New Community Networks

Wired for Change

Addison-Wesley, 1996

Douglas Schuler

 

Chapter 1

 

COMMUNITY AND TECHNOLOGY — A MARRIAGE OF NECESSITY

A community is a group of people united by the common objects of their love that incorporates three elements: shared values, unity, and intimacy.

  Ed Schwartz (1991)

In moving society forward, many different communities may be destroyed or die, but for the survival of mankind we must not capitulate to the concept that the sense of community is dead. The most binding, vital, and healthy sense of community may be generated through this struggle.

  Hannah Levin (1980)

 

THE PRIMACY OF COMMUNITY

Communities are the heart, the soul, the nervous system, and the lifeblood of human society. Communities provide mutual support and love in times of celebration and in times of crisis. There are also pragmatic reasons for banding together. Communities can help get things done: People are infinitely more capable when they work together than when they work on their own.

Communities are found all over the world -of course- and differ widely in the temperaments and diversity of their inhabitants and in their size and economic and political status. Some are bucolic, while others are dangerous. Some "bedroom communities" are empty by day, while some downtown areas are empty at night. Some communities are very well-off, the schools are good, and the streets safe. Some have a fast pace and everybody is in a hurry, while in others, no one seems to be going anywhere. Some communities are up and coming, while some are dying. Some communities are seen as boring and the children move away as soon as they're able. Some communities are open and have a diverse population, while others are exclusive and have strict membership rules based on religion, ethnicity, or economic class. Some have relatively stable populations, while some fluctuate wildly and have continual turnover. But even with such wide diversity, they all have one major point in common: Communities are the physical (and, to a large degree, mental and emotional) places where people do their living. As David Morris and Karl Hess remind us, "We all live someplace" (1975). We are all members of communities.

Interactions and relationships help create strong and vital communities. Greeting a neighbor on the street, having a coffee or beer at the corner bar with neighbors, attending a funeral or wedding, walking to school with your children and their friends, or simply buying the week's groceries are all important parts of everyday community life. A community, however, is more than a sum of its parts, much as a human body is more than a sum of its organs. To Robert MacIver, a community "is the common life of beings who are guided essentially from within, actively, spontaneously, and freely ... relating themselves to one another, weaving for themselves the complex web of social unity" (1970).

While a community necessarily has boundaries or frontiers, those boundaries are fluid in many ways. Although a community is generally a mid-sized social grouping, the term is often applied to social groupings of greater and smaller magnitude. Seattle, for example, may be thought of as a single community, but it is composed of over 100 neighborhoods each of which could be considered as an individual community. Neighborhoods in turn can be broken up into smaller units such as blocks, which can be decomposed into still smaller units-apartment complexes, and families, for example—that can also be considered communities. Moving upwards in scale, people can be members of "regional," "national," or even "global" communities. As Robert MacIver (1970) points out, "even the poorest in social relationships is a member in a chain of social contacts which stretches to the world's end." Admission is not limited to one community; a person might be a member of a religious, ethnic, political, business, labor, professional, or a host of other "communities of interest" as well as a location-based community. Although 50th Avenue North may be thought of as separating the communities of Wallingford and Green Lake in Seattle, boundaries are not strictly fixed. A schoolgirl might play soccer in one community, but participate in Brownies in another and attend school in yet another. And community membership fluctuates. People move in and out of communities and play a wide variety of roles at various times within all of them.

People use the word "community" in at least three ways. The word may mean a group of people living in a contiguous geographical area, a group of like-minded people (the community of librarians, the self-help community, or a "virtual" community, for example) or it may mean a state of group communion, togetherness, and mutual concern. In this book, we use "community" to mean an integration of the three meanings: (1) A community can be comprised of people who live together. (2) They are "like-minded" to some degree, as they perform the ordinary as well as extraordinary human activities together, including working, playing, meeting, discussing, eating, relaxing, selling and buying, celebrating, commemorating, mourning, or just hanging around. Beyond these two definitions, there is also a "sense of community" (the third usage), in which community members have a sense of belonging to a greater social unity.

Scenes from "the Center of the Universe"

At the summer solstice each year, the Seattle neighborhood of Fremont that brashly proclaims itself to be the "center of the universe" sponsors a community parade (Fig. 1.1) in which anyone can participate. As could be expected, the quality varies considerably. A young boy dressed as a pirate may stroll by hauling his pet cat behind him in a wagon, followed by a group of elaborately costumed "sky people" holding clouds and rainbows aloft on sticks, succeeded by a troupe of primeval "mud people." There is always a variety of musical offerings, but the "Band from Hell," composed of minor demons dressed in scarlet, blowing brassy, somewhat discordant, but eminently suitable blues for the sultry first day of summer, stands out in my memory for creating an impressive and exhilarating atmosphere. The parade is a source of well-deserved pride for the community and is the prelude to a popular two-day arts and crafts festival.

The Fremont summer solstice parade is a natural product of the community, an event unshaped by the blare of mass culture and media. The acts, costumes, and person-powered floats are built in a nearby school basement. Since Fremont has an abundance of artists and musicians, this type of event is natural for that community. Every community need not have a solstice parade or an arts and crafts festival, but communities do need to convene their own events. The purpose may be religious, entertainment, cultural, reflective, or gustatory, but it should be fun, meaningful, and wide open to community participation and improvisation.

In addition to having their own events and rituals, communities have a continuous stream of history from their founding up to the present. History is an integral part of communities — and hence its inhabitants — identity and character. Without history, the inhabitants become like the character Chance in Jerzy Kosinski's Being There (1971) who was isolated from the continuum of human events, his awareness and consciousness defined instead by the schizophrenic superficiality of television. Rather than being reduced to caricatures like Chance, community members need to be aware of the past and be active creators of the future if their community is to remain alive.

Today's Communities — Not Like They Used To Be

In the mythic American elm-lined "Main Street" community, everybody knew everybody, there was time to hang out by the soda fountain and nobody locked their doors. This was an era where Homer Price worked at the doughnut machine and barbershop quartets serenaded from every corner. Although this picture of community has been scrubbed clean of any inconvenient inequities of the time (such as racial prejudice, unsanitary living conditions, or unsafe working conditions) and preserved as a specimen at various Disneylands around the world, it still serves as an idealized notion that people compare with the realities of today's communities. There is a growing view that the strands of community life are unraveling and that reversing this process may be beyond our control.

The modern world stresses and overwhelms communities by such pressures as population changes, communication technologies, pollution, urban "development," and global capitalism. Today, large groups of people live in close proximity to each other, but the groups are often atomized and cut off from one another. The recognition of shared aspirations and interdependence is missing. Inhabitants are clumped together according to economic class and ethnicity, but the clumps themselves often lack the vitality of a healthy community. The raw ingredients — people with their associated beliefs, interests, and values — exist for forming communities, but the catalytic spark to energize these ingredients into an organism we call community is missing in many ways. Why are so many communities impotent, incoherent, and dysfunctional?

