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Roger Clarke's Information Infrastructure Briefing

Background Briefing on the Information Infrastructure

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of June 1994

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1994

This paper was published in Policy 10,3 (Spring 1994)

This document is at


The term 'information infrastructure' is of relatively recent origin, which is surprising, given the venerability of ideas like the 'information age', 'information economy' and 'information society'. Debates about whether and how government, industry and society should become 'wired' have sprung up, and are becoming quite heated. During the coming months, CIS will be investigating the most important facets of the topic by way of a presentation [insert details], articles, commencing with two in this issue, and a monograph. This paper provides a short description of the term, as preliminary reading for Policy subscribers.

The Information Infrastructure Concept

An information infrastructure (II) can be regarded as that set of facilities which provide a basis for information services. It is currently an area of very active debate, because of a number of different drivers:

An important outcome of these developments in technological capability has been the inculcation in the community of an emerging expectation of ubiquitous computing and communications. A person's primary place of work is increasingly only one of the locations from which he or she seeks electronic services, and to which the infrastructure must reach. Many people work at least partly from home; airports make space available in which travellers can make connections; plans are in place to provide connections in locations such as newsagents, the foyers of office-buildings and shopping centres, and taxis; and new-model aircraft are being designed to provide mid-air digital connection to terrestrial networks.

In popular discussions about II, it has become common to talk of 'the information superhighway', and most recently the 'infobahn' and the punningly abbreviated 'I-way'. Metaphors need to be carefully chosen, and there are many problems with this one. For one thing, 'highway' has many negative associations, ranging from traffic jams, accidents and speeding tickets, to tollways. It implies massive investment, and a swathe cut through the countryside.

Conventional architectural thinking about an II involves backbones or trunks (to carry large volumes of traffic between major conurbations) and tails (to connect individual sites to the backbone). The 'highway' notion corresponds to the backbones, but fails to encompass the tails. This has led some commentators to use grotesque extensions of the metaphor, such as 'on-ramps' and 'cloverleaf interchanges'.

There are several senses in which railroads would be a better analogy than main roads, because once a message is on the net it submits to active management by it, rather than being a free agent. If road or rail transport imagery is to be persevered with, then the tails to industrial, commercial and governmental sites and homes would be by-roads or branch lines. Hence it would be more appropriate to compare the II with the complete road transport infrastructure, or the entire rail network. Another alternative metaphor is water reticulation, but this has the deficiency that it was designed for one-way rather than two-way flows.

All of these metaphors miss an important element of the II of the very near future. By-roads, branch lines and pipelines imply physical connections, whereas wireless tails are already technically feasible, and commercially available in such forms as GSM digital mobile networks. Using portable devices such as laptops and hand-held 'personal digital assistants' (PDAs), people will soon be not only participating in long-distance conversations on park-benches and in coffee-shops and taxis, but also exchanging email and faxes. To convey the wireless idea requires grafting on images like broadcasting and narrowcasting. The poverty of the 'superhighway' idea becomes even more apparent when it is appreciated that backbones can also be wireless, in particular through satellite and terrestrial microwave technologies.

To express wireless backbones and tails in terms of road, rail or pipeline metaphors is challenging in the extreme. As a result, alternative cultures have popularised alternative metaphors such as 'the net', 'the matrix', 'cyberspace', 'the web', information logistics (storehouses, libraries, delivery trucks, ...), information landscape or ecology (arable land, pastoral land, parkland and wilderness areas, ...), and 'data-field' (not as in 'paddock', but as in 'magnetic field'). Some writers prefer images such as 'electronic collective', 'electronic community' and 'electronic society'.

Infrastructure is, according to the Macquarie Dictionary, "a basic framework or underlying foundation", upon which the remainder of a structure can be built. A wide diversity of services has already been delivered in particular contexts, and many additional services, variants and combinations will emerge. If the claimed objective of a 'networked nation' is to be achieved, the information infrastructure will have to support all of them within a reasonably integrated environment.

Examples of the kinds of services involved are provided in Exhibit 1. Of course, companies, government agencies and private individuals who wish to avail themselves of such services may need to invest in appropriate devices (workstations, suitably enhanced television sets, lap-tops, PDAs, etc.) in order to connect to and use these services.

Exhibit 1: An Indicative List of II-Based Information Services

electronic mail, electronic newspapers, electronic encyclopaedias and other reference material, classified advertising, business data transfer, community bulletin boards, security services and utility meter reading, public information services (such as information kiosks), data transfer for working from home (telecommuting/teleworking), education services including remote classroom teaching (text-only), home banking, home shopping (text-only)

multi-media mail including video, modest-quality video-telephone, high quality audio, interactive television, interactive multimedia (e.g. on-line video games), video conferencing (including 'virtual meetings'), education services, e.g. remote classroom teaching (including video), home shopping (including image and/or video)

videos-on-demand (i.e. the electronic video shop), high definition TV (HDTV), medical services including remote diagnostics using imaging, linkages among high-performance computers

A Prototype I.I. - The Internet

The existing telephone and television networks, and even the data networks which have become increasingly sophisticated since their emergence in the 1960s, are seldom put forward as models on which the II should be built - if anything, the limitations that are inherent in them are the problem that an II seeks to address. An example that is far more commonly invoked is the Internet.

