New Community Networks

Wired for Change

Addison-Wesley, 1996

Douglas Schuler



Chapter 11



History is full of instances where people, against enormous odds, have come together to struggle for liberty and justice, and won — not often enough, of course, but enough to suggest how much more is possible. . . . The willingness to undertake such action cannot be based on certainties, but on those possibilities glimpsed in a reading of history different from the customary painful recounting of human cruelties. In such a reading, we can find not just war but resistance to war, not just injustice but rebellion against injustice, not just selfishness but self-sacrifice, not just silence in the face of tyranny but defiance, not just callousness but compassion.

  Howard Zinn (1994)

We need a Charles Dickens today more than we need a computer specialist.

  Herbert Schiller[1]


The world is emerging from a long cold war that has profoundly marked the thinking and behavior of its leaders and citizens over the last half-century. Indeed in the United States almost all decisions, including those related to science, technology, and society, were couched in cold-war rhetoric. The abrupt ending of the cold war has seemingly left Americans confused and without direction, similar to the mood in periods directly following this century's two World Wars. The ending of an era of profound global tension paradoxically has not brought relief but an uneasy unsureness of thought and of purpose (Chapman, 1994) that is preventing citizens and the institutions that ostensibly serve them from addressing critical social needs with the necessary compassion, confidence, and creativity. This chapter offers glimpses into some of these issues especially as they relate to the future of community and democratic technology.



Every American will have a cellular phone, which will probably be a fax which will probably be a modem, which will probably in some way tie them into a world. Whether they want to or not, frankly every American will be competing in the world market with Germany and China and Japan.

  Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, in his opening speech
to the Republican Congress, Dec. 11, 1994

Corporations are the chief form through which society's resources are marshalled and, consequently, are the most dominant force in American and global economic life. In everyday consciousness, the "market" — often ignoring evidence to the contrary and belying personal observation — is seen as an unchallenged fount of goodness and wisdom. Consequently, any criticism of corporations is considered to be misguided and heretical. The conquest has not been limited to a conquest of consciousness. In America, the two major political parties both accept the prevailing attitude that corporations — not citizens — are supreme. Not surprisingly, corporations now oversee the entire political process, including fundraising, legislation, campaigning, and regulating.

The commercial sector is currently conceptualizing and developing a wide variety of network applications that are now prominent in national media. This coverage routinely fails to mention, however, any public-interest, truly interactive, participatory, civic, or community-owned and operated networks or services. On top of that, large computer, telecommunications, and media companies are involved in formal and informal discussions with the government on the future of the National Information Infrastructure (NII), but there is virtually no effort to involve "ordinary" citizens in either education or consultation.

Sometimes this focus on the commercial appears to be largely accidental and based on ignorance or natural bias towards "experts" and "professionals." Newspaper and magazine reporters may be unaware of the profusion of community-network systems and increased interest within the nonprofit community when they run breathless accounts of the "Electronic Superhighway" (see, for example, Time, 1993) exalting a high-technology future for the medium that is controlled exclusively by giant corporations. Other incidents suggest less generous interpretations, however. One such incident involved a secret meeting between Republican congressional members and CEOs of the largest telecommunications companies in January of 1995. While the meeting may not have technically violated federal laws banning closed meetings, actions like this raise crucial questions as to the motivations of these major players and their interest in supporting the real needs of their constituents and customers.

The National Information Infrastructure (or NII) is the catch-all term that is used to describe the sum total of the technological systems that we rely on to communicate with and obtain information. When we examine what is meant by the term, we find (like the gentleman who discovered he had been speaking prose his whole life) that an NII is something that has existed since the invention of the telegraph. It simply names the complex of technological underpinnings that allow a person or organization in one location to share information or communicate with a person in another area. This information infrastructure has become increasingly faster, busier (accommodating more data), and more universally used in recent years. Furthermore this process shows no sign of stopping or slowing down. In fact, development is likely to accelerate as millions of additional users stream in and billions of dollars are invested in new programming, new services, and new technology.

The White House Agenda for Action

In 1993, the Clinton-Gore administration released "version 1.0" of "The National Information Infrastructure Agenda for Action," which rehashes many of the utopian claims for network technology such as "the best schools, teachers, and courses would be available to all students without regard to geography, distance, resources, or disability." While the report endorsed improving access to government information, extending the concept of "universal service" to electronic resources, and implementing an NII projects program for government, universities, libraries, school districts, health-care providers, and other nonprofits, it also unequivocally stated that "the private sector will lead the development of the NII." The government, in other words, is capitulating any leadership role to corporations, entities whose goals are unlikely to be driven by the public good.

In 1994, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced the first major federal support program for people and organizations using telecommunications in their communities. This program, the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP), was established "for planning and demonstration projects to promote the goals of development and widespread availability of advanced telecommunications technologies; to enhance the delivery of social services and generally serve the public interest; to promote access to government information and increase civic participation; and to support the advancement of an advanced nationwide telecommunications and information infrastructure." Later that year, the NTIA made 91 awards totaling $170 million to recipients in nearly every state. Although nearly obliterated by the Republican-dominated Congress, the program was also repeated in 1995.

With several hundred proposals submitted each year, this program demonstrated as well as amplified a strong interest in using new communications technology in many areas (including government, educational, library, and public television and radio) by all manner of nonprofit organizations (including those working with ethnic groups, people with disabilities, people with low incomes, youth, civil rights, and child abuse prevention, among many others). The award winners also addressed an enormous range of technologies and represented a wide variety of organizations and organizational partnerships, including those involving government, nonprofit groups, and businesses.

The infusion of this first round of public funding has enabled over 90 projects to either get started or advance to the next phase of their work. The money — and the prospect of more to come — effectively turns up the heat on a number of projects, accelerating a process that may or may not have happened without the money. The petri dish of networking projects will be teeming — at least in the foreseeable future — with new and innovative networked organizational life forms.

While the program is positive in the main, there are several concerns. Although the focus was changed in 1995, the intention of the original request for proposals made it clear that the money was primarily for hardware and software expenditure. Unfortunately, this promoted an orientation around technology; less on information and data and even less on the connection to the community. When people place their focus on the technology, it is quite easy to lose sight on why one might want to use the systems. It also leads to a Field of Dreams naivete ´ —if we build it, they will come. The program also introduces another incipient concern, that of commercial —or private— profit versus the public good by promoting public-private collaboration. While current thinking suggests that "reinventing" government, business, and other institutions is desirable, it is not clear or generally acknowledged what principles should guide these increasingly common reinventions, nor is there a body of accumulated wisdom to guide the process. Reinventing often involves the development of relationships between people and organizations that historically had little or no contact; when contacts existed, they were likely to be formal, constrained, and bound by contract. Developing new relationships is commonly believed to be more efficient and more effective. Presumably there will be less bureaucracy, more flexibility, and everybody will be more entrepreneurial. But new relationships will give rise to new responsibilities and new ethical issues. When the line gets blurred between profit-making by private corporations and acting in the public good by government or social agencies, the opportunities for inappropriate behavior both small and large increase dramatically.

Since an incredible amount of reinventing has taken place in a short period of time, new guidelines that could potentially help people recognize, avoid, and arrest undue influence of government by business interests, are not in place. Unfortunately, the TIIAP awards do little in the way of addressing these issues — except possibly to exacerbate them. For one thing, the TIIAP awards stipulated matching funds. In many cases the source of matching funds was a company such as a telephone company, and in some cases it was a foundation. In the case of the commercial support especially, the very real possibility of inappropriate influence on the course of the project must be anticipated and avoided. In the rush to reinvent and form new alliances, the government objective of serving the people could end up becoming secondary to serving corporate needs.

Building an Infrastructure for Democracy

The government is currently a key player in the area of network applications. It distributes vast amounts of information and services, and electronic distribution of information and services will become increasingly important in the future. Indeed, activity along these lines is increasing daily at all levels of government. Although this issue is currently receiving scant attention, government support and protection for an infrastructure for democracy is the most critical, basic, and pressing role of government in a democratic society.