Alarming Trends

In the United States, at least, there is ample evidence of community deterioration. The phenomenon of drive-by shootings might be the most graphic and extreme example. This particularly American phenomenon (combining two archetypically American artifacts‹guns and cars) pits community members directly against each other in guerilla warfare, while creating an atmosphere of fear and helplessness even among the noncombatants. In the parts of the country away from the "free fire zones" of the inner city, violence‹at least in its virtual sense‹is never more than a click of the TV remote control away. According to George Gerbner and his associates, the average 15-year-old will have witnessed an average of 15 television killings (not counting cartoons or the news) per week for every week of his or her life (1994). In addition to this barrage of television violence and the high murder rate and overall violence, Americans seem to have an insatiable appetite for drugs both illicit and licit. Americans consume a large percentage of the world's illegal drugs, while alcohol consumption factors heavily in traffic fatalities, murder, robbery, divorce, and job loss (greatly outweighing the ill-effects of illegal drugs). Education is notoriously unequal. The richest 1 percent of the population continue to increase their holdings (estimated at nearly 50 percent of total U.S. wealth), but schools in the inner city continue their slide into disrepair and disgrace. Meanwhile, economic circumstances‹created in large measure by powerful corporate and governmental bodies‹have virtually eliminated most jobs in the inner city that provide a living wage (Davis, 1992; Kozol, 1991).

Harvard professor Robert Putnam has identified a large number of "civic indicators," all demonstrating a marked decline in "civic associations" in the United States over the past thirty years (1995). At the same time, participation in the political process, the traditional approach for addressing public problems democratically, is at an all-time low. The inner cities resemble war zones, while the suburban enclaves, formed largely as an escape from the realities of the city, have little sense of community within their boundaries. With their movements defined largely by the demands of the automobile, suburbanites spend much of their time driving through their community to the grocery store, soccer field, video store, or gas station. As their less fortunate brethren in the inner cities, the suburbanites spend many of their waking hours absorbing the relentless programming of commercial television. Indeed, Putnam posits that increasing "privatization of leisure" may be one of the major factors that underlies.

 

Factors in Community Decline

What factors have led to the decline in communities? There are many partial answers to that question. Some people feel that the transitory nature of our communities is to blame. In America, for example, many families pick up their household every few years and start over in another location. In two years, 30 percent of the addresses on a mailing list will have changed (Shaffer and Anundsen, 1993). Moving to a new city often severs any relationships that were formed in the old neighborhood. A friend of mine described his previous neighborhood as "a bus stop" where people were always coming and going. When associations are fleeting, why bother to join forces to fight city hall or a strip mall developer? Why bother to preserve or develop community resources? The time is too short and most people will have moved anyway.

Fear is also a factor. People have become increasingly wary of each other. The next-door neighbor may turn out to be a devil worshipper, the driver in the next lane, a psychopath. Indeed, the media is so devoted to this message both as factual reportage and as entertainment that one may idly wonder if one of the purposes of television is to dismember communities. Although street violence is far from insignificant in the United States, its portrayal on television is vastly overplayed. In a given year, fewer than 1 percent of Americans will be the victim of a violent crime. The sad truth is that violence may be the easiest, most reliable way to ensnare the largest number of people into watching the programs (and commercials).

America's infatuation with extreme individualism is another enemy of community. Individualism — as it is practiced — is a myopic denial in which people believe (a) they can, (b) they did, or (c) they should, "make it on their own," that is, with no help from other people. This belief, which is epidemic in the United States, probably fulfills a variety of psychological needs, but it is fundamentally false, a holdover from days gone by when cowboys and trappers roamed the country. Whatever its origins, the concept of individualism ignores the current and historical realities while it distorts and degrades the potential of community life in the future.

Obsessive consumerism also leads to community disintegration, and America leads the world in consumption and preoccupation with products. If people's attention can be kept directed to commercial products and consumption, then the wheels of industry will keep turning and investments will be repaid. The incidental effects of this focus are more insidious. The main effect is diversionary — when one is considering products for individual consumption, one is not considering activities or ideas to support the community. There is an unspoken contract: "Here are some jeans, a new car, and a coke for you to desire, purchase, and enjoy. Don't worry, we'll spare you the messy details of living. We'll define a lifestyle that's right for you!" When pressed, some people may offer a corollary of Adam Smith's concept of the "hidden hand," claiming that social problems will somehow be addressed (or just go away) through the market mechanism. In other words, purchasing things is the only proper approach to address human suffering.

 

External Factors

External factors — outside of the control of the community — also contribute to the demise of community. Many civic and social service institutions that traditionally sustained communities have become severely overtaxed. Their burden has grown while their resources have declined. Ups and downs in the economic system and heightened economic competition worldwide also help to ensure continuing disequilibrium in communities. In addition, multinational corporations are using advanced communication technology to create a mass culture that ignores and devalues local culture, depriving communities of a shared cultural base.

Against these profound challenges, the individual citizen is nearly helpless, insignificant when compared to the size, organization, and resources controlled by business and government, the two titans of modern society. Both institutions are ostensibly controlled by "the people." Business says "the customer is always right" and that business provides "what people want;" while the government is said to be "of the people, by the people, and for the people." Unfortunately, these concepts have become nearly meaningless slogans, as neither institution can be said to be under the "control" of the people in any meaningful way.

While government and big business both claim to know what's best for citizens, both institutions are steadily withdrawing from their social responsibilities. Many people in government claim that it can no longer afford education and social services; yet government spends billions on a bloated military budget that is larger than the rest of the world's put together. Business, for their part, is concerned exclusively with profits, and is feverishly "downsizing" its work forces to ensure this. (As I write this, Boeing, a major employer in the Puget Sound region of Washington State, is preparing to lay off 7,000 "surplus" employees, the third layoff in two years.) Ironically, corporate support for education, the arts, and social services has been declining for several years (Reich, 1995) at the same time that the corporate share of federal tax contributions has dropped dramatically.

Many people literally have no power. When they can find employment, they have little time for other things. When they're laid off or the plant in which they work closes, they have extra time, to be sure, but no money, credibility, or influence. And they have no forum to help express their ideas or channel their grievances. The citizen is alone — unorganized, divorced from a viable com-munity — with little notion of solidarity. When individuals are disconnected, they are powerless. And, all too often, when "communities" move as one, they are often moving against others — African-Americans, Asians, immigrants, women, gays, or others not of their ethnic, religious, or sexual orientation.

Interestingly, the forces of public relations and the media may be more powerful than the economic ones. These forces are more subtle but ultimately more oppressive because they define the limits of acceptable thinking and action. These forces establish the vocabulary, structure the debate, and define the agenda of public discourse, which further undermines the imagination, power, and cohesiveness of today's communities.

Although modern forces have forever changed the circumstances of living, the need for mutual support and community remains unchanged. Although the unorganized citizenry is generally powerless against the forces of big business and government, the potential for creative transformation is staggering. If people, with their vast numerical superiority, could join together and consciously work to rebuild communities, while challenging and engaging the powers that be at the same time, little could stop them.

 

A CALL FOR A NEW COMMUNITY

I can't predict what kind of community it will be, but the new community will be in reaction to the crushing bigness of systems.

