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Before the Internet, there was videotex.

The Web is filled with immersive virtual geographies (see “Second Earth”). Eventually, they could merge into what’s been called the “Metaverse,” a 3‑D virtual world in which real econo­mies, social networks, and educational resources flourish.

Videotex services presaged what would come later with the internet.

Homes wired for data services were easy to predict 22 years ago; the interactivity of network users was not. In October 1985, Technology Review published “The Inevitable March of Videotex,” in which Ralph ­Lowenstein, then dean of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, and Helen Aller, then director of the college’s Electronic Text Center, described a recent technology: for an initial payment and monthly fees, subscribers received a “decoder” that translated data into a format readable on their TVs and a terminal that let them retrieve information from a central computer. The success of such “videotex” systems in Europe, where services were state sponsored, had impressed U.S. media con­glomerates. In the early 1980s, the service seemed poised to find a place in U.S. homes.

By 1985, a few U.S. companies had lost millions on video­tex. Two notable letdowns were ­Keyfax, a joint venture of the ­Chicago Sun-Times, Honeywell, and the telecommunications company Centel that found a few hundred subscribers in Chicago, and Viewtron, a Knight-Ridder-AT&T project delivered to fewer than 3,000 in Florida. For prospective customers, the combined cost of equipment, phone usage, and the service itself proved prohibitive. Knight-Ridder did, however, find some success when it began offering videotex for personal computers.

Whereas the Internet was designed to be decentralized and by the mid-1980s was operated by a host of entities, videotex relied on communication with a single media service: users had no choice of content beyond that offered by their service providers. Yet the vision spelled out for videotex is oddly familiar. Lowenstein and Aller argued that the two-way transmission of text and graphics would hollow out traditional news media and facilitate the exchange of information, goods, and services.

Screens feature many colors, and the content includes news from several wire services, auctions of products ranging from golf balls to yachts, lessons in Spanish and Scholastic Aptitude Tests, weather bulletins, stock-market quotations, home banking services, airline schedules, and hundreds of special subjects. But the move to personal computers may limit the technology’s expansion. For while almost everyone owns at least one color television set, only about 18 percent of American homes have personal computers–and most of those computers are not equipped with the modems necessary to receive videotex services. …

What will the videotex era be like? Just imagine the advantages of having immediate access to books, magazines, major newspapers, and reference works from any library or publishing house in the world. Children will be able to retrieve a few pages from a continually updated encyclopedia, with their parents paying royalty costs only on those pages selected. It will be possible to read–and pay for–just the first 10 pages of a sorry novel; the author might still come out ahead, because thousands more people might want to “test-read” the novel than would buy the printed version. Videotex subscribers will also be able to buy stocks, send messages home, make plane reservations, and receive simple medical diagnoses. …

The advantage of a system that can bring a world of knowledge into every home or business puts the apparent disadvantages into a shadow. A truly free society–as opposed to an authoritarian one–depends on the availability to the average citizen of a wide variety of news and political information. This will be the case in the videotex era as never before.

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