Technically, the Internet is that collection of networks which are inter-connected using the a particular family of standards popularly referred to as 'TCP/IP', but more correctly called the Internet Protocol Suite (IPS). The total number of 'nodes' (computers) it connects is in the hundreds of thousands, and the number of people is in the millions.

The Internet is a highly non-hierarchical, 'democratically' structured, collaborative arrangement. Seemingly ironically, it emerged from the ARPAnet, which was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense from 1969 until 1985, to link the enormous number of private sector and university-based researchers working on defense-funded projects. In fact the irony is superficial: the military places a high priority on reliability and robustness. Dispersed, non-hierarchical networks exhibit much greater resilience than centralised 'star-topology' networks.

Each node on the inter-network (roughly speaking, that means the gateway processor on each organisation's internal network) co-operates with the remainder by acting as a switch or exchange, and passing data along towards its ultimate destination. In order to do this, some of the nodes act as 'name-servers', and maintain a set of routing tables which determine where, depending on its intended recipient, each packet has to be sent next.

AARNet (the Australian Academic and Research Network) is the primary Australian segment of the Internet. It was established, and is run, under the auspices of the Australian Vice-Chancellor's Council (AVCC), and has to date been funded primarily by the Universities, the CSIRO, and the Australian Research Council, with some direct government funding.

To the end-user, AARNet is almost transparent. It provides an extended address-space of machines and users, which comprises the entire worldwide Internet. It has high resilience to downtime on individual nodes and arcs, and very high reliability and efficiency. The delivery time for a message is well under a second anywhere within Australia, and usually under a second anywhere in the world.

The speed, convenience and very low cost of data transmission results in greater immediacy in human communications, and has unleashed an extraordinary explosion of new ideas and services. Vast quantities of inter-personal communication are undertaken using it, and large numbers of documents are accessible from servers located not only in North America, but also in many other countries throughout the world. Outside North America, Australia is one of the most vigorous participants, both in terms of usage and contributions.

Initially, access to data on the Internet required considerable technical capability; but the days of obscure interfaces are quickly receding. The range of services is shown in Exhibit 2. Most important among current services are electronic mail; 'gopher' servers and clients, which provide menu-based search capabilities to discover and access text documents anywhere in the world; and 'world-wide web' (WWW) servers, and 'mosaic' client software, which provide access to 'compound' documents containing several different formats (including image, voice and video), whose elements may be stored on different machines scattered throughout the world.

Exhibit 2: Electronic Support Technologies on the Internet

With professional-quality services now available, the kinds of documents which are accessible via the Internet are no longer limited to abstruse computer science papers, discussions about pop-groups, films and life on the net, games software and university student polemics. For example, university library catalogues are accessible over it; specialist collections of scientific papers and data can be located and copied using it; government committees make their discussion papers available over it; lobby groups prepare their submissions to government committees on it; and government agencies in places as remote as Washington DC, California, Wisconsin, Canberra and Tasmania, publish reports, Bills, submissions and proceedings on servers connected to it. To sustain some semblance of order and accessibility within the Internet's constructive anarchy, programs busy themselves constructing directories of participating sites and people, and registers of documents.

The services are maturing beyond structured data and text. Sound, graphics and images can also be transmitted. Text messages can be delivered to fax machines, circumventing the telcos' much more expensive direct-dialled fax services. Synchronous conversations are being supported, particularly in text, but also using sound. Video (moving-image) transmission is being trialled in many locations, and the 'video-phone' may well become widely available on the Internet before the telcos can launch 'official' telephone-with-picture services.

The Internet may continue to flourish. It is, however, in transition from a multi-national campus-based club, to a multi-purpose community which services research, educational, corporate and governmental needs quite generally. It may be a decade before it is clear whether the Internet has metamorphosed into the II, or just been an experiment which assisted the drive towards the II of the early twenty-first century.

Policy Issues

In this section, some of the factors are identified which arise in the context of the II, and require substantive treatment. A first question is whether Australia should, uncharacteristically, make a national strategic commitment. Another is to what extent Australia should seek to lead, or even participate in the leadership of, developments throughout the world. There is one argument, for example, to the effect that most countries' information infrastructures will be determined by the technologies and political forms force-fed by the dominant player, the United States. There is another which says that, rather than a series of national information infrastructures (NIIs), what is quickly evolving is an integrated global information infrastructure (GII) which will hasten the demise of the nation-state.