  Theodore Roszak (Krasny, 1994)

Global forces — societal and technological — have shattered communities in many ways. On the one hand, citizens may feel like they're part of an undifferentiated crowd with no personal identity. On the other hand, they may feel isolated and alone, disconnected from the human community. Destroying the community was not part of anybody's master plan any more than degrading the environment was. Yet in many ways this is what has happened. Rebuilding the community — like cleaning up toxic dumps or reclaiming buried streams — will be a long process that will require diligence and patience. Rebuilding the community, however, is not optional, nor is it a luxury. It is at the core of our humanity; rebuilding it is our most pressing chore.

The Need for a New Community

Communities are a natural focus for addressing today's problems. For one thing, many current problems are community problems — poverty, crime, unemployment, drug use, and many others. These problems are manifest in the community and are best examined and dealt with by a community. Communities are also a familiar and natural unit. Smaller units can be clannish, unrepresentative, and powerless, while larger units are often too anonymous and unwieldy.

The old concept of community is obsolete in many ways and needs to be updated to meet today's challenges. The old or "traditional" community was often exclusive, inflexible, isolated, unchanging, monolithic, and homogeneous. A new community — one that is fundamentally devoted to democratic problem-solving — needs to be fashioned from the remnants of the old.

A new community is marked by several features that distinguish it from the old community. The most important one is that it is conscious. In other words, more than ever before, a community will need a high degree of awareness — both of itself (notably its capacities and needs) and of the milieu in which it exists (including the physical, political, economic, social, intellectual and other environments). Further, the consciousness of the new community is both intelligent and creative. The intelligence of a new community comes from its store of information, ideas, and hypotheses; its facility with negotiation, deliberation, and discussion; its knowledge of opportunities and circumstances; as well as its application of technology and other useful tools. The creativity of a new community comes from its ability to reassess situations and devise new, elegant, and sometimes unexpected methods for meeting community challenges.

In addition to consciousness, the new community has both principles and purpose. Its principles are based on equity — "no one is free when others are oppressed" — and sustainability, because a lifestyle based on overconsumption is illusory and ultimately self-defeating. Using these principles as a foundation, a new community also has goals and objectives that it strives to attain. Having purpose, the new community is oriented around action. This action must be consonant with its principles and it must be flexible. Projects and processes need continual reevaluation and adjustment, and projects and processes based solely on faith, tradition, or conventional wisdom will often be inequitable and ineffective.

As an inevitable consequence of its consciousness, principles, and purpose, the new community will have increased power. This power will be manifested in its ability to resist unwanted outside influences and to ensure designed outcomes. This new power could establish communities as rivals of government and business, or at least serve to mediate some of their vast power. This power is also a power that — like all power — could be abused. Hopefully, the power would be wielded according to the principles of the new community to the advantage of people everywhere.

It is clear that communities need to be responsible to a large degree for addressing their own problems and this is being done in many different ways by individuals and groups all over the United States and the world. Besides looking in — at their problems and at their resources — communities also need to be looking out. Sometimes the problem is caused by forces outside of the community, sometimes the problem must be shared by forces outside the community, sometimes it is necessary to communicate with others outside the community, and sometimes it is necessary to reach out because resources to deal with the problem aren't available locally.

The new community needs to contain elements of the old community. At the same time, many elements of the old society have outlived their usefulness. Modern circumstances have made change constant and new communities must learn to adapt. Modern circumstances have also made conflict likely so the new community must learn to discuss issues effectively. Finally, modern circumstances have created huge, inequitable chasms between economic classes so the new community must be built upon justice and compassion.

Architect Christopher Alexander and his colleagues have developed an intriguing "pattern language" (Alexander et al., 1994) for designing rooms, buildings, and towns. This "language" embodies a powerful vocabulary of over 250 architectural patterns that are life-affirming and convivial. Although we are just beginning a similar discussion, it is probably not too early to begin thinking about an analogous "pattern language" that knits together a collection of civic, social, political, economic, and environmental patterns into a coherent and compelling vocabulary or language through which people can conceive, discuss, and build new communities.

Who Will Create the New Community?

Government has often been called in to help solve problems in communities. As we shall see, it is unlikely, as well as ultimately undesirable, for government to attempt to solve‹by itself‹the problems of deteriorating communities. Government is often too big, paralyzed, and partisan to be able to respond effectively. Also government‹at least in the United States‹is manipulated to an uncomfortably large degree by powerful corporate interests. For one thing, corporations and the very rich contribute a large percentage of political campaign dollars, thereby becoming the constituency to whom politicians are beholden. For another thing, corporate lobbyists pore over every piece of possible legislation, looking for sections to support, change, or remove that might give them an advantage in some way. Needless to say, unaffiliated citizens play a minimal role in this important part of the political process. The best reason not to expect (or want) a government "bailout," however, is that real solutions to community problems need strong community participation, and the U.S. government has rarely shown itself capable of being an equal participant with citizens in community projects.

Is business then likely to play the leading role in rebuilding communities? Taking business current practices and philosophy into account, the answer to this is a resounding no; in fact, business to a large degree has been one of the major forces behind community deterioration. Since business places profit-making as its highest priority, it necessarily favors "profits over people," as the slogan goes. If moving a factory out of a community means greater profit for the corporation, the factory will generally be moved. Perhaps more significant is the fact that business is increasingly not a part of the community even when it's physically located there. Business is rarely accountable to the community beyond making merchandise and services available for a price. Indeed, the actions of business often suggest independence from and indifference to the broader needs of the human community.

The world is looking for new approaches to community problem-solving, as many of the old institutions (including the church, government, business, academia, and the science and technology establishment) and their traditional methods are being stalemated by new — and old — problems that are becoming global problems. At the same time, it is becoming clear that the specialist or expert model is obsolete, and new approaches must be inclusive, discursive, participatory, and community-oriented. Increasingly, these new approaches may be idiosyncratic and vary from place-to-place. Interestingly, many signs are currently pointing to democracy as the public problem-solving approach it was originally intended to be.

Core Values of the New Community

A human body has a nervous system, a digestive system, and a skeletal system, among others, that work together to sustain life. A community, likewise, has systems or core values that maintain its "web of unity" (MacIver, 1970). These six core values — conviviality and culture, education, strong democracy, health and well-being, economic equity, opportunity, and sustainability, and information and communication (Fig. 1.2) are all strongly interrelated: Each system strongly influences each of the others, and any deficiency in one results in a deficiency of the whole. Strengthening these community core values, particularly along the lines suggested by the attributes listed in Fig. 1.3, will result in stronger, more coherent communities.

It is important to realize that addressing these core values is a dynamic and interdependent process that will necessarily change over time. Furthermore, there is no static final state, a utopia, that we are striving for, that we would recognize if and when we ever arrived there. Instead, community members need to develop a range of small and large projects that strengthen these community core values. Some projects will help individuals, some will help larger groups. Some will be short-term, while others will be longer-term. If all of these projects, however, follow from the principles of the new community, they are likely to reinforce each other, forming a broad progressive movement that spreads broadly throughout society. Although the six core values are discussed in more detail later, a preliminary exploration of each system will be useful at this point.

