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COMMUNET Home

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COMMUNET  November 1994, Week 2

COMMUNET November 1994, Week 2

Subject:

Re: Community Computer Networks

From:

Putnam Barber <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Communet: Community and Civic Network Discussion List

Date:

Wed, 9 Nov 1994 06:12:09 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (105 lines)

I'm puzzled by something appearing in this post which I've seen other
places in the discussions of community-nets as well.  I write now
because this message frames the issue particularly clearly and I'm
curious whether people really mean to erect these sorts of barriers to
innovation in community organizations' use of the 'net.
 
On Tue, 8 Nov 1994, Richard S. Champlin wrote:
> The focus of these meetings has been on the need to insure
> that a community-wide system focus on the public needs of the
> community first, and on the personal needs of individual
> citizens second.  In other words, we must design into the
> system an emphasis on empowering the "have nots"  even as we
> open the system up to "haves."
>
What I don't understand is why "empowering the 'have nots'" is equivalent
to "the public needs of the community".  It's not that I don't want to
see availability of information services extend to "everyone".  But I
really don't understand why talking about doing things that are easy and
useful today (like letting organizations announce their meeting schedules
to their members in a low-cost and unobstrusive way) has to come to a
stop because we can't (yet) do things that are difficult, expensive and of
uncertain utility.
 
What I'm trying to say is that there seem to me to be all sorts of "public
needs of the community" -- including those represented by the sorts of
things that large organizations might want to do -- which it would be well
to get on with.  While that's happening, we can still maintain a
commitment to expanding the reach and the versatility of the system at
every opportunity in the direction of low-cost technically undemanding
services.
 
The demand that we do nothing until we can do everything has two defects:
 
== it makes doing anything extremely difficult and expensive.
 
== it gives control of the development of the system to central
administrators who set analytical standards rather than to end-users who
will incorporate new techniques into their daily routines in creative
and unanticipated ways.
 
Smart enterprises have stopped giving control of their computer resources
to people in white coats who can only be talked to through glass
partitions.  It bothers me that in the name of serving the "have nots"
some community-net advocates propose policies and initiatives that
would recreate that discredited approach to management of computer-related
services.
 
> Of course, this applies to the organizations within a
> community as well.  Large organizations have the wherewithal
> to dominate such a system or at least influence its emphasis
> to focus  on their particular area of interest.  We have felt
> that the true nature of community requires that the system be
> designed to  accommodate smaller organizations from the
> beginning.
>
 
"Dominate" is a word that needs to be looked at extremely carefully in
this context.  The issue that matters is whether the system is designed
with invisible biases that exclude unanticipated uses.  (Big start-up
costs, including steep learning curves, will -- for example -- exclude
cash-poor and thinly staffed organizations where freeing resources for an
experiment is a risk that can't be taken.)  But starting a system that is
inexpensive to join and easy to use with a couple of big organizations
who can afford to be pathbreakers and are interested in taking on the
challenge is fine.  They will soon demonstrate the value to others with
less flexibility to innovate.
 
> Perhaps most important to us, however, is the desire to build
> the most open system possible, technologically speaking, so
> that it can continually expand, and so new participating
> groups can easily make their information  available.
>
 
To me /this/ is the right standard.  Not universal accessibility.  And
the two are (as I've tried to suggest by my comments above) internally
contradictory.
 
For a few thousand dollars, any organization can set themselves up as an
internet node and offer widely available tools (like list-serves and a
gopher server) to anyone who learns how to use the 'net to telnet or dial
in.  For a few hundred dollars, any organization can adapt an outmoded PC
to serve as a terminal that can be used to access a dial-up internet
access provider who will charge a few tens of dollars a month (my service
is $8/month for unlimited access with some periods of intense use when
busy signals or slow response times make it less than optimal).  With
that "system", the United Way of the Mid-South could support all sorts of
innovation by nonprofit organizations who would come to find their own
ways of building CMC (computer mediated communications) into their work
-- and sharing those ideas among each other (and with a wider world).
 
If you wanted to be a little fancier, setting up a WWW site and offering
resources for learning how to create homepages would be a good next step,
though it requires the learning of a more opaque technology by the
participating organizations.
 
But /none/ of this is going to be directly relevant to the "have nots"
from the gitgo.  Waiting until it is means waiting until someone else has
done it.  Probably with less of the community's more general interests at
heart.  Certainly with less awareness of the manifold ways nonprofit
organization /already/ serve the community and the many needs they have
which can't be met within currently available resources.
 
Putnam Barber
Seattle

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