As discussed in Chapter 4, democracy depends on several fundamental elements. Education is one of the most vital of these, as a democratic society will only be as effective as its citizens. This is one of the most important reasons why democratic countries need high-quality public education. Closely related to education is the need for access to information and communication. This second simple requirement has many important implications, as the information and communication infrastructure that people rely upon is undergoing fundamental changes, predicated in part by new computer and telecommunications technology. If corporations are allowed to become filters or for-profit purveyors of basic information then the democratic infrastructure will continue to degrade. If government abdicates its responsibilities in this area, corporate imperatives will become more influential and the "will of the people" will become increasingly meaningless.

To preserve, cultivate, and strengthen a democratic infrastructure requires the exercise of civic responsibility. A primary responsibility is to ensure that individuals and organizations — especially those with alternative or minority voices — can participate in democratic discourse. Meeting this responsibility also means discouraging monopolistic control of information (which, as we know from Chapter 7, is a very real danger), and it means ensuring common carrier status to distribution channels. (A cable television company shouldn't be able to deny access or charge higher rates to competing companies or to deny commercials that conflict with its legislative agenda, for example.)

In order to make the transition from the current "media monopoly" (Bagdikian, 1992) to a democratic infrastructure, the government needs to discourage excessive concentration of ownership. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be going in the opposite direction, as evidenced by the Communications Act of 1995, which eliminates many national and local ownership limits and bans on cross-ownership. Although these ideals are facing stiff opposition from an increasingly libertarian and religious-right-oriented Congress, the government needs to be proactive as well as reactive in fostering progressive, community-oriented, and participatory network projects. Although the government has initiated some innovative programs such as the TIIAP programs and virtual public conferences on topics such as "universal service and open access to the telecommunications network" (United States Department of Commerce, 1994), these represent a minimal beginning. Without strong citizen self-education and governmental consultation with citizens and citizen groups, large telecommunications corporations will determine the shape and direction of the next information and communication infrastructure.



With the cold war behind us, deep political and economic transformations are underway. We have an opportunity to remake technology into the servant of democracy and society. A better opportunity may not come again in our lifetime.

  Richard Sclove (1994a)

Many people feel that technology is autonomous, independent, and beyond the control of society. As such, people read about it and talk about it and — like the weather — rarely do anything about it. Yet people could have more control over technology and its effects if they realized the power they could wield and assumed increased responsibility. Currently only a handful of people regularly attempt to influence the shape and direction of technology through its physical design, through policies surrounding its use, and through actively imagining and representing possible futures.

The idea of absolutely controlling technology — including community networks--is untenable. Shaping it iteratively and collaboratively, on the other hand, by reflecting, imagining, discussing, prescribing, designing, monitoring, and evaluating current and future technological systems is not only sensible but absolutely essential. Moreover, many of society's institutions need to extend their roles and responsibilities so they too can participate in this process.

The University as a Test-Bed for Community Research

The major universities that participated with big government and big business in the 40-year cold war are increasingly the targets of "political disenchantment" on the part of the public, in the words of Harvey Brooks (1993) from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Universities —in the United States at least— have become large and impersonal —vast institutions with tenuous links to the community. With increasing public disenchantment and government support waning, the research opportunities offered by the coming of the interconnected community networks could help breathe life into the university, especially if these were conducted as partnerships with the community. Loka Institute executive director Richard Sclove, who has been studying ways to actively engage citizens democratically in the broader affairs of science and technology, has advocated the concept of "science shops" that have been launched in several places in Europe (Sclove, 1994a). These shops are essentially store-front research centers that work with community members to develop action plans in their community. Participation in a science shop movement could help rescue academia from the conflicting attractions of ivory tower isolation and marketplace prostitution to which it finds itself drawn (Barber, 1992). Some other new community-academia research opportunities are listed in Fig. 11.1.

In general, there are many ways in which universities and colleges can renew or build links with communities. A few recommendations — some of which are already in place — are listed below.

New Research Opportunities

Business Schools: Developing flexible models of business that transcend the purely profit-taking model to include community and environmental responsibility.

Communications and Media Studies: Comparing community networks with "traditional" media. What functions do they supplant? Complement? Exploring how community networks alter traditional control over creation and distribution of news and other information.

Computer Science: Developing user interfaces and information-retrieval methods that promote effective access to a wide variety of information types (including text, graphics, voice, video, and datasets) from remote sites.

Economics: Analyzing new patterns of funding systems, analyzing costs and benefits of community-based information systems, systems for recompensing authors of electronic material. Developing equitable funding models for community enterprises.

Education: Developing collections of courseware, information, and services that can be made available electronically and effectively accessed and used by large numbers of community members especially those who have little access to existing educational programs. Developing and evaluating models for effective learning and collaboration over distances. Ensuring that appropriate in-person educational models are developed and not supplanted by electronic-only models.

Engineering: Developing a new ethic of engineering that acknowledges, understands, and embodies responsibility and purpose in technological design. Environmental Studies: To study the effects and potential of telecommunications systems on the environment. To devise new ways in which environmental information can be presented electronically.

Geography: Studying the effects of information and communications technology on demographics, land use and population.

Information and Library Sciences: Exploiting existing wide area information servers for sharing of information over a wide area as well as working with prototypes and next-generation information sharing applications; Developing new approaches to information retrieval, distribution, and synthesis.

Medicine and Public Health: Exploring new community-based approaches to delivery of health care information and health care. Exploring the effects of participant-initiated conversation with health-care providers as well as other health-care system consumers. Effects of networking on community mental health.

Psychology: Exploring new phenomena arising from network use including addiction, lurking, posing. What needs are met through community network use? What psychological problems are initiated or exacerbated by network use?

Political Science: Studying and proposing new models of political participation. How do community networks change traditional political relationships and institutions such as the political party? What effects do community networks have on political discourse?

Public Affairs: Developing policy frameworks and analysis methodologies. Making policy recommendations and designing public projects.

Sociology: Conducting research on usage patterns and individual and collective on-line behavior. Studying effects of community networks on actual and virtual communities. How do virtual communities coalesce, behave, and manage themselves? How do community networks effect social roles, responsibilities, and overall social structures?

Urban Studies: Working with citizen groups to devise critical indicators and other tools for understanding and improving the urban condition. Analyze the effects of telecommunications policies on communities, particularly in regard to low income and minority populations.

Figure 11.1

The Future of Libraries

Electronic information is taking on strange new shapes; it is a mix of content, communication, and services. It is not clear to libraries what part of the new kind of information is properly part of their responsibility.

  Clifford Lynch (1993)

The need for libraries as free public institutions has been popularly acknowledged for about 150 years. Their broad role, facilitating access to useful information, is undergoing reexamination as information becomes increasingly digital (and nontextual) and increasingly electronically distributable. Moreover, the context of libraries, including their relationships with government, content providers, and the public is changing.

Libraries, traditionally, have been "buying collectives," using resources of a community to acquire a wide variety of information that is useful to the community libraries. They have necessarily been advocates for public access to information. In this role libraries facilitate access to information in various ways: They select, store, index, archive, arrange, and provide expert assistance in locating information. They also provide a free public (physical) space in the community for people to engage in a wide variety of community activities including studying, public meetings, story telling, and literacy training. Libraries, of necessity, filter information. Because they have limited money for purchasing and limited shelf space for storage, much information is not made available through libraries, and older information is often discarded to make way for the new. Libraries must routinely weigh quality, costs, and public needs when purchasing material.

Vickie Reich and Mark Weiser, researchers from Stanford and Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), have explored dimensions along which libraries can evolve as electronic communication becomes more widespread. One of their reports (1993) begins with the observation that a national information infrastructure already exists in the United States. This network consists of books, magazines, and newspapers and their distribution methods, broadcast radio and television, and the telephone system. Importantly —and this fact is often missed— the tens of thousands of school and public libraries constitute an important community nexus on the existing network. Reich and Weiser specifically focus on the "situational functions" of libraries that transcend the common conception of libraries as mere information repositories. The narrow view is sometimes used as a rationale for the planned extinction of libraries following necessarily the advent of new electronic information resources. Reich and Weiser, however, note that of the eight public library roles —community activities center, community information center, formal education support center, independent learning center, preschoolers' door to learning, popular materials library, reference library, and research center —only three are primarily informational. The other five roles are due, in part, to the physical and "situational" place in the community.

