Mike Holderness foresees the development of an entrepreneurial academic service culture with 'pay-as-you-go' global information
The purpose of the Internet is to save corporations from - and here you should read aloud in a tone of disgusted disbelief - "employing people". That much was clear to the assembled business managers and consultants at the recent International Data Corporation (IDC) Forum on The Information Society and the Digital Economy in Paris. How will academic uses coexist with online shopping and entertainment? Does the logic of the market lead inexorably to charges for academic information?
Of course, the Internet grew up as a medium for the timely exchange of academic information - and thus developed features which frustrate would-be electronic commercants, like per-year billing rather than per-second or per-megabyte. But, according to an IDC report, last year only 8 per cent of Web accesses originated from academic sites; 48 per cent were from businesses and 43 per cent from home users. Even allowing that students and researchers may work from home to avoid the congestion on their universities' local networks, in the passing of a few years they have become a minority in their own cyberspace.
As the Internet itself becomes more congested, corporate users expect the end of flat-rate billing. They will pay by volume of data to buy prompt delivery. And the logic of electronic commerce dictates that, eventually, the spooks will come to a compromise with the rest of the world over encryption technology, and the long-heralded era of "microbilling" will at last dawn.
If universities, too, end up buying metered network access from private business, there will be strong pressure to charge at least the cost of that access, at least to external users of their resources. Some university libraries already charge walk-in users. Why should they not charge 1p or 5p per record for access to their online public access catalogues (OPACs)?
The ultimate way to avoid congestion is to build your own, better, network. SuperJanet is well-established. In the United States, more than 100 universities have signed up to the Internet2 project, which is expected to go into its beta test phase in the autumn of 1998. Barring a seachange in governments' attitudes towards public services, however, it seems inevitable that these networks will be privatised as soon as their research phase is over.
While such projects focus on bandwidth - shifting more information around - industrial researchers are looking at reducing the need for it. Technically, by far the most interesting presentation at the IDC Forum was by Dr Glenn Ricart, who describes himself as "chief toy officer" for network software company Novell. He envisages more and more computing power residing in the network itself, as close to the user as possible. Nomadic programs - "Java packets", for which he coined the name "Jackets" - would rent computing power as needed.
From this viewpoint, it is easy to imagine wealthier engineering students producing complex simulations on an Internet-connected mobile phone, renting the power of a Cray supercomputer from BT or Svenska Telecom as necessary - or AT&T paying the Bodleian for the right to maintain local caches of its digital holdings. Such a network would be as different from today's Internet as it is from the telephone system - and the idea of pay-as-you-go service is fundamental to it.
Will universities then become information providers, competing for a specialised but highly-motivated market with CNN, the Economist and wired academic publishers? Naturally, says Carsten Hejndorf of IDC: "There is a huge resource of valuable information just sitting there and no one knows it's there." For businesses to send people physically to university libraries is expensive: "When libraries' resources become remotely searchable, and micropayment makes it possible for people to pay perhaps $0.10 for exactly the information they need, this will become a very useful tool."
It is hardly surprising that a business-oriented consultancy should think like that, nor that its researchers should conclude that such developments "depend mostly on the libraries themselves - many of them aren't very business-oriented".
Lorcan Dempsey, director of the UK Office for Library and information Networking (UKOLN) at the University of Bath, concurs: "More entrepreneurial libraries, and those where there's a more integrated view of the information environment, will move in that direction. . . As the volume of better-quality information on the net grows," he continues, "so does the pressure to provide brokerage and mediating services. University libraries ought to be considering how to supply those services to their own users. Companies which spend a lot on information - for example, those in the chemical industry - are looking at how they will do the same."
Selling access to existing digital services, like OPACs, will be only a small part of libraries' entry into the market. "In more innovative places," Dempsey believes, "you will see learning environments which reflect an information landscape that has been selected, organised and paid for." In other words, what libraries are for, in market terms, is to "add value" to the raw information they hold.
Initially, universities are likely to market teaching materials which they have developed for their own students' use. "In terms of making money from services," Dempsey predicts, "franchised courses and professional development courses for industry are likely to move up universities' agendas, and some time after that up libraries' agendas." The University for Industry and the heritage secretary's promise of public libraries as "hubs for lifelong learning" could be built in this way. The distinction between student and external user will blur.
Those universities and libraries which do not join in could face naked market competition. A number of cities in the UK, as Dempsey points out, are looking for their own universities and "the technology to build a virtual university is almost mature."
Many will still find something disturbing about the prospect of libraries which pick users' digital wallets each time they look up a reference. But library services never were free; their costs were simply buried in accounts which some could afford to disdain. As a combination of technology and market ideology makes costs more explicit, the questions over funding equitable access to education are not answered, but made much more urgent.
Mike Holderness is a freelance technology writer, consultant and "The Librarian of Babel" at http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/ in the on-line journal Ariadne.