 

Attributes of the Core Values


Figure 1.3

 

Conviviality and Culture

Conviviality and culture are the invisible forces that help to sustain the community. Conviviality can be thought of as an animating spirit that helps organize people into a community that is infused with identity, purpose, and love. Culture is complementary; it is the shared memory — both tangible and intangible — of a community.

While this core value may sound mystical, vague, or amorphous, we know quite a lot about building it. A major part is the fostering of a shared culture through sporting events, parades, festivals, farmers markets, literacy programs, fairs, dances, theater, or any of a number of community events. Community culture should focus on local events, local issues, local geography, local history and local destiny, and part of the process can be directed using "civic maps" (Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993) that depict promising linkages between people and organizations in the community. A community database of "community assets," the basis of civic maps, can be made available on-line using computer networks. Besides focusing on the local, communities must also build bridges to other communities and be aware of other events and forces beyond community boundaries.

Education

Education is the process by which a person learns fundamental as well as specialized skills. Minimally, this includes reading, writing, mathematics, and critical thinking. With a solid base, students are more capable of conducting individual quests for knowledge, instructing others, and participating in public discussion and deliberation. Note that education doesn't necessarily mean schools, teachers, or other aspects of traditional educational institutions. Some of these institutions may indeed be changing already, though the fundamental need for something analogous to them remains.

Without education, one's economic opportunities are diminished substantially; many jobs will be simply unattainable. On a community level, lack of overall education means that businesses would be unwilling to settle in the community — and those that did would probably offer dead-end, low-wage jobs. The community would also be less likely to initiate, sustain, or expand business ventures. Furthermore, when individuals do not have proper education, the political process itself is unfathomable, and decisions would tend to be relinquished to people who represent other interests.

Education can provide an effective foundation for a community: It can provide a lifelong grounding based on active learning. There are well-known educational approaches that promote working together as a community. These include students teaching other students and students working with community members on community issues and projects. Education needs to be reinvented as a dynamic force, within a social context, working for social change, instead of relying on its present conception as a passive indoctrination of skills, conventional values, and cultural dogma.

Strong Democracy

Democracy is the process of self-government in which the people that are affected by decisions take part in them. Without democracy, people are limited in their communities and in their own potential. Without democracy, the vast majority of people are forced into the roles of serfs, continually awaiting a scrap from their master, be it their allowance, paycheck, report card, or layoff notice. In a self-perpetuating cycle of disempowerment, one is forever governed‹never governing. Democratic participation, on the other hand, can be educational as well as empowering. Carole Pateman and others have stressed the importance of learning through participation (1970). When the Soviet Union collapsed, many groups of people‹coal miners and others‹found themselves lacking the tools of democratic discourse and, hence, unable to play an effective role in a democratic reformulation of their society. Democratic participation leads to community spirit, a greater need and ability to communicate and seek information, and increased economic opportunity.

We need to reestablish democracy in communities by building new forums for discussion and genuine participation in the affairs of society. In some cases, government will welcome the participation. In many other cases, community participation will be fought, ignored, or begrudgingly suffered. In the longer term, citizens should move towards increased democratization of other community organizations including the schools, workplaces, and media outlets including genuine public radio and television.

Health and Well-Being

"Health and well-being" is an overarching concept. Without health, very little else is achievable. When people in a community are healthy, the more likely it is that the community is healthy. Health in a community refers simultaneously to the physical, mental, and psychological state of the individual inhabitants and to the community itself. It refers to the relations among the inhabitants. How do they get along? Commiserate? Lend support? And health-and-well-being also refers to the general physical surroundings of the community. Are there trees or toxic dumps? Is there grass or broken glass and syringes? Song birds or rats?

Community health should be considered in a holistic sense, where emotional and psychological factors are as important as physical ones. The community can be the developer of neighborhood action programs and clinics, and can provide support for health and well-being programs within the community.

Economic Equity, Opportunity, and Sustainability

Economic equity, opportunity, and sustainability is indispensable to the well-being of a community. It's an unfortunate reality (in the United States and other places) that economic class is strongly tied to quality of education, employment opportunities, access to information, and health. Perhaps the most tragic addition to this list is that money is the de facto key to democratic participation in the United States. All aspects of political life‹from voting to running for political office to lobbying and petitioning the government‹are almost the exclusive domain of the corporations and the wealthiest Americans (Philips, 1990; Greider, 1993). Nor is this necessarily considered anything less than correct. A (liberal!) Seattle newspaper reporter was recently asked about the desirability of having hearings in places other than Olympia (the state capitol) or on evenings and weekends, to enable working people to participate. This would make it "too easy" she said, while other heads on the panel nodded in concurrence.

One of the roles of new communities is to fight against corrosive corporate policies that destroy communities. Part of this role will be to develop and support media that offer alternative viewpoints, such as those of labor or displaced workers. One need only look at traditional media coverage of a labor strike — usually pitched as an inconvenience to all concerned — to realize the inherent bias of the newspaper, radio, and television news coverage. The community can also work with corporations and labor to maintain employment in the community, help keep worker skills up-to-date, and promote labor-corporate-community dialogue. Finally, communities can go beyond the traditional corporate economic paradigms and play a role in the development of new economic institutions that support the community directly, not as a side effect.

Information and Communication

 

In a free society, information is widely available to its citizens. Although some information is proprietary, trade secret, private, or sensitive for national security reasons, most information should be available inexpensively. The public library — a relatively modern invention — is the best-known expression of that objective. Ready access to information coupled with the ability for citizens to communicate freely using that information undergirds a legitimate democracy. Freely available information promotes self-guided and self-motivated education while supporting traditional educational institutions as well. Freely available information also promotes health in a community because people can find the information they need about foods, prenatal care, hospitals, clinics, and prevention of illnesses and accidents.

Information and communication — what we commonly call "media" — could be redirected towards better meeting the needs of the new community. Community media could allow those whose voices have traditionally gone unheard to have an outlet. This access may lead to a clash of cultures that hopefully will lead to richer interactions and deeper understanding rather than to increased animosity and misunderstanding. The major challenge facing us in relation to this core value is the need to develop community media that strengthens communities — by providing increased access to minority and alternative opinion and by guaranteeing increased involvement in a productive way by all members of the community.

 

ACTIONS FOR THE NEW COMMUNITY

In the United States and in other places, community members have launched a wide variety of programs and institutions to address the needs of communities. These include civic, social, economic, political, religious, and environmental community projects. Earlier this century, the community-center movement was influential (Fisher, 1981), and in the years preceding World War I, a very ambitious program in Cincinnati (Melvin, 1981) established a revolutionary approach to neighborhood health care. Numerous "cooperative commonwealth" compaigns like the Nonpartisan League, the Farmer-Labor Parties of the Midwest, and the End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement were noteworthy efforts in the 1930s and 1940s (Boyte, 1989). In the 1960s in the United States and elsewhere, food and other types of co-ops were fairly common, and the War on Poverty program under Lyndon Johnson called for "maximal feasible participation" (Kramer, 1969). Currently there is a growing "Communitarianism" movement, and other civic renewal efforts as espoused in the writings of Amitai Etzioni (1993) and Robert Bellah and others (1985). Harry Boyte (1989), John Kretzmann and John McKnight (1993), Benjamin Barber et al. (1984), Francis Moore Lappé and Paul Du Bois (1994), David Mathews (1994), and countless others are involved in strengthening and working with local efforts while also developing a national agenda and building ties between various new community efforts.