Karen Coyle, a specialist with the University of California Library System, points out several current deficiencies with the Internet as a comprehensive information resource. The information on the Internet is becoming increasingly varied, yet these are only pockets of knowledge with vast gaps. It has been characterized as being miles wide but an inch deep. As Coyle points out, the information is unindexed for the most part, and no over-arching scheme is likely to be in widespread use in the near future. It may be the case that the amount of information on the Internet is growing faster than the capabilities of the automated searching tools that are currently used to navigate and locate information. If this is indeed the case, then information, while becoming more plentiful, is in some sense getting more difficult to obtain. Also accessing information over a network means that hardware, software, or network glitches could arbitrarily delay or prevent access to some material. Clifford Lynch, also of the California Library System, raises a number of additional concerns in his report to the Office of Technology Assessment (1993). One such concern is that network information providers will increasingly rely on licensing rather than copyright regulations in making information available, thus stressing the public library's ability to make information freely available through lending.

Although digital resources are currently qualitatively inferior in many ways to good libraries (that increasingly offer access to electronic resources in addition to other resources), it is clear that electronic resources will be assuming greater importance in the future. For this reason, librarians and the library institution will need to work hard to maintain the roles listed by Reich and Weiser in this new era. Some recommendations to the library community are as follows:


Work, Technology, and Democracy

The workplace of today is no longer a location.

  Elaine Bernard[2]

Work, a central and timeless aspect of human existence, is currently undergoing substantial redefinition. This change has largely resulted from increased global capitalism that is fueled in part by new communications technology. This redefinition is taking place within a very brief time historically, and represents yet another threat to the community that is occurring without public planning or discussion. Indeed, discounting the cheering section in the business media, there is very little substantive discussion of these changes in a widespread or public way. Although this is not the place for a lengthy discussion of the possible effects of the computer on the nature of work, a brief elicitation is necessary.

Starting at the most general level, the threats of unemployment due to computer automation that have been anticipated since the 1950s are finally beginning to become a reality. This has been noted by social critics such as Aronowitz and DiFazio (1994), and Rifkin (1994) as well as in business periodicals such as Business Week and Fortune. This should come as no surprise: Computer systems are invariably introduced as a way to reduce costs, and the general strategy is to have computers do the work that was previously done by people. Of course, computers also create new challenging and well-paid jobs, but these amount to a small fraction of the jobs they eliminate. Computers also change the nature of work in many other ways, some quite subtle. Some of the ways, discussed in much greater depth in Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflict and Social Choices edited by UC Irvine professor Rob Kling (1995), include deskilling (making jobs simpler and thus available for people with less skills and education, for lower pay), job reorganization (according to "rational" guidelines, often amounting to a new breed of Taylorism), computer monitoring (where computers are used to spy on workers, collecting statistics such as keystrokes per minute, length of conversation per telephone request for help, or bathroom visits per day), or telecomputing (where workers are "allowed" to work at home, saving office expenses for the company while setting up the possibility of what Barbara Garson [1989] calls an "Electronic Sweatshop").

The future of work is of interest to all of society. Unfortunately, this topic is incredibly diffuse, immensely challenging, and global in nature (and, as such, unlikely to be solved at a community level). Nevertheless, "work" could become a focus for community and democratic development and community networks can play a role in that discussion (also see Chapter 6). Some possible actions for community networks include the following:


Civic Renaissance

The decline of community life and the apparent inability of traditional institutions to ameliorate the situation has not gone unnoticed in the United States and around the world. Amitai Etzioni (1993), Robert Bellah (Bellah et al., 1985), and many others have launched several programs to reinvigorate civic and community participation, including the communitarian political movement (Etzioni, 1993). Largely in response to local problems, citizens around the world have launched literally thousands of initiatives in the last few years to address these civic problems. Streets of Hope (Medoff and Sklar, 1994) is an excellent explication of the ambitious Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in South Boston. Against All Odds (DeSilva, 1989) describes a host of community-based projects in poor regions around the world. These efforts are often unconnected to efforts in other cities or national institutions but are local responses to local needs and circumstances. These efforts generally are not professionally initiated or controlled, nor do they employ "tried and true" problem-solving approaches (that don't seem to work like they used to). Instead their approach is often tentative and experimental and, as such, is unlikely to be based on "scientific findings" or recommendations of special panels. Often the focus is on "common-sense" values like the need for discussion, the need to participate, or the need to volunteer.

The Millennium Communications Group, in a report prepared for the Rockefeller Foundation, entitled "Communications as Engagement" (1995) has highlighted community projects of this type and has identified 14 different descriptors for these "revitalization initiatives at the local level." The report arranges these descriptors‹urban partnerships, visioning and strategic planning, collaborative community problem-solving, dispute/conflict resolution, leadership development, religious institution initiatives, national/ community/voluntary service, deliberative discussion, citizen participation, issue-driven initiatives, civic journalism, civic networking, media production/distribution, neighborhood and community organizations —into an "architecture" that describes the descriptor, lists some examples, and lists national or state organizations that are acting to help weave a stronger web of consciousness and action. The report goes on to list 10 strategies for "supporting and accelerating revitalization" that resonate with themes in this book, such as "create demand for civic journalism," "leverage the infrastructure of national nonprofits," "create new media," and help to create a "larger picture" (see Appendix B for information on the Millennium Web site).

Community (or "civic") networking is clearly part of this larger Civic Renaissance movement, but with a twist or two. One difference is that the community-networking movement has communication technology as a central focus. According to the Millennium report, the other types have very little experience with modern telecommunication technology. For this reason, the community-networking movement has much to offer the other groups who, according to the report, have a strong interest in learning how to use the technology. On the other hand, the other groups have more experience dealing with the types of problems that community-networking developers want to help address. Another difference is that with a focus on technology, community-network developers are in a good position to agitate for more democratic use of communications technology, and to educate and alert other groups to its importance.

The American Civic Forum is a national effort to encourage, organize and channel the development of citizenship towards addressing community problems. Their "Civic Declaration" (ACF, 1994), coordinated by Harry Boyte, Benjamin Barber, and Will Marshall, explains that their aim is "to reassert the authority of civil society against both the encroachments of government, however well intended, and the disruptions of unfettered markets, however efficient." The declaration provides numerous examples of how community groups built issue-based agendas, started schools, trained people, and convened forums that work towards solutions of public problems with inclusive, public programs. The collaborative and nonpartisan Civic Practices Network (CPN) (Sirianni et al., 1995), is an out-growth of the American Civic Forum, coordinated by Carmen Sirianni of Brandeis University and Lew Friedland of the University of Wisconsin (with support of the Alliance for National Renewal), brings together a diverse array of organizations within the new citizenship movement. The CPN uses the World Wide Web as a new medium for "civic story telling" as well as for presenting their vision of new citizenship and helping to build a network-style coalitional framework.

An important aspect of the CPN is its broad coverage of nine critical topics‹community; environment; families, gender, children; health; journalism; community networking; religion; work and empowerment; and youth and education (see Fig. 11.2). Each topic includes "Civic Perspectives" (background articles that provide good coverage of historic, philosophic and other important viewpoints on the topics) and "Stories and Case Studies" (containing abstracts and extensive reports on specific initiatives). The community topic, for example, has civic perspectives "Regenerating Community" by John McKnight (1987) and "Kernels of Democracy" by Ken Thomson (1995), while the case studies include "East Brooklyn Congregations Build Nehemiah Homes," "Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative Revitalizes Community" (mentioned above), "Portland Neighborhood Associations Bring Local Voice to City Government," and "South Bronx Rebuilds from the Bottom Up." The stories in the community section (and in the others) are not sales pitches filled with glowing reports, but rich accounts that contain disappointments, mistakes, missed opportunities, as well as successful outcomes. Sirianni, Friedland, the topic editors, and other participants envision the Web pages as a focus for collaborative efforts as well as a tool for the next generation of community workers. In a similar vein, the Millenium group has launched the "Grass-roots Tool-Box" (1995) project; it incorporates the World Wide Web, faxes, and television into an integrated civic revitalization program. Both of these projects illustrate that the electronic medium provides the potential for widespread access, a methodology for distributed collaboration, and a test-bed for additional tools, such as those that search the case studies using various means in order to locate relevant ones.