More prosaically, there is the question as to whether the architecture, operations and charging policies of the Australian II will be shaped by a few players (e.g. Telecom, Murdoch, Packer, and the participants in their alliances), or whether it will reflect the interests of a wide array of stakeholders. Richard Joseph's paper, in this issue, provides an initial analysis of the dynamics involved.

If it is to be a 'national' II, there is an argument for accessibility not only by major institutions (universities, corporations and government agencies), but also by non-corporate participants in society, including individuals, informal groups and communities of common interest, not-for-profit incorporated associations, and small businesses. The smaller players seek equitable access and charging bases which are perceived to be fair. They are also concerned that the cluster of rights associated with freedom of thought, freedom of communication and freedom of assembly be embedded in the II's conception and architecture.

One of the most critical architectural questions is whether the pattern of data-flows will be 'symmetrical' or 'broadcast'. The public switched telephone network (PSTN), for example, has always been 'symmetrical', in that all parties have comparable capacity to send and receive signals. The pattern of cable television has, on the other hand, tended to be 'asymmetrical', or 'broadcast' in style, in that suppliers have high sending capacity, and drive their products and services outwards, whereas consumers have little or no capability to send messages, and adopt a passive role, choosing among the supplier-decided alternatives placed before them.

The new information infrastructure could be easily conceived and developed using the asymmetrical model, supplier-driven, with consumers passively selecting among 500 largely similar channels (as the popular image of next-generation cable TV has it). An alternative model is more nearly symmetrical, such that consumers have not just the abilities to select services, and to provide feedback, but also to initiate, and to themselves act as services providers.

A variety of social justifications are advanced for the democratic II model, but there is also a crucial economic argument. Countries with high standards of living and hence high labour costs must harness their relatively well-educated population's creativity. This is encapsulated in the clichéd phrase 'the clever country'. To achieve this end, 'distance education' must become much more than just a means to attain geographical equity for far-flung populations; it must become a way of life for a workforce continually preparing itself for the next change in market demands. Universal access to network services is a pre-condition for any society which seeks to sustain its well-being in a world in which an increasingly large proportion of countries are becoming clever.


The purpose of this paper has been to provide a background to the information infrastructure and the issues surrounding it. Policy readers will find a great deal to ponder upon in the coming months, at CIS events and in CIS publications, in the general media, and in a succession of government and parliamentary reports.


The series of papers I have developed on this topic has drawn very heavily on large numbers of II-watchers who communicate frequently on the Internet. I express my gratitude to that community, and make particular reference to Tom Worthington of the Australian Computer Society, and Tony Barry, of the ANU's Centre for Networked Scholarly Information. Much of the material in this paper appeared in lengthier form in Clarke & Worthington (1994).

Some Basic References

ASTEC (1994) 'The Networked Nation' Australian Science & Technology Council, August 1994, P.O. Box E349, Queen Victoria Terrace ACT 2600, or fax at (06) 271 5125, or email at

BSEG (1994) 'Report of the Broadband Services Expert Group' Draft of August 1994, Department of Communications, Canberra

Clarke R.A. (1993) 'AARNet Economics: How To Avoid Cooking the Golden Goose' Proc. Networkshop'93, Melbourne, 1 December 1993

Clarke R.A. (1994) 'Electronic Support for Research Practice' The Information Society 10,1 (March 1994)

Clarke R.A. & Worthington T. (1994) 'Vision for a Networked Nation: The Public Interest in Network Services' Proc. Conf. Int'l Telecomms. Soc., Sydney, July 1994

CSPR (1993) 'Serving the Community: A Public-Interest Vision of the National Information Infrastructure' Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Washington DC (October 1993)

Harasim L. (Ed.) (1993) 'Global Networks: Computers and International Communication' MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1993

Hiltz S.R. & Turoff M. (1978) 'The Network Nation: Human Communication via Computer' Addison-Wesley, Reading MA, 1978

Kahin B. (Ed.) (1992) 'Building Information Infrastructure' McGraw-Hill Primis, New York, 1992

Kahin B. (Ed.) (1993) 'Information Infrastructure Sourcebook' John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard Uni., 1993

Kehoe B.P. (1992) 'Zen and the Art of the Internet' Prentice-Hall, 1992

Krol E. (1992) 'The Whole Internet' O'Reilly, Sebastapol CA, 1992

LaQuey T. & Ryer J.C.(1992) 'The Internet Companion: A Beginner's Guide to Global Networking' Addison-Wesley, 1992

Rapaport M.J. (1991) 'Computer-Mediated Communications' Wiley, New York, 1991

Rheingold H. (1994) 'The Virtual Community' Secker & Warburg, London, 1994

Scientific American (1991) Special Issue: 'How to Work, Play, and Thrive in Cyberspace' September 1991


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