‘The future rarely works out the way it was planned and, as you know, the explorers found themselves, much to their surprise, in a strange place, which turned out to be North America and not Asia. They found some gold. But, instead of silk and spices, they brought home furs, tobacco and cod.

‘The amounts invested by the royal sponsors of these journeys was likely equivalent to the third of a trillion dollars so far budgetted by the telcos and cable companies to fund these new explorations down their street of digital dreams.

‘So far as I can see, the pot of gold, and the ultimate destination of the journey, by fibre, copper or cellular, is to create a world in which we can communicate, trade, solicit, impart and advise – on a one-to-one basis – through ever more sophisticated methods of interactivity be they Internet, CallMall, teleconferencing or video on demand.’

But, that journey is far from complete. Media have been losing mass for the last 40 years. Technology and investment have allowed continuous diversification of channels and distribution. ‘The shared media experience is, like Beaver’s family – and except for major events – a figment of our imagination.’

The point is, consumers have trouble dealing with too many choices and are used to getting media on a subsidized basis. Ultimately, no one really knows how people will react to a future of pay-per-access media.

So, for those who feel daunted by the coming of this new age, it is useful to remember that it is still only being explored, and that for all the excitement, ultimate change, as Harrison concludes, will likely, still, be more evolutionary than revolutionary.