The majority of people are unfamiliar with the telecommunications issues that their tax dollars helped engender. Moreover, critical decisions are being framed, debated, and made without their advice or consent. Since these decisions will shape the form of future modes of communication and, hence, of the nature of society, citizens have an immense stake in these proceedings. For this reason, government institutions at all levels should convene local and regional meetings before critical and potentially irreversible actions are taken. These meetings can take several forms including large conferences, neighborhood workshops, or on-going advisory boards that include community members. Unfortunately, the government may have to be pressured into participating and embarrassed into inviting noncorporate representatives into important advisory roles.

There would be several purposes of these proposed meetings. One purpose would be to educate people on the basic concepts of telecommunications technology and issues. In Seattle, Eric Rehm and Aki Namioka (1994) of the local chapter of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) developed a presentation on the "National Information Infrastructure" that included a description of the technology in clear language. To raise local awareness and activism on the issues, Rehm, along with Parker Lindner and David Griffith of Electra, a Seattle "coalition for electronic democracy," developed a "20 Policy Questions for Public Debate" fact sheet (Fig. 11.3) that has been used to raise important concerns with a variety of community groups in Seattle. Besides playing an educational role, the government also needs to facilitate an exchange of ideas with the citizenry. Several criteria should guide this effort. The exchange must be open, iterative (building on multiple sessions that allow time for reflection and research), inclusive (involving a wide mix of people), and genuine (in other words, not just be a symbolic or obligatory ritual). The public needs to play a strong role in public policy development; without this it will continue to be created, in secret, by "experts" with little or no civic or community understanding or compassion.


20 Policy Questions for Public Debate

1. Who should own the information superhighway?

2. Who should build the information infrastructure?

3. Who should manage our information-delivery system?

4. How will we assure free speech?

5. How can we overcome obstacles and barriers that make some groups information rich and others information poor?

6. How can we reestablish diversity of content?

7. Should the information highway be regulated?

8. What is universal access?

9. How much does information cost?

10. How will we connect?

11. How will we learn to use this resource?

12. How about privacy?

13. When does private data become public information?

14. What information should be available on-line?

15. How could electronic networks improve access to government information?

16. How will individuals choose information services?

17. Competition or concentration?

18. What can citizens do?

19. What should government do?

20. What next?


Figure 11.3


Although citizen participation has enjoyed sporadic but generally lukewarm success in the United States, models of successful participation approaches do exist in other countries. In Denmark, for example, there is a process that has been used in a variety of issues including genetic engineering of animals (Sclove, 1994b). Using this model, citizens (housewives, office and factory workers, garbage collectors, teachers and so on) work together with subject-matter experts over a course of six months in several structured meetings in addition to doing some research and reflection at home. Models like these suggest that there is room for citizen participation in all manners of decisions, even those related to esoteric technical and scientific knowledge. If the government doesn't initiate these programs itself, it may need to be cajoled into it. These decisions are too important to be made without input from the citizenry.

Encouraging public education and debate at all levels is especially important now. This need may be addressed most easily by working with local or national organizations (see Chapter 8 and Appendix A) and by making concerns known via individual correspondence and testimony. Many organizations are currently developing vision statements and policy recommendations on these issues.

The development of independent and free on-line services and information effectively complements political efforts by providing a highly visible proof of concept. Developing such community-networking services not only benefits the community directly, but it also provides valuable public education and strengthens the civic renaissance movement. Also, the availability of high-quality free services will encourage commercial information and service providers to improve the quality of their services in order to be competitive.

Public Participation's Rocky Road

While public participation is a constant theme in this book, its practice is not without pitfalls. Long-time community activist, Harry Boyte warns the would-be do-gooder, that "public life is no love-in."[3] Citizens new on the community activism scene should expect some resistance and hostility from unexpected quarters (including from presumed allies), and some will come with surprising virulence. Moreover, those conflicts can assume a wide variety of forms. Although there is no one way to respond and my experience is limited, the topic is worth discussing briefly here.

There are some basic rules to dealing with conflict. The first rule is that it should be expected. Conflict — even attack — is inevitable. If you are trying to accomplish anything in the public sphere, you will probably accumulate critics and/or enemies. Another rule is that criticism should not be dismissed out of hand. It is important to discuss it with others in the organization and try to understand its motivation and its importance.

Although the criticism may be motivated by turf warring, resentment at not being consulted, everyday conspiracy weaving (some people do this as a full-time hobby), or just plain misanthropism, it should be analyzed and considered. Sometimes it will be necessary to change the way the organization goes about its business or to rethink how to present the community-network vision or to redefine how volunteers or staff work within the community. At other times you may hear criticism that is so diffuse and third-hand that it is impossible to deal with either conceptually or practically.

Another rule is to keep calm and to keep things in perspective. As most of us are unaccustomed to being attacked — personally or otherwise — it may be difficult to stay philosophical. It's important to realize that although the attacks seem personal and addressed directly at you, the attacker is going after a visible proponent of the system, which may be you today and someone else tomorrow. It is also important for the organization's members to stick together, to agree on shared goals and, in general, how to attain these. Problems may also arise from within the organization, especially in relation to responsibilities and duties. There are no easy answers to these issues, but open communication and a team-oriented approach are very important for preventing problems and for dealing with them when they arise.

Criticism and attacks can come in many flavors. I once received e-mail from somebody who was very enthusiastic about volunteering for the Seattle Community Network. In a postscript, he asked whether I thought it was "necessary" to have forums on gay issues. I wrote back, thanked him for his interest, and sent him the information he requested. I also told him that several people had expressed interest in a gay issues area, so one was established. That was the last we heard from that person. Other criticism came from a person in the BBS community, who accused SCN of trying to put them out of business because of the "one-stop shopping" metaphor we were using. In actuality, community networks and BBS systems need to interoperate synergistically. The BBS could be the home of special-purpose information and discussion (like a BBS in Seattle for opportunities for disabled people), some or all of which could be shared with the community network. For its part, the community network could offer a connection to the Internet so, for example, BBS users could send and receive e-mail from other people on the net.

Another criticism of SCN involved the openness of the process. Ironically, there appears to be some link between greater democratization and criticism. SCN meetings, for example, are open to all and everybody has a chance to speak. Anybody can also join a committee. If SCN didn't explicitly and publicly strive for a democratically run project, it might not even attract the relatively small amount of criticism that it does receive.

Another possible criticism is based on the company you keep. In other words, if you're associated with city government in any way, you may be deemed a tool of city government. If you're working with a public radio station, you may be accused of kowtowing to them. In general, working with any organization or institution does involve some risk. Community-network developers need to be cognizant of this risk, to anticipate possible problems (especially those of improper influence), to work to avoid them, and to deal with them if and when they arise. Community-network developers also must be aware that they are open to this criticism, criticism that couldn't legitimately be leveled without cooperative alliances.

Another criticism that one might encounter is that the organization is not truly community-based or that the community-network developers don't (or shouldn't try to) "speak for the community." This criticism invariably carries some validity. It doesn't mean, however, that the development of the system should be halted. The community-network organization can not speak for the community. (In communities over a certain size, there probably can never be a single spokesperson.) Care should be taken not to commit this sin of hubris. The community-network organization can, however, speak in defense of the community and offer opinions and suggestions for community participation and access, like any other organization within the community. To the criticism of not being truly community-based, the response can only be: "We recognize that we're only part of a very diverse community and we're working to involve others as well." Working closely with an ever expanding number of community organizations is the only real answer to this concern.



At present our society persists in designing a great many technical artifacts in ways that make people feel passive, superfluous, stupid, and incapable of initiating action. Such systems bear the cultural embryos of tomorrow's citizenry. For as we invent new technical systems, we also invent the kinds of people who will use them and be affected by them. The structures and textures of future social and political life can be seen in the blueprints of technologies now on the drawing board.

