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Several points:
 
1. I myself am not sold on the idea of an underpowered, Minitel-style
computer. Pass out third-rate equipment and you'll turn many people
*against* the personal use of high-tech, especially for serious purposes.
I've been writing about laptops for years and, yes, am horribly
opinionated on the subject. Especially I loathe shrunken LCDs. But that's
just me; I'm delighted to see the issue raised. I worked in Lorain, Ohio,
as a newspaper reporter two decades ago; and recently I dialed into the
community network there, and saw some demographic information which
indicated that the average FreeNetter earned far, far more than the
average county resident. Equipment and truly mass training would help make
FreeNets more representative of Lorain-Elyria and other communities. What
good will community networks do for average citizens if they lack the
equipment to take advantage of them? And don't say that TV-computers are
the answer. The early HDTV sets will be too expensive, and even at that, I
wonder how well suited the equipment will be for real computing, as
opposed to TV watching and games playing. The problem is even worse, of
course, with existing television sets, which Prodigy and others are trying
to tie in with. In any event, the idea of a basic-level computer is
terrific; let's just feel a little more compassion toward the folks who
can afford nothing better (or whose initial investment is low because they
haven't been educated about the potential of high-tech).
 
2. Good used equipment is indeed better than bad new equipment. Perhaps
librarians in local communities can start the ball rolling by passing out
FreeNet fliers to patrons. The fliers might ask, "A $50 computer for work,
school or mind-expanding fun? If we can get it for you, would you be
interested?" The fliers could explain the FreeNet concept and round up
names for a mailing list. Also, perhaps school administrations or teachers
unions could do mailing to teachers to encourage them to apply and spread
the word among bright students. (FreeNetters also might try to get local
newspapers to write about the fliers.) The fliers, of course, would stress
that the community nets were simply trying to document the need for such
machines. Then with names in hand, the nets could make a more convincing
argument in appealing for donations from businesses. FreeNetters could
interview the prospective recipients to say exactly what they would do
with the machines. Businesses would know how the project would help
*individuals*. Perhaps the fliers could go out with the names and photos
of average citizens who'd already benefitted from Free-Nets and other
community networks. (I'm using Free-Net, of course, in a generic sense.)
 
2. If you can't get good used equipment as donations from local
businesses, why not at least try the Boston Computer Exchange? Its
founder, Alex Randall, has been shipping discarded computers overseas, and
I *suspect* he'd be delighted to see these PCs and XTs end up in the
States as well. Just a guess. But why not try him? Last I knew, BCE's MCI
Mail address was BOCOEX, which, if I'm not mistaken, will be reachable
from the Internet as [log in to unmask] I have no connection with the
exchange or Alex's overseas project--other than having mentioned BCE in a
book and in magazine articles. I just think he might be sympathetic to the
cause. If anyone follows through, let me know what happens. BTW, Alex
wrote an informative book on buying used equipment, and the same concepts
might be of use when evaluating donations. Publisher is Microsoft Press.
The name is something *like* The Used Computer Book or Alex Randall's Used
Computer Guide.
 
3. People interested in developing a low-cost computer might want to catch
up with William Murrell, [log in to unmask], an Afro-American computer
dealer in the Boston area who for years has been promoting high tech among
minorities. I've been in touch with him in connection with my TeleRead
idea--in regard to the development of a prototype. An MIT-educated
hardware designer, sympathetic but overworked already, has expressed some
*possible* interest as well. And if I get some good grassroots response,
that just might be the carrot he needed to start work on this project
eventually.
 
4. For those of you tuning in just now, the TeleRead idea involves (1) the
feds eventually buying up scads of sharp-screened reading-computers for
schools and libraries to lend out, (2) the program driving down the cost
of technology to the point where almost everyone could afford the machines
from private vendors without subsidies, (3) the creation of a digital
library containing virtually all newly copyrighted books and educational
software as well, and (4) the use of the same computers for electronic
forms for tax returns and other transactions with government at local,
state and federal levels. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,
Americans spend at least several hundred billion a year in time and money
on government paperwork. So electronic forms could save tens of billions
of dollars a year and cost-justify a national electronic library for rich
and poor.
 
The same network intrastructure could be used for community projects such
as FreeNets, whose real assets are not the host computers but the people
supplying the content.
 
Keep the telcom gods happy by having the feds simply *lease* wires and
other infrastructure, even the national hosts--a good idea anyway since
technology is constantly changing.
 
TeleRead has evolved considerably since it was last discussed here, and
I'd be happy to e-mail to interested people the newest version of the full
proposal, which is now 20,000 words and which contains some material on
TeleRead as a way to make government more responsive.
 
Last May William F. Buckley, Jr. endorsed the basic TeleRead concept--the
universal library--in his syndicated column. That was consistent with his
advocacy of property rights. TeleRead would reduce the incentive for
bootlegging and protect e-books much, much more effectively than
encryption alone.
 
In any event, the TeleReader, the universally available computer, is a key
part of the TeleRead concept, and I'm delighted to see FreeNetters
discussing this ancient but ever-relevant issue.