There are many ways of approaching the problems in our society. These range from small kindnesses that relieve hunger for a day, to large system-wide changes in society. The next few sections discuss important types of actions for the new community.

Capacity Building

Historically, community activists and social service workers have developed responses to community needs or problems. Indeed, this seems entirely appropriate, as some community problems, such as unemployment during the Great Depression, reached epidemic proportions. Focusing on needs, however, leads to inadequate and inappropriate responses in two closely related ways.

Community needs are community deficits — aspects of society that are broken and need to be repaired. Thinking in terms of needs elevates negative aspects of the community above positive ones, and this thinking leads to certain unforeseen and unfortunate implications. For one thing, it casts the community as needy, implying that the community has nothing to offer, no assets or capacities of its own to draw on. For another thing, that perspective lays the groundwork for "solutions" to be imposed from the outside, from professionals, from the government, solutions requiring passivity from the "clients."

In recent years, Kretzmann and McKnight and others have begun re-conceptualizing community development that focuses on community assets‹not deficits‹and of developing community capacity. Developing a community's capacity means building skill and knowledge bases, local institutions, local resources, and programs that empower a community to deal effectively with its own circumstances. It should be noted, that this focus on community capacity building should not be construed as a reason (or excuse) for the government, business organizations, or individuals to not be concerned about communities in trouble, to arbitrarily shut down programs, or to impose strict cut-off limits or otherwise make life more difficult for individuals and communities that are wrestling with serious problems. Instead, this new focus should suggest ways in which rethinking the situation can result in better programs for people in troubled communities and for society as a whole. Capacity building takes time; patience will be required. A change in focus from client to capacity-builder, however, is desirable as it will be ultimately more effective over the long-run.

 

Citizen Participation

The question of how well community residents understand the problems in their community and whether they're willing to participate in addressing them is critical to our inquiry. Perhaps residents are too uneducated, ill-informed, lazy, or just too busy to get involved. Perhaps they feel that business or government will take care of any problems that arise. Or perhaps — and this may be the predominant feeling — they feel that their participation is unwanted or would be ignored.

In the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King riots, the infamous Los Angeles street gangs, the Bloods and Crips, jointly wrote a little-known document containing their thoughts on rebuilding the city (Bloods and Crips, 1992). Three facts are worth noting. First, it is remarkable that the document was produced at all. With middle-class citizens themselves feeling disenfranchised by the political process, the fact that street gang members, with presumed low levels of education and civic spirit, would undertake such an effort is notable. Second, the understanding of the situation and the breadth and creativity of their proposal is profound and subtle. Third, the reaction (or, more accurately, the lack of reaction) to the document by the press is also quite interesting — and distressing — to consider.

The first part of the proposal addresses a physical facelift for the community, with suggestions regarding burned and abandoned structures, lighting, repavement, landscaping (with special attention on trees), and sanitation. The second part deals with education. Along with refurbishing school structures and raising teachers' salaries, the Bloods and Crips asked for $200 million for computers and computer supplies, strongly suggesting that people in the economic underclass realize their relative disadvantage in this area and are interested in computers and communication technology. Recognizing the value and efficiency in having students help educate each other through "co-educating," their proposal stipulates that students will "receive bonus bonds for extra scholastic work towards assisting their fellow students." The third part of the proposal, "Human Welfare," addresses medical and recreation facilities. In this part, interestingly, the Bloods and Crips eschew welfare in most cases, and recommend "state work and product manufacturing plants that provide the city with certain supplies." In another part, "Law Enforcement," they call for "former gang members to be given a chance to be (unarmed) patrol buddies in assisting the protection of the neighborhoods," and the last part calls for low-income loans to minority entrepreneurs, with stipulations for hiring neighborhood residents. While this proposal was posed as a series of "demands" with‹unfortunately‹some implication of violence, it is also clearly a call for participation, self-help, and community awareness.

Strong citizen participation — from all sectors of the community — is more likely to result in better and more creative approaches to community problems than those approaches attempted without such participation. The indirect effects may be the most important, however. Citizen participation changes the relationship from a "client" receiving the expert (and unassailable) advice of a professional to that of an equal partner. This arena provides training in problem-solving, citizenship, and leadership and all these are indispensable tools in what Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Du Bois (1994) call the "arts of democracy."

Citizen-led Projects / Citizen Action

Whereas participation suggests a general acceptance of existing processes, the idea of citizen-led action transcends the status quo. While participation is basic to a functioning and vital community, citizen action is in some ways more important, for action implies leadership, and any sustained citizen movement necessarily includes the development and nurturing of leadership capabilities within its membership. Moreover, when community members establish their own projects, they set the agenda. When they participate in others projects, the agenda is often set by someone else.

Citizen action should be directed towards strengthening the six community core values. This action will frequently be undertaken in conjunction with other groups; often it will involve integrating the works of disparate groups forming projects that cut across core-value boundaries — like setting up community computer networks. These projects should focus on goals, but always on community capacity-building as well. Several excellent books on organizing exist. Organize! Organizing for Social Change, written by Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall, and Steve Max (Bobo et al., 1991) is particularly detailed and instructive. While much of this action will take place "within the system," other forms of unorthodox citizen action, including civil disobedience, can also play a role.

In Seattle, a citizens' group called Sustainable Seattle has begun developing a long-range program (discussed in more detail in Appendix F) that may eventually lead to a higher quality of living for Seattlites and help give rise to a variety of other community-related action projects. Their first project was to work with the community to identify a set of measurable "critical indicators" that can be used to show progress along certain measures that the group feels are both important in their own right and reflective of other important values. The group initially developed 20 indicators on a variety of important themes including wild salmon, water consumption, solid waste, population, energy consumption, air quality, vehicle-miles traveled, health-care expenditures, pedestrian-friendly streets, hours of work to meet basic needs, employment concentration, housing affordability, children in poverty, juvenile crime, low-birthweight infants, library and community center use, participation in the arts, voting rates, adult literacy, youth in community service. A citizen-led critical-indicators program can provide a versatile vehicle for a rich variety of volunteer activities that leads to extensive citizen involvement, projects, and political action.

 

Roles of Government and Business

As we have seen, a crisis in community currently exists in the United States and in other countries; significant breakdowns are occurring in all six community core values. To address these problems, government, business, and the citizenry all have important roles. Government has played a major role traditionally, while business provides products, services, and jobs for citizens. And although both institutions need to support community work, the lead will need to come from the community.

The government and business are the two largest institutions in American life today. The government is ostensibly controlled by the people, and business is ostensibly controlled by its stockholders. Both, however, have in the main become institutions that no longer address the needs of all people, particularly people in lower economic classes or those with other obstacles to overcome. One important task for the new community is to redirect government and business to facilitate, not supplant, citizen enterprise and initiative. It is crucial to establish the fact that communities don't exist for or at their pleasure.