  Langdon Winner (1991)

Information is the raw material of knowledge, experience, and communication. Over the millennia, human beings have developed a multitude of forms of information along with numerous conventions and policies regarding its use. New electronic forms and distribution patterns of information are now forcing community-network developers (and many others) to consider the implications of these changes. Many of these changes are critical to community networks and proponents will need to play a part in upcoming debates if these issues are to be resolved in a satisfactory manner.

Access, Barriers, and Use

Community-network developers speculate that community networks in the twenty-first century will be as common as public libraries are now. Currently they are available only in few locations and accessible to relatively few users. (Even after adding Internet users and commercial on-line users, the total on-line population in the United States is probably under 10 percent.) If the systems are to be used widely, they must be easy to use, easy to access, and free of structural barriers to their use. Among other things, the systems must be reliable and responsive; the user interface must be intuitive and unintimidating; and special-purpose interfaces must be developed for those with special needs.

While public terminals in numerous, diverse locations are critical, home availability is also important. People must be able to easily and inexpensively participate through various means. Telephone, cable television, wireless, and other approaches all represent possible delivery channels and a certain percentage of the bandwidth of each should be reserved for educational and community use.

A "barrier" is anything that acts to prevent or discourage access to community networks (Fig. 11.4). In the case of electronic information and services, a barrier may be lack of access to the hardware, telephone lines, or the Internet. A barrier may be the inability to read or write in the language being used, or to see the screen. A barrier may exist because the potential user is incarcerated or, in the opposite extreme, homeless. The person may actually be afraid of computers or just be unable to use them. The person may not have a need to use them (like the proverbial fish and the bicycle) because the available information and communication options are irrelevant to them. The barriers rarely occur singly; in the most common case, several barriers will stand in the way. Often these occur as a string of barriers and any one of them — like a link on a chain — can cause a break in access. A person may overcome several barriers only to be defeated by a telephone busy signal.


Barriers to Community Use

€ Lack of convenient access to hardware, telephone lines

€ Lack of convenient access to Internet (e.g., person is not a university student)

€ Can't get software to work properly

€ Cost barrier to telephone

€ Cost barrier to Internet

€ Cost barrier to services

€ Useful services do not exist

€ Services perceived to not exist

€ Friends and people with similar interests and background don't use it

€ No need perceived

€ Can't type

€ Can't write

€ Can't read

€ Vision-impaired or other physical challenge

€ Non-English writer/reader

€ Computer illiterate

€ Doesn't want "extra burden"

€ No "extra time" for use-too busy

€ Just wants to relax after work

€ Computer averse-don't like them, distrustful of technology

€ Satisfied with life as-it-is


Figure 11.4


Bringing Down Barriers

There are strategies for surmounting each barrier described above. After having gathered some preliminary data on the barrier, one is ready to develop action plans along two fronts. The first is that of developing services and making available information that is based on individuals' specific needs and that helps address the new community core values. Basically this means that community-network developers must work with individuals and groups to co-develop projects and programs (such as those discussed in Appendix F). Note that developing those projects should not be narrowly and artificially constrained to be "a network project," but should encompass a spectrum of activities including training, providing terminals, hosting community meetings, and the like. In addition, it means helping to reduce the cost and ease of accessing the system. Moreover, any serious proposal to establish universal access to community networks should include a study that identifies links between barriers and various population groups within the community. The second type of action plan is that of changing the context within which the community network exists. This may encompass a wide range of educational and political activity including lobbying, legislation, and placing community networking and other public information policy issues on the agenda.

It is clear that some people do not want to use community networks. That is certainly their prerogative, and community-network developers should not presume that people need to or want to use these systems. Many people read books instead of watching television, for example. At the same time, however, developers should not presume that groups that aren't currently using the systems don't want to use them. Experiences with homeless people using the free public terminals at the Seattle Public Library suggest otherwise, as does the manifesto of the Los Angeles gangs, the Crips and the Bloods (discussed in Chapter 1). Clearly, however, different groups of people, as well as individuals within groups, have different habits, motives, wishes, needs, and attitudes that must be accommodated.

All of us start life helpless and, as Deborah Kaplan from the World Disabilities Council notes, many of us will ultimately become disabled in one way or another as we go through life. In other words, designing for this type of user is not a matter of supporting them but a method of supporting us. As discussed in Chapter 9, the design of the user interface can make a big difference for those users as well as for non-English speaking users. Getting the cost as low as possible is crucial for both rural users and for economically disadvantaged users. Free public terminals will help those without facilities at home and those without homes at all.

Community-network organizers in different cities will go about bringing down barriers in different ways. For example, the Seattle Community Network (SCN) has been working very closely with the Seattle Public Library, and with public television and radio stations. SCN is also working with neighborhood groups, youth groups, and environmental groups. Community-network groups in other cities are working with universities, KÐ12 schools, public access cable groups, or community centers. The trajectory of the efforts will depend on the needs, interests, and opportunities that exist in specific communities.

The idea of reducing barriers can be distilled to three major points. One, information and services must be interesting and useful. Two, the system must be usable by all people, including those who speak languages other than English, are blind, or are otherwise impeded from using the system effectively. Three, access must be ensured through low costs, public and private access points, and the ability to "get through" (with a minimum of telephone "busy signals," for example). Needless to say, this all presupposes a vital and equitable civic society in which high quality public education and other civic amenities are universally available.

Universal Access and Equitable Participation

Citizens of the new community must be vigilant to defend and advocate universal access and equitable participation (Miller, 1996). We cannot rely on commercial interests to make the necessary guarantees. Their overriding concern of profitability, responsibility to shareholders — not citizens — and a closed decision-making process argue strenuously against it. Furthermore, as Sandra Schickele has clearly demonstrated (1993), the requirements of the free market mechanism are not met in the case of the Internet. She concludes that public subsidy is essential if network resources are to be made widely available.

The need for accountability, public participation, and visibility clearly point to public ownership of some type. Increasing the role of government, however, is viewed skeptically by many. Government can be corrupt, beholden to special interests, inefficient, unresponsive, or antagonistic to citizen participation and oversight. Lack of funds, technological expertise, and experience further hamper government's effectiveness. Nevertheless, community networks in democratic societies must ultimately have a close relationship to a government, which in turn must be controlled by citizens. Community-network organizers will need to be creative and persistent in designing new collaborative relationships with government in this era of heightened skepticism of government. Osborne and Gaebler's prescriptions for "reinventing government" (1993) particularly those involving "community-owned government," "mission-driven government," and "decentralized government" are especially relevant in considering the role of government in community-network development and support.


Privacy Concerns

Protecting privacy in the electronic age is like trying changing the oil on a moving car.

  Electronic "Signature" of Chris Hibbert

As Chris Hibbert's signature reminds us, the computer —especially the networked computer— has qualitatively changed the nature of privacy. More and more organizations both large and small are collecting information on individuals. With this vast collection of data, it is inevitable that much of the information contains errors or is out of date. A 1991 article in Consumer Reports described a study that analyzed 1,500 TRW, Trans Union, and Equifax reports that revealed that 43 percent of the files contained errors (Garfinkel, 1995). Since this information frequently resides on networked computers, it is no longer isolated in islands, but is part of a growing web of information that can be linked into larger "virtual databases" on individuals. These databases contain information of all types, including all medical, financial, and legal records. This, incidentally, is a critical reason why social security numbers should not be used as a "key" for use in databases (other than databases that are used to administer social security or other related government services). A database key is a unique number that is used to extract the other information that's associated with that key. If individuals' social security numbers are used as the key in numerous databases, it can be used as a master key; different databases can be matched together to form a composite virtual database that transcends the stated purpose for which the data was collected.

