Taxpayers shouldn't pay for high-tech highway

February 14, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

As federal spending goes, $126 million is chump change, a mere pittance. In Washington, they toss billions around like rice at a wedding.

In fact, I'm almost embarrassed mentioning so trivial a sum. The McGoofy Group would probably throw me off their show if I brought it up.

However, I have just written a check to Internal Revenue, always a depressing experience, so right now $126 million looks like an impressive wad.

And I have found that this particular $126 million is what the new Clinton budget has set aside for grants to help develop the ballyhooed "information superhighway."

You've probably heard of this "information superhighway." But chances are you aren't quite sure what it is. Don't feel left out. Few understand what it means, including the politicians who want to toss the $126 million at it.

As far as I can tell, this electronic highway will be something we will enter by way of our computers. This will give us access to just about all the information there is in the whole world, plus some.

That's progress, I suppose, although I'm already bombarded by more information than I need or can absorb. My idea of a good time is to turn off every switch and knob in the house and hide from information.

But if information addicts want to leap aboard their computers and careen along an info superhighway, gobbling up information at every twist, turn and rest stop, that's OK. Just don't complain when that overload of data squirts out of your ears.

My objection is simple enough: Why should the taxpayers foot any of the expense?

We have a huge computer industry in this country, and it is getting bigger every day. Thousands of companies make computers or parts for computers. Others sell computers, or create and sell software -- the stuff that shows up on the screen -- for all these machines.

There are already many information services, such as Prodigy, CompuServe, America Online, Delphi, and others that offer tons of information, which they sell to millions of computer users.

Then there is something called the Internet, which is a worldwide hookup of thousands of computer networks. The Internet is already an information superhighway, except that you have to be a full-fledged computer nerd to navigate it. I have been there. It's like driving a car through a blizzard without windshield wipers or lights, and all of the road signs are written upside down and backwards. And if you stop and ask someone for help, they stutter in Albanian.

But the commercial, profit-hungry information services are all in a foot race to make it easy for regular mopes to use the Internet. At a price, of course.

That's because all of these companies have one thing in common: They are in business to make a buck. Or several billion bucks. And the creation of an "information superhighway" will increase their potential for making these bucks.

So I don't understand why the federal government should be spending even one nickel of our tax dollars to increase the profit potential of an industry that can afford to do it themselves.

The second-richest man in America is in the computer software business. He'll make more than $126 million this year.

I'm sure he is eager for an easy-to-use info superhighway. It will increase demand for computers, which will require more of his software. So let him and the rest of his industry create it and pay for it.

If you do nothing more than glance at the business pages, you know that communications and entertainment companies -- telephones, TV, movies, newspapers -- are in a frenzy, trying to get in on the electronic information business. They aren't sure where it is going, what all this information will mean, or how it will be delivered. But they know that there are billions of dollars to be made.

Wanting a piece of the action, they are merging, launching takeovers, wheeling and dealing and back-stabbing -- whatever it takes.

I have no objection to that. Greed is what made this country great. In contrast, Lenin and Stalin tried to stamp out greed in their country and its satellites. Look what happened: millions of vodka-soaked losers.

Even Hillary and Bill, despite their throbbing social conscience, did pretty well back in Arkansas. But due to the invention of the paper-shredder, we may never know how they did it.

Should this information superhighway become accessible to everybody, one thing is certain: it will be a toll road. You will spend money for the computer needed to use it, you will pay to get on it, and you'll pay for all of that information you gorge on.

Actually, I'm not sure how hungry the public is for profound information. In looking in on one of the big computer information services, I discovered that the most popular meeting places had nothing to do with Bosnia, public policy, social issues or scientific data. They were the billboards where men seek women, women seek men, men seek men, and women seek women, and those who aren't sure will take whatever comes along.

I'm no prude, but I see no reason to spend more than 100 million tax dollars -- and that is just for starters -- to expand the lust-market for people who don't have enough initiative to turn off their computer, go to a bar and come up with an original pickup line.

Let us have more old-fashioned American personal initiative -- by the computer industry and the horny nerds.

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