It is important to have a broad base supporting these community-led government and business reinventing initiatives when they are actually helping the community. For one thing, larger groups of people are more difficult to ignore. For another thing, the accusation of "special interests" raised divisively (and effectively) in recent U.S. elections, will be more difficult to make stick on a truly broad-based movement. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the gains of one group shall not be made at the expense of another: The lower middle class, for example, shouldn't be made to bleed for those worse off than they.

The new community must strongly support positive steps made by either of those institutions. Let's look at a hypothetical example. Suppose Company One is a company that takes significant steps to support community revitalization work. On the other hand, suppose Company Two relocates its operations to a location where it can dump toxic waste in an unrestricted way and exploit child labor to manufacture its products. If the products of both companies are roughly equivalent but the product from the unenlightened, purely profit-driven company costs less, then the consumer's tendency is to buy that product. In this case, the new community has the obligation to support Company One and let other buyers (and both companies) know why!

Intercommunity Cooperation

Communities will need to work together — synergistically — to build interlacing communities of communities that can help address problems that transcend community boundaries. David Morris and Karl Hess (1975) refer to the "outward movement" that will interconnect communities throughout the world. For these communities of communities to thrive, it will be necessary to identify common concerns and build common agendas. At the same time, the pitfalls of exclusivity, parochialism, mean-spiritedness, and marginalization will need to be avoided.

A community that is truly healthy shouldn't take its sustenance at the expense of other communities. In fact, it should put more into the store of "social capital" (discussed in more detail in Chapter 2) than it takes out, and new communities will need to explore how their assets (social and otherwise) can be shared with less fortunate communities. Communities — rich and poor, healthy and ailing — will need to work together cooperatively if serious structural problems are to be addressed. Many communities have precious few resources to draw on and will need to work with others outside their boundaries to get back on their feet. Jonathan Kozol, writing in Savage Inequalities (1991), a devastating critique of educational inequities in the United States, discusses the plight of the people of East Saint Louis. Through little or no fault of the residents, their neighborhood is polluted, their schools deficient, their streets dangerous, and their wallets are empty. "Pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps"

 

 

BUILDING COMMUNITY TECHNOLOGY

But how would you build it if you wanted to build it right?

  Lee Felsenstein, Community Memory Co-founder

 

Technology profoundly affects the way we live, communicate, and think, yet these issues are rarely publicly discussed with any deep understanding. For some reason, technology criticism in the United States is often off limits, and those who try to engage in these discussions are swiftly disciplined for their allegedly "Luddite" views. This epithet is usually reserved for those who have been critical of technology in a general or particular way and are therefore judged to be "antitechnology," as if it makes sense to be "for" or "against" technology. The topic of technology‹as any topic in a democratic society‹is a suitable subject for discussion, debate, legislation, investment, and even, dare I say, regulation. These points are made well in the introduction to Technology for the Common Good edited by Michael Shuman and Julia Sweig (1993): "Responsible technology begins with the recognition that all technology is a human activity and like other human activities it can have both good and bad intentions and consequences, it can affect different people or different people in unequal ways, and it can be supported or regulated as much as the national government or communities want. Nothing about technology is preordained, unless we choose to do nothing about it."

Individuals and their communities can help shape the future — for good or ill. This realization, however, contradicts several highly popular prognostications. For example, futurists like Alan and Heidi Toffler (1980) sell millions of books filled with sweeping predictions of the coming "Third Wave" in which society has become totally transformed (by magic?) into a brave new age. With this viewpoint, it is easy to single out government as a "Second Wave" proposition, a dead-end or "smoke stack" institution whose lingering existence serves merely as a hindrance for risk-taking "entrepreneurs" (as well as for vast corporations whose best-laid plans could in theory be thwarted by environmental or other laws imposed through democratic processes). And what does it suggest for a social activist? Readers of these grand millenarian visions might be moved to resolute inaction. Why should anyone participate in community work when their puny efforts will only be swept away by a gigantic historic "wave"?

Lee Felsenstein, a researcher at the Interval Corporation, and co-founder of the Berkeley, California, Community Memory computer system, is more interested in what technology can do and is doing, than in sweeping historical generalizations. He asks a simple yet provocative question (quoted at the beginning of this section) that challenges both designers and citizens to step back and consider the purpose and impact of new technology. Will it provide a useful service? Who will gain from its use? Who will lose? Will it promote community?

Technological systems, as technology scholar Langdon Winner (1986) has pointed out, result from conscious as well as subconscious design. "Artifacts are congealed ideology" according to Iain Boal (1995). They are necessarily infused with "politics," a politics that encourages certain actions, attitudes and values and discourages others. The advent of air conditioning, for example, in the American Southeast, has encouraged the growth of cities because it provides relief from the inhospitable weather. At the same time, air conditioning has helped to destroy many traditional, often community-oriented, activities like sitting on the front porch in the evening. On a much broader scale, the automobile and the national highway system have dramatically altered the physical and cultural landscape of the United States (Sclove and Scheuer, 1994).

When designing technological systems, decisions at early stages have a stronger and longer-lasting influence on the system than decisions made later on. As Winner explains (1986), "Because choices tend to become strongly fixed in material equipment, economic investment, and social habit, the original flexibility vanishes for all practical purposes once the initial commitments are made." He goes on to say that, "The same careful attention one would give to the rules, roles, and relationships of politics must also be given to such things as the building of highways, the creation of television networks, and the tailoring of seemingly insignificant features on new machines." And since the politics of new electronic communication systems have the potential to fundamentally alter the ways in which people communicate and obtain information, Winner's advice is especially important. Early participation in community (computer) network development‹and in other information and communication infrastructure development‹is absolutely critical.

Felsenstein's challenge points out the upside-down nature of current commercial development in the world of electronic communication. Rather than building on human capacities to help meet human needs, the emphasis is on producing whatever is necessary to yield the highest profit. Greed and the allure and novelty of technology often cloud our desire and ability to design, build, and use democratic technology. The media's adrenaline-packed gush over "500 channels" and "instant communication" also adds to the confusion by placing the focus and attention on all the wrong issues. The mergers and the huge financial expenditures of the "information superhighway" purveyors, for example, regularly provide the basis for blaring headlines.

There have been some critical voices. One of the pioneers of community networks, Tom Grundner, for example, warns, "When there's a stampede somebody always gets trampled. Always." When the stampede to deploy new technology is over, what will these systems be like? Will they be systems that real people can use to address real problems or will they be systems full of hype, fantasy, consumerism, and unfulfilled promise?

In the next section, we will introduce the idea of community networks. These systems will be difficult to build, yet have the potential to play a strong role in a broad effort to rebuild our communities. Communities must make their demands clear today if tomorrow''s technology is going to make good on some of its promises. If technology is to be used to empower the disenfranchised; to solve problems democratically; to help care for those with illness and disability; to participate in the affairs of the community, the region, the state, and the world then these systems can be truly revolutionary. Future capabilities such as electronic home shopping and movies on demand, although much ballyhooed in the media, are banal and unimaginative in comparison.

 

WHAT IS A COMMUNITY NETWORK?