Information gathered from various points in a person's life can also be linked temporally into a revealing data portrait. This makes a vast corporate-government, collaborative, "cradle-to-grave" information-gathering program increasingly plausible. This linkage is not an idle fantasy. As CPSR/Seattle activists discovered, such a partnership could be ushered in through unlikely portals. The current educational reform approach depends on being able to establish and monitor performance goals for students. While this may be a laudable goal, assessing student progress also depends on collecting a wide range of student data (including psychological data) that would then be shared with educational institutions at various levels and with educational researchers (NEGP, 1993). Although this information would be very sensitive, there is little evidence that educational reformers at the federal, state, or local levels are giving privacy concerns enough thought.

Collecting vast amounts of data for any reason raises the specter of state surveillance and control. While control over individuals and communities is probably not an explicit aim, we must strenuously question the need for such intrusive, systematic, and sustained data collection. Educational reform literature explicitly states that collected information might be shared with prospective employers. A Department of Labor study (SCANS, 1992) suggests that a student might provide employers with an electronic resume that includes confidential ratings of that student's work-related behavior (including such values as self-esteem, responsibility, and integrity/honesty), all keyed to the student's social security number! Thus an employer might learn, for example, that a student had low "integrity/honesty" scores in second grade and decide not to hire him or her some 20 or 30 years later. The Fair Code of Information Practices (see Chapter 8) continues to provide solid guidelines even in such a situation, and community-network developers should abide by the code's guidelines in their own work while simultaneously fighting to protect privacy in other areas as well.


New Types of Information

Clifford Lynch, the Director of Library Automation at the University of California at Oakland, poses an important and generally unasked question related to free information (1993): "Whenever information is offered for free (or, indeed, even for what seems to be an unrealistically low cost), it is reasonable to ask: why?" Where did it come from? Who is offering it? Who paid for it and why?

As Lynch points out, much of this free or low-cost information is distributed by government agencies and its distribution is required by law. Other free information is provided by political parties, corporations, education organizations, lobbyists, activists, and so on, and these will generally represent the viewpoint of the organizations that developed the information. The other main source of free or very inexpensive information is sponsored in some way. A daily newspaper is largely supported by its advertisers; broadcast commercial television is supported exclusively through commercials.

Of course, neither type of information is free: Government publications are paid for by taxes, while information that is sponsored through advertising or other means result in significantly higher product costs. (Advertising, as Lynch points out, is very inefficient. Most people buy cars infrequently and need product information about cars at that time only, yet television viewers see several car ads every day!) There are also other problems with sponsorship including the direct and indirect effects it has on content. These issues are discussed in the information and communication chapter (Chapter 7) as well as in the social architecture chapter (Chapter 8).

Most of the e-mail I receive every day falls between the extremes of valuable mail and "junk" mail. As Lynch points out, this is part of the "new, ambiguous class of 'free' information appearing on the Internet." This information is vulnerable to a wide variety of limitations including inaccuracy, outdatedness, prejudices, errors in judgment, sloppy thinking, and can contain misquotes or out-of-context quotes. Moreover, there is often no commitment to the timeliness, reliability, or the maintenance of the data. Nor is there a regular and guaranteed feedback loop between information provider and consumer. Indeed, an expectation (of some people) that information found on the Internet is true has resulted in more than one false rumor endlessly bouncing around in cyberspace.

The information residing on community networks will often belong to the "new, ambiguous class" that Lynch describes. The amount of this type of information, at least in the short term, is not expected to shrink. In all likelihood it will continue to grow explosively. In addition to thinking about the best ways to cope with the limitations discussed above, we should remind ourselves of the advantages that this new information offers. The main one is that people will have new voices and new power, and people will be able to begin new conversations. We may begin to hear alternative voices — impassioned — untainted by party lines, orthodoxy, and corporate control.

Since a large amount of information on a community network does belong to this "ambiguous, new class," some responsibility for both maximizing benefits and minimizing limitations falls to the community-network organization. Part of this process involves network media literacy. People will need to get used to this new type of information. It may be important to be suspicious or skeptical of the information without being dismissive. And it will be important to understand the interfaces and searching techniques that will help people find what they need and new techniques of filtering to ignore what they don't need.



Why is it more fun to read about the new technologies than to use them? Because imagination is more agile than reality.

  Donald Norman

New technologies including display devices, wireless, multimedia and the like, coupled with new applications and modes of interacting such as MUDs (Curtis, 1992), conversational e-mail (Borenstein, 1992; Shepherd et al., 1990), and software agents (Riecken, 1994) together have important implications for usability, service providing, and participatory democracy. Technical innovations should be introduced into community networks when they will increase the ability to meet user needs. At the same time, adopting new technology will necessarily introduce some changes and even resistance. This may translate into disruptions in the user community as prior conventions and patterns of interactions undergo modification. By being cognizant of these implications, network developers can be alert to the need for training, user preparation, usability testing, and participatory design.

New technology can also introduce or exacerbate gaps in quality of service by delivering a better or faster service to some of the users. The incorporation of new technology, however, shouldn't dilute universal access. Low-cost text-based terminals must not, for example, be made obsolete with the introduction of new graphics technology. The solution probably will require multiple user interfaces, resulting in an "interface gap" that does not sacrifice the basic level of universal access.

Media Convergence and Divergence

The intriguing possibility of "media convergence" (Pool, 1983) accompanies an unprecedented two-way use by tens of millions of people on a "net" that ultimately could connect all people. It also could intermingle many forms of media including television, radio, print, and telephones that are beginning to share characteristics while becoming accessible through a variety of end-devices. A future "net" that connects programmable devices over very fast, densely interconnected "wires" linking vast numbers of people becomes in essence a meta-medium, a plastic medium that is capable of replicating any of the traditional media (books, newspapers, broadcast radio, ham radio, and so on). Besides being capable of mimicking other media, the future net can give rise to any number of new forms, currently undreamt of, using a bewildering variety of new software clients, browsers, and agents.

Although this may sound a little like science fiction, consumers will likely be faced with many of these media "divergence" issues in the near future. For one thing, there will be profusion of services available through a variety of devices in the home. In all likelihood, the ubiquitous television set will still occupy a central — should I say hallowed — location in the home. But this will probably change from a passive purveyor of images to a coordinator of services. There will obviously be some modicum of two-way interaction available if plans for video-on-demand, home shopping, cyber-porn, or instant polling are carried out. If tomorrow's do-everything tube becomes the central collecting point for connecting to the net, then community networks need to be there.

A Global Network

Two of the nation's wealthiest entrepreneurs in communications and computers plan to disclose today the formation of a new company to develop a global satellite communications network far more ambitious than anything contemplated before.

The network would transport information ranging from ordinary telephone calls to high-resolution computerized medical images and two-way video conferences to and from virtually any spot on the planet.

As envisioned the system would be able to deliver almost as many services as the new fiber-optic networks being built by many telephone companies, but it would be able to reach underdeveloped and rural areas that are typically cut off from advanced communications.

  The New York Times, March 21, 1994

Even while U.S. billionaires are busily announcing ambitious plans for interconnecting virtually every person on the planet, global communications are spreading rapidly. Twenty-two countries connected to the Internet for the first time in 1995; the Internet growth rate is faster outside the United States than it is within (Bournellis, 1995), and satellite broadcasting beams continuously into remote villages around the world. While the hoopla and media focus suggest that this process is inevitable, it would seem prudent — if a bit iconoclastic — to review some constraints, limitations, and cautions.

For one thing, the globalization of electronic networks might allow a person to step up to the device that permits the use of the system but deny him or her the use of the system based on an inability to pay. Since usage costs include infrastructure costs, there would be little economic justification for installing the "last mile" for two-way participation, especially in poor and/or sparsely populated areas.

Community-Based Global Networking

A global network is quickly becoming a reality. The Institute for Global Communications, presented with the Norbert Wiener award by CPSR for its work in developing network technology to empower previously disenfranchised individuals and groups working for progressive change, offers PeaceNet, EcoNet, ConflictNet, LaborNet, and access to several international partner organizations to subscribers in over 70 countries (see Appendix A). With truly global networks impending, it's not too early to begin considering the prospects of a global community of communities. National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) affiliates, for example, are active in Canada, Finland, New Zealand, and Germany and community networks are thriving in Italy. The community-network movement should welcome international partners, establish "sister networks," hold joint congresses, co-develop electronic services, and generously share information.

