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Author: Dale A. Stirling
Title: The Gordian Knot: Political Gridlock on the Information Highway (W. Russell Neuman, McKnight, Lee and Richard Solomon)
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2000
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Source: The Gordian Knot: Political Gridlock on the Information Highway (W. Russell Neuman, McKnight, Lee and Richard Solomon)
Dale A. Stirling


vol. 3, no. 2, August 2000
Article Type: Book Review
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.3310410.0003.224

The Gordian Knot: Political Gridlock on the Information Highway

Neuman, W. Russell, McKnight, Lee and Solomon, Richard. The Gordian Knot: Political Gridlock on the Information Highway. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 1999. $16.00 paper. ISBN 0-262-64039-2. 324 pages.

Books about the Internet and digital information technologies are pouring forth from worldwide publishing houses. Of the many that have crossed this reviewer's desk The Gordian Knot is one of the most engaging and thought provoking. The authors argue that the time is right for creation of an Open Communications Infrastructure (OCI) which "promises to eliminate the political gridlock affecting information and communications technologies" and "will speed us along on the information highway toward the information-intensive society of the twenty-first century" (Pg. 3). In arguing for such a system the authors examine the current technological debate, place the technological debate in a broad historical context, and conclude what a policy framework for managing a communications revolution should include. An important observation of the authors is that the first century and a half of communications witnessed single technologies accommodating single activities. But through digital processing many activities are accommodated by a single technology. Therefore this rapid advancement is at the center of the battleground for information dominance.

In the first chapter, "Political Gridlock," the authors rail against the Telecommunications Act of 1996 ("although the rhetoric is right, the rules are wrong" Pg. 31) and bemoan the short sightedness of politicians who have not developed clear and distinct policy initiatives. They also outline the tenants of their proposed OCI—open architecture and access, and universal and flexible access. However, the majority of the book is concerned with network issues. In chapters two through five the authors discuss all matters network related. They begin by reviewing the nature of networks using historical examples (railroads, canals, shipping, and pioneering telegraph companies). They also examine contemporary history (the media, microelectronics, and the Internet) as well. In Chapter 3, "The Network and the State," the authors continue to use historical events (railroads, highways, and telegraph) as perspective in examining the role of government and private companies in developing and maintaining public networks. The theme of networks is carried on in Chapter 4. In support of their claim for an OCI, the authors illustrate how nations and companies have used networked information technologies to improve productivity. Japanese and European models of network productivity are examined but the authors note that "... American solutions to American problems must be developed." (Pg. 153). In Chapter 5, the author address the issue of networks from a policy perspective, once again providing historical examples (AT&T, the Federal Communications Commission, the three branches of government, and newer technology players, among others) for perspective. Finally, the authors identify nine recurring patterns of network development that they claim can be problematic: technology push, political gridlock, cultural lag, narrow horizons, dissimulation, the asymmetry of established player and newcomer, vendor and customer, and regulator and industry; and finally, standards incentives.

In the book's closing chapter, the authors discuss the essentials of their proposed OCI and state that "the sandstorm of technical change... requires a paradigm shift for federal communications policy critical to survival" (pg. 247). They expand on the tenants of the proposed OCI first mentioned in Chapter One and outline potential roadblocks and interferences. The central goals for achieving an OCI consist of "fully competitive provision of all local and national communications services," and the "lifting all distinctions between: wireline and wireless communicating services; narrowband and broadband; broadcast and switched-communications services; and content and conduit " (Pg. 264).

The Gordian Knot presents some interesting ideas about creating better information networks. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is the use of history to place the current state of information transfer in perspective. Indeed, at a certain level, this book is a good short history of American communications development. Although the author's arguments for an Open Communications Infrastructure is appealing, their assertion that their proposal will help eliminate political gridlock and speed us along the information highway into the 21st Century is a heady task that will be unproven until someone, some organization, or the society as a whole implements their proposed system.

Dale Stirling <dastirling@intertox.com>