The associations in community are interdependent. To weaken one is to weaken all. If the local newspaper closes, the garden club and the township meeting will each diminish as they lose a voice. If the American Legion disbands, several community fundraising events and the maintenance of the ballpark will stop. If the Baptist Church closes, several self-help groups that meet in the basement will be without a home and folks in the old people's home will lose their weekly visitors. The interdependence of associations and the dependence of community upon their work is the vital center of an effective society.

  John McKnight (1987)

Networks of civic engagement embody past success at collaboration which can serve as a cultural template for future collaboration.

  Robert Putnam (1993)

Before computers took center stage, the term "community network" was a sociological concept that described the pattern of communications and relationships in a community. This was the web of community that described how news traveled and how social problems were addressed in the community. New computer-based "community networks" are a recent innovation that are intended to help revitalize, strengthen, and expand existing people-based community networks much in the same way that previous civic innovations have helped communities historically.

Currently, community members and activists all over the world are developing these new community-oriented computer services, often in conjunction with other local institutions including colleges and universities, K-12 schools, local governmental agencies, libraries, or nonprofit organizations. There are currently nearly 300 operational systems (with nearly 200 more in development) (Doctor and Ankem, 1995) and the number of registered users exceeds 500,000 people worldwide[1] . These community networks (sometimes called civic networks, Free-Nets, community computing-centers, or public access networks), some with user populations in the tens of thousands, are generally intended to advance social goals, such as building community awareness, encouraging involvement in local decision-making, or developing economic opportunities in disadvantaged communities. A community network accomplishes these goals by supporting smaller communities within

Community members interact with community networks in various ways. Community-network terminals can be set up at public places like libraries, bus stations, schools, laundromats, community and senior centers, social service agencies, public markets, and shopping malls. Community networks can also be accessible from home via computers and, increasingly, from the Internet. In recent years, activists have also been establishing community computing-centers where people, often those in low-income neighborhoods, can become comfortable and adept with computer applications and network services.

The actual services on a community network vary from system to system but there are some typical ones, such as providing access to information about nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Community networks also offer on-line discussion capabilities on a limitless number of topics. Possible topics include pets, homelessness, religion, gay activism, "ask the mayor," alternative education, cultural events and classes, public hearings, artists' and craftspersons' forum, dental clinic, public safety updates, international news, and neighborhood news.

Community networks are thus far local and independent projects. Many are affiliated with the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN), an umbrella organization that helps establish and sustain community networks‹or, in NPTN's terminology, Free-Nets2 (see Chapter 8)‹but this affiliation is quite loose. In general, community-network developers have not explored just what the nature of a stronger or closer relationship between them would mean. Historically, community-network systems have had a difficult time financially, but increased public interest and some financial infusions from the government, businesses, and foundations have at least temporarily relieved some of the problems with some of the systems. Even so, very few of these systems have much in the way of paid staff. Whether or not community networks "implode," as Mario Morino of the Morino Institute has warned (1994), in the near or intermediate term, is an important concern that hinges on the question of whether or not community resources can coalesce around the idea of community computer-networks as a permanent institution in the community.

 

Community networks offer a new type of "public space" with similarities as well as major differences between other public spaces that our society currently offers. Steve Cisler, a senior scientist at the Apple Library forecasts (1993) that "just as electrical systems began to transform urban and smalltown America a century ago, community computer networks will do so in the 1990s." Regardless of whether that forecast turns out to be true, community networks offer an important and rare opportunity for communities to develop and manage democratic technology.

The Cleveland Free-Net — A Whirlwind Tour

Community networks take different forms in different communities. Changes in computer technology (notably in graphical interfaces and World Wide Web technology, discussed in Chapter 9) will also undoubtedly influence the look and feel of future systems. Nevertheless, a very brief tour of the Cleveland Free-Net (CFN), one of the first community networks, should prove useful at this point.

Even though I could call the CFN from my home via computer and modem, I used the Internet Telnet capability to connect to CFN. Since I was not a registered user of the system, I was allowed to explore the system, but was not allowed to send or receive e-mail or post messages to on-line forums. After their logo (Fig. 1.4) and some introductory information scrolled by, the main menu (Fig. 1.5) displayed the main areas within the CFN.

 

Cleveland Free-Net directory

  1. The Administration Building
  2. The Post Office
  3. Public Square
  4. The Courthouse & Government Center
  5. The Arts Building
  6. Science and Technology Center
  7. The Medical Arts Building
  8. The Schoolhouse (Academy One)
  9. The Community Center & Recreation Area
  10. The Business and Industrial Park
  11. The Library
Your Choice ==>

 

Figure 1.5

 

The CFN, like many community networks around the world, is organized as a group of "buildings" in an electronic "city." When the user wants to begin working with a service or see a menu at a lower level, they type the corresponding number. Typing a 1, for example, brings up The Administration Building menu that describes the purpose, technology, contents, policy, and other administrative information about CFN. If the user types a 2, the Post Office menu pops up that displays options for sending or receiving electronic mail (e-mail) or for performing other more specialized tasks such as filtering it (causing certain things to be done with the mail, depending on subject, sender, or other characteristics of the mail). Typing a 3 brings up the Public Square menu (Fig. 1.6) that brings together several services related to communication including The Cafe, where users can "chat" (where each line of text that a participating user types in is displayed to the other on-line users who are also using the "chat" program), vote, or participate in a number of forums.

Public Square

  1. About Public Square
  2. Announcements
  3. The Kiosk (aka "The Zone") (Open Board, Adults Only)
  4. The Cafe (Chat with Other Users)
  5. The Podium (Electronic Speeches, Adults Only)
  6. The Polling Place (All Voting Areas)
  7. The Kiosk Voting Booth (Kiosk Voting Area)
  8. The Speakeasy (General Discussion, Open)
  9. The Singles Partyline
  10. Boomers' Place
  11. The Mensa Forum

Figure 1.6

 

The Courthouse and Government Center choice on the main menu provides access to government related information such as the U.S. budget, Internal Revenue Services, weather services, legal information, and historic documents (such as the U.S. Constitution), while the Arts Center contains information on video, photography, literature, visual arts, theater, and other arts related areas, and The Science and Technology Center contains information on museums, computers, a "skeptics corner," and technology organizations.

The Medical Arts Building (Fig. 1.7) contains a wide range of information and services related to health and medicine, including an HIV/AIDS forum where users can submit anonymous questions (Fig. 1.8) related to HIV or AIDS to a registered nurse who answers them on the forum for anybody who's interested in that topic.

 

  1. About the Medical Arts Building
  2. USA TODAY: Health Headline News
  3. St. Silicon's Hospital
  4. The Handicap Center
  5. Alzheimer's Disease Support Center
  6. Psychology and Mental Health
  7. The Byte Animal Clinic
  8. The Center for International Health
  9. Substance Abuse Education
  10. The Pediatric Information Resource Center
  11. Safety and the Environment
  12. Bioethics Network of Ohio
  13. Nursing Network of Northeast Ohio(3NEO)

Figure 1.7


Article #15 (49 is last):
Newsgroups: freenet.med.stsil.aids.questions
From: anonymous
Subject: Public Pool danger

Is it true that there is a high risk of getting AIDS from a public swimming pool?