The very issues that we've been exploring from the perspective of a relatively technologically advanced country are also global issues. The gap between rich and poor is severe in the United States as well as in other countries, with virtually no middle class in many less-developed countries. There is also a huge chasm between the developed countries (that are home to 25 percent of the world's population but own 95 percent of the world's computers) and the developing countries (Frederick, 1993). The increasing globalization of corporations has apparently superceded the reach of the nation while concentrating immense power into a few commercial giants. NAFTA and other treaties have carved the world into gigantic trading blocs. The concentration of power and the accompanying commodification of information exacerbate the marginalization of peasants, workers, and low-income people throughout the world. With little or no access to communication technologies, these people will be passive consumers of images or information produced elsewhere. They will not be included in any images unless a factory explodes, a bus careens off a cliff, a famine develops, or a civil war erupts in their vicinity. They will not be included in a dialogue because there is no perceived economic benefit.

These trends have not gone entirely unnoticed by media producers and distributors, communications researchers, and activists around the world. In early 1994, representatives of the Fourth International Symposium on New Technologies of Audiovisual Communications met and produced a declaration addressing the increasing corporate and military domination of communications resources and the resulting disempowerment both materially and culturally of people throughout the world (Fig. 11.5).


Portion of New Delhi Declaration

We believe in the pressing need for global democracy, not a global supermarket, and affirm our unity in support of the following:

1. All peoples and individuals shall have the right to communicate freely, to utilize the tools of communication and to inform themselves and others.

2. Airwaves and satellite paths are a global peoples' resource to be administered equitably, with a significant portion devoted to serving the public interest and for community use.

3. We oppose the militarisation of space and the exploitation of space for corporate interests. Any exploitation of airwaves transmission channels and earth orbits should be subject to a public levy to be used to support local community expression, facilitate non-commercial information exchange, and to contribute to equitable distribution of information technologies.

4. Communication and information technologies must be used to facilitate participatory democracy and the development of civic society, not to limit democratic rights.

5. Information systems exhibit great potential for real popular participation and should be organized according to the principles of decentralization in order to nurture and sustain cultural diversity and humanitarian values.


Figure 11.5


The internationalization of corporate influence has also helped spur an internationalization of other concerns like the rights of indigenous people, workers, women, and peasants, as well as environmental concerns (although these efforts are often tightly limited). NAFTA and similar treaties have forced labor issues into the international arena. On the other hand, many NGOs such as CARE, Oxfam, or Amnesty International have been global in scope for years. Cheaper telecommunication prices and increasing availability of networks like IGC are beginning to provide some small amount of relief from the consistent rising of the new global, corporate tide.

Community networks are being developed throughout the world. These include projects in Africa, Europe, Asia, the Americas, and other places. Other efforts — such as the MISANET project in Africa — have democratization of communications technology at their core. As corporate interests expand and information commodification continues, community-based efforts must also expand. Preserving and strengthening local, community efforts while expanding communications globally will present a major challenge to the community-network movement.



It is one of the most beautiful compensations in life that no man can sincerely help another without helping himself.

  Ralph Waldo Emerson

The United States as a nation has enjoyed almost every imaginable advantage: millions of fertile acres to farm; spectacular mineral, forest, and water resources; an unremitting inventive spirit; physical separation from potential enemies; a steady influx of motivated and intelligent immigrants; and a Constitution and a Bill of Rights that encourage participation and pluralism. Yet despite these advantages, the United States has very great economic disparity (with accompanying deleterious effects in education and health), high murder rates, high drug-use rates (especially of alcohol and cigarettes), and an impoverished public dialogue.

Denial of problems and trivialization of problems have a solid tradition in America. Even though 200,000 people lost jobs in just six months in 1930, President Hoover, the Congress, and the American press refused to acknowledge that a problem even existed. When the problem finally began to receive some attention, the press and many others (Hoover among them) were quick to label the displaced workers as lazy people who didn't want to work — as if a fifth of a million people simultaneously decided that they didn't want or need an income. American racism is another case in point. Although there is an unbroken history beginning with the genocidal treatment of native Americans and continuing through slavery days, lynchings, segregation, and selective use of the death penalty, these basic facts are often prevented from appearing in history text books.

An interesting — and life-critical — socio-historical experiment is taking place in present day America and around the world. Can democracy come to terms with its problems and address them? Or will nativism, simplistic thinking, pandering media, rampant consumerism, censorship, blind faith, and greed simply overwhelm these efforts?

Technological Inheritance

The human race displays a mix of both altruism and treachery. At times people will kill each other vigorously and happily. At other times, they will treat each other with respect and love. To a large degree, a person's actions and thoughts are framed by the thoughts, conventions, institutions, and other prevailing circumstances of the cultural milieu in which the person lives. If the person grows up in dangerous circumstances, the world, too, will look dangerous. If a person grows up without violence, the world will look safer and more secure. If a person has all the opportunities of life, he or she is more likely to succeed. When there are few opportunities, failure is more likely. Some people, stronger or weaker than the rest of us, will ignore society's invisible supports or restraints, but these are exceptions.

Although we all exist within a cultural milieu, we are also part of it. In some way, each of us makes a contribution — generally small — to the overall cultural milieu, the sea we all must swim in. Some people make large contributions, for good or for bad, while the rest of us generally have minor influences, over family, friends, or fellow workers. We can not afford to deny our interdependence on each other. We can no longer pretend that individuals have no responsibility for the community. At the same time, we cannot pretend that the community has no responsibility for the individual. The cultural milieu shapes us while we're shaping it. This ebb and flow is largely invisible, but it can't be ignored.

Each generation builds on the investment left by previous generations. This in effect is our inheritance. This inheritance includes the physical —freeways, parks, forests, art work —and the intellectual as well —laws, religions, science, customs, and ideas. Gar Alperowitz, the president of the National Center for Economic Alternatives, tells a fascinating story (1994) of the "technological inheritance" that helped prepare the ground for the ascendency of billionaire software developer Bill Gates of Microsoft. The story begins with the U.S. federal government which, having funded 18 of the 25 most significant advances in computer technology between 1950 and 1962, was one of the most steady and generous benefactors of the U.S. computer industry. This huge investment by the American government (funded obliviously by millions of American taxpayers) helped launch the Digital Equipment Corporation that developed the PDP line of computers. Using this as the springboard, Gates's colleague, Paul Allen, created a simulated PDP-10 chip, upon which Gates wrote a version of the BASIC programming language (which itself was originally funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation). Gates, though obviously an innovator and capable business person, obviously has greatly benefited from the technological inheritance bestowed upon him by the U.S. government and the U.S. people.

Beyond the technological inheritance, Microsoft and Bill Gates benefit from other aspects of inheritance not generally recognized. Of the squads of programmers employed by Microsoft, many attended state universities, or before that, public elementary and high schools. They drive to school on public roads, drink fresh water, and eat safe food ensured by government action and legislation that was enacted before they were born. Beyond these types of inheritance, the United States has offered to Gates and to others a "conceptual inheritance" that makes it even possible for him to create vast machineries of wealth. This inheritance is not a natural right. On the contrary, it is a right that has been granted by conscious decisions, through the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and through countless pieces of legislation and court rulings.

The ubiquity of our social inheritance (which is often unacknowledged or conveniently forgotten) helps preserve the myth of independence. Our society is in fact a cultural and social ecosystem whose machinations are the product of human design. It is this ecosystem that profoundly affects each and every human on each and every day. The independence myth is used in two basic ways. In addition to denying the contribution (technical or otherwise) that other people have made, one can deny the effects that one has or could have on others. When one allows the myth to become the scripture for one's life, shirking responsibility is a natural by-product. Hence, this approach is useful for justifying maximal self-interest: hard to justify in objective terms, harder still in humanistic terms, but convenient as a rationale for self-indulgence and guilt-free overconsumption — and one conveniently supported by conventional wisdom and dominant ideology.

Why Get Involved?

The question of why people should help other people is of course a timeless one. It has been a central religious concern for centuries. For example, the Christian Bible asks "If a rich person sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against his brother, how can he claim that he loves God?" (I John 3:17). Answering this question becomes more pressing in an era of increasing economic disparity coupled with the apparent ability and desire of the affluent to create fantasy land enclaves for themselves, isolated from any direct contact with the less fortunate and, in many cases, at the expense of the less fortunate.

The answer to the question of why people should get involved contains elements of both selfishness and altruism. The "selfish" side is best expressed by Seneca's warning, "When a neighbor's house is burning, your house is also at peril," which points out the obvious fact that absolute isolation or quarantine is not possible. Two short examples can be used to show this. The first has to do with health. Neglecting the health concerns of poor people can and will cause reverberations throughout all classes. Untreated diseases, for example, among the poor can spread to the rich. The general overuse and abuse of antibiotics in some areas of the world helps breed new resistant diseases that ignore national and economic class boundaries. Another example is from the area of crime in terms of both prevention and detention. Americans seem very eager to hire private security guards and build more prisons. Yet these all must be paid for, whether directly out of pocket or through taxes and increased insurance. Another somewhat less "selfish" reason is that a more equitable society with a less tenuous societal web would be safer, more convivial, and more enjoyable to all concerned. Also as Robert Putnam has observed, a society with strong social ties is in many ways more efficient economically as well as being better equipped for dealing with social issues.

Finally, there is an altruistic side to the challenge of "being part of the solution." The altruistic reason directly contradicts the model of humans as coldly calculating economic reasoners who would only expend resources if they knew that they'd receive back a reward that was at least equal in value to their expenditure. No such guarantee of a return on social investment exists. (Those people who are only working on the economic return-on-investment model are classic "free riders," taking advantage of a convivial system without contributing.) The "reward" of community-building will hopefully show up in obvious ways, like improved cultural or sustainability indicators. On the other hand, the benefits may not show up for many years. As Theodore Roosevelt said, "What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for our community lives long after we've gone" (Lavelle et al., 1995).

Conditions for Success

In this book we have focused on the development of community networks as one way to help anchor and ground "new communities." Of course, community networks are intended to be just one aspect of a new society, a new society that is more democratic, flexible, inclusive, equitable, and sustainable than our current one.

Like many other books, this ends with an exhortation for action. If ordinary people do not become involved, the vision described in this book has no chance to become realized, technology won't truly serve people, and the ordinary person will remain a passive and unimportant consumer of commodities, viewpoints, and identity. This book, however, does not end with specific injunctions. There is no ultimate destination, only some guidelines for charting the course. People must collectively determine that course, a course guided by principles, discourse, and humanity, not dogma, greed or hatred.

Self education — thinking, reading, and writing is important. We need to acknowledge problems in society and understand the legitimacy of people's positions. An unemployed steel worker or logger has legitimate and serious concerns. So do inner city dwellers whose plights have been largely disregarded. It is important to develop knowledge about the community and to increase the capacity of the community for learning and for self-knowledge. The knowledge about the community needs to contain information on community capacities and community indicators, especially how they relate to the six core values.

Dialogue is also critical. It is important to discuss these ideas with other people and attend meetings in communities. Contact the organizations listed in the appendixes. It is also very important to get involved with local community networks and with other information and communication infrastructure projects. Government and business projects are not sacrosanct! They're your business! Find out all you can about them — why are they doing what they're doing? Who will benefit? Who will lose? What services will become available — to whom and at what price? What services aren't becoming available? It is critical to get this information, analyze it, and distribute the findings to the media, local government, and non-profit organizations. Post them on public networks! It is important to work with other institutions and organizations in your community as well — churches, labor unions, community councils, and social service groups — to develop influential strategies employing both carrots and sticks.

One of the most important activities will be the development of projects and products, including neighborhood campaigns, workshops, articles, network services, software development, training sessions, and alternative media. Whenever possible, these projects should be collaborative (including people and organizations of varying philosophical approach and constituencies), additive (building successes on successes) and focused on democratic community-building (by addressing the six core values).

To participate in this endeavor, a basic time commitment must be made. The more time people choose to expend on a regular and sustained basis, the more likely that success will come. Since this challenge is so great, one shouldn't expect changes to occur at once. Nevertheless, there will be times when successes of small and great magnitudes will occur, and people should not be surprised when this happens. It will then become important to use that success as the foundation for another. It is not easy to allocate new portions of time for community projects. It generally means identifying some activity that you can forego or accomplish in less time. It is critical to identify this time and begin setting it aside and using that time for projects. The question of what to do with that time is important, of course, but there are no set answers to that question. People will gravitate to areas that they're interested in, but at the same time it is important to listen to the ideas and project descriptions of other people as well.

Ultimately, the new community will be supported with new community institutions, some brand new and some fashioned from older ones. These must be integrated into the community, not be independent or adversarial. Government agencies, political parties, corporations, media companies, social service agencies, and nonprofit organizations may all undergo change. These organizations and institutions need to write new community contracts that help institutionalize shared goals and aspirations and a willingness to work together for the common good.

It is probably time for the people in the community-network movement to begin to think about the advantages, if any, of stronger communication and collaboration between them. Some important strides have been made in that direction: There are several organizations devoted to community networking including NPTN, with which many community networks and Free-Nets are affiliated. There are lively conferences and electronic discussion groups. Beyond these important activities, the question needs to be asked if there are organizational arrangements, political campaigns, educational opportunities, or other means by which the interests, strengths, and enthusiasm can be brought together into a greater unity. In Canada, the Telecommunities Canada organization has been instituted to help "ensure that all Canadians are able to participate in community-based communications and electronic information services by promoting and supporting local community-network initiatives" and to "represent and promote Canadian community movement at the national and international level." And in December of 1995, Steve Snow of the Charlotte Web community-network system proposed the International Association of Community (or Civic) Networks (IACN), which would serve as a sort of trade association for community networks. At the same time any new organizations or working arrangements must preserve the local character and integrity of the individual efforts.

Perhaps human life on earth is an experiment. Perhaps human life on earth consists of millions and millions of experiments, some tiny, some gigantic, all being conducted simultaneously. But each experiment has actors or players and outside factors that cause changes. Guessing, theorizing, and hypothesizing about what these changes will be is the essence of science, and the scientist who devises the most elegant and most comprehensive theory that is validated experimentally is held in high esteem.

People (who are simultaneously experimenters and experimentees) make interesting objects of study, for they don't follow the same rules that inanimate objects follow. For one thing, their hypotheses can sometimes be self-fulfilling. In other words — the consequence is often interpreted according to the dictates of their hypotheses. What this means in general is that human beings construct their own perspectives, world views, that, in turn, help influence the future hypotheses. Currently we develop these perspectives from many sources — parents, neighbors, images on billboards or on television, words in a book or lessons from school, advice or admonishment from world leaders, the president, a rabbi, mullah, priest, or minister, or from labor, civil rights, or business leaders. Since we humans can shape the world through our perspectives and hypotheses, let us consciously develop ones that can lead to richer lives for all.

The world is in need of new hypotheses: new hypotheses that support the new community, new hypotheses that support the core values of society. And with these hypotheses as our new beginnings we must study, talk, reason, and act. It is possible to make the great experiment that we call life on earth a success, but it will take work.

A community revitalization "revolution" — of which community networks are just one part — can't be carried out by individuals nor can it be orchestrated by an institution or a company. It will be necessary for thousands, millions, of people and organizations with a strong and urgent sense of social responsibility to link together and push firmly in a forward direction, an equitable and sustainable direction. Community must indeed be a web, a fabric of strong and interlocking elements, like foliage on a hilltop that entwines into a dense covering preventing the wind and the water from ripping apart the hilltop.

If there is no struggle, there is no progress.

  Frederick Douglass (Bobo et al., 1991)

1 Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing Symposium. Boston, MA. April 23, 1994.

2 Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing Symposium. Boston, MA. April 24, 1994.

3 American Civic Forum meeting. Washington, D.C. December 9, 1994.

D Schuler, NEW COMMUNITY NETWORKS, 1996 Addison-Wesley Publishing Company Inc.

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