***answered by Stefan Ripich, RN
Absolutely not. The only way that you can get exposed to the virus is if the virus has access to your bodily fluids. The virus cannot live in pool water.

Figure 1.8 Anonymous AIDS question

 

The CFN also offers Academy One educational services that often involve kids from all over the world in science, art, or cultural projects. A list of KID-LIT poems, stories, or other compositions by young writers is shown in Fig. 1.9, and other Academy One projects are discussed in Chapter 3.

 

  1. A Scary Tale **R
  2. How the Rabbit Got Long Ears
  3. Re: How the Rabbit Got Long Ears
  4. Tiggers By: Christina Lynn Aust
  5. My Bird J. R., By: Christina Lynn Aust
  6. My Dad, By: Christina Lynn Aust
  7. Camping
  8. I'm a Little Mermaid
  9. About Christina's Poems
  10. Re: I'm a Little Mermaid
  11. An Elder Named Ron
  12. The Reading Song
  13. A Swordsman Named Fred

Figure 1.9 Kids-Lit submissions

 

Several Community Services are featured (Fig. 1.10) as are other Free-Nets in the USA (Fig. 1.11).

The Cleveland Free-Net is probably both the oldest (launched in 1986) and largest community computer network. When I last logged on, there were 216 other users logged in (their literature says that the system can handle 406 simultaneous users) and there were over 160,000 registered users. New users continue to sign up at rates of over 10 percent per month, as they have been doing since it began. There are approximately 6 million user sessions per year, and the system consists of 18 interconnected Pentium, 486, and Sun computers running the UNIX operating system and the Free-Port community networking software. Each user session lasts 28 minutes on the average and costs Case Western Reserve University (the institution that oversees the Cleveland Free-Net) approximately five cents per session over the telephone and modem and one-tenth of a cent for a session over the Internet (Neff, 1995).

 

Community Services

  1. Alcoholics Anonymous/Al-Anon
  2. Habitat for Humanity
  3. The Handicap Center
  4. Disabled and Proud
  5. Jobs Wanted/Jobs Available
  6. Lake Metroparks
  7. Lesbian/Gay Community Service Center
  8. Real Estate Exchange
  9. United Way Services
  10. Wanted and For Sale Boards
  11. The Scouting Center

Figure 1.10


Free-Nets in the USA

  1. Free-Nets in Ohio
  2. CIVITAS: The Electronic Home of NPTN
  3. Heartland Free-Net
  4. Tallahassee Free-Net(Tallahassee, Florida)
  5. The Big Sky Telegraph (Dillon, Montana)
  6. Buffalo Free-Net(Buffalo, New York)
  7. Denver Free-Net(Denver, Colorado)
  8. Traverse City Free-Net(Traverse City, Michigan)
  9. Prairienet(Illinois)
  10. Rio Grande Free-Net(El Paso, Texas)
  11. Sendit Free-Net(Sendit, North Dakota)
  12. The Columbia Online Information Network(Columbia, Missouri)
  13. The Greater Detroit Free-Net(Detroit, Michigan)
  14. The Los Angeles Free-Net(Los Angeles, California)
  15. The Seattle Community Network

Figure 1.11


 

TOWARDS A MARRIAGE OF COMMUNITY AND TECHNOLOGY

People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others.

  Ivan Illich (1973)

Both community and technology are inseparable parts of the human condition. A community is a web, a web that is real yet intangible, a web of social relations. Ideally, the web of community is a unity, a cohesive force that is supportive, builds relationships, and encourages tolerance. Sadly, the web of community is growing weaker in many ways. Technology too is a web of sorts, for it also connects people in real and intangible ways. Technology mediates communication between people, changes social space, and alters roles and relationships in society. Humankind has fashioned and used technology for over a million years — to multiply force or shrink distance — and technology, like language, is a natural and inseparable extension to our world and our world view. Yet especially in recent years, technology has become out of balance and out of control in many ways. Increasingly, communities are at the mercy of a seemingly autonomous technological imperative.

There is an apparent tension between the concept of "community" and the concept of "technology" that needs to be addressed. The stereotypes persist that communities are warm and fuzzy, whereas technology is cold, unyielding, mysterious, and dangerous. Part of the reason for those generalizations can be found in history — the grim and merciless toil in the factories of the industrial revolution — and part can be found in our collective imagination of the idyllic and convivial communities that existed "once upon a time," in the "good old days" before the machine.

Technology is viewed as complex and incomprehensible. It is seen as larger in scope than the more familiar and comfortable spheres of the individual or community. Technology can be complex and it can be inhumanly vast. But if people don't demystify the technology, it will forever be daunting, and people will continue to be victimized. The truth is that the culture of humankind can't be separated from its tools or from its technology. Like communications, tool-making and tool-using are inseparable from our nature. For although technological systems may seem complex, incomprehensible, and overwhelming in size, they need not be. As we will show, existing systems can be tamed and new community-oriented systems can be devised. By reasserting our control of our technological systems, some of the tension between "community" and "technology" can be removed and technology can be made to better serve human needs.

Preferences of the New Community

In the following six "core value" chapters, we discuss ideas and projects — both computer-oriented and not — that could help support the aims of the new community. In general, those ideas and projects embody a set of value preferences (Fig. 1.12) that indicate the general perspective of the new community; they are not binary choices. The rights of individuals are not to be abrogated, for example, just because there is a focus on community. Nor, for example, does the figure imply that commercial interests are not important, only that the focus here is primarily noncommercial (except in the cases where a commercial focus is relevant for the new community).

New Community Preferences

  1. Geographical over "virtual"
  2. Community over individual
  3. Public over private
  4. Community culture over mass culture
  5. Capacity building over needs-orientation
  6. Home-grown over specialist
  7. Empowering over disempowering
  8. Multiway conversation over broadcast
  9. Discussion over propaganda (e.g., talk radio)
  10. Inclusive over exclusive
  11. Process over goal
  12. Fundamental over superficial
  13. Democracy over autocracy
  14. Civic over commercial
  15. Voluntary over coerced
  16. Real needs over artificial needs
  17. Networks over hierarchies
  18. Sustainable over depletive

Figure 1.12

 

Computer technology — in concert with other efforts — can play a positive role in rebuilding community by strengthening the six core values. Whether these aims are realized will depend on citizens from all walks of life. Truly democratic systems can only be developed through broad participation. This endeavor must not be a charitable good-works project of elites nor a rebellion of the underclasses. It should be open to citizens of all races, economic classes, ethnic origins, religions, genders, ages, and sexual preferences. It must be global in nature, because a confluence of perspectives, experiences, and skills is needed in order to succeed.

Saul Alinsky, the premier American community activist, says (Boyte, 1989) that "the radical is that unique person who actually believes what he says. He wants a world in which the worth of the individual is recognized. He wants the creation of a society where all of man's potentialities could be realized."

The vision of a new community is a radical one. Building it will require care and diligence, patience, and intelligence. The broader the effort is and the more tightly the efforts are interwoven, the stronger the force it will become. The momentum for positive change will be irresistible.


1 Usage figures from the National Public Telecomputing Network (Appendix A).


2 The term Free-Net is a service mark of the National Public Telecomputing Network.