Doug Schuler Seattle Community Network email@example.com
Community networks (often called Free-Nets or civic networks) are geographically centered computer systems that support the local community with a wide range of free or low cost information and communication services. While just a handful of systems were operational in the late 1980's, perhaps 300 operating community networks now exist and hundreds more are being planned. The National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) reports that the total registered users on their affiliate "Free-Net" systems is nearing 400,000 people.
For purposes of this essay, I'd like to further restrict what I mean by a community network: A community network is designed, used, administered, and owned by the community. These additional constraints "disqualify" (here at least) several popular non-profit and government projects and nearly any for-profit venture.
One of the most intriguing documents to emerge from the community networking community is a list of goals that developers have set for their systems. With few exceptions, the goals (offered by attendees at the 1994 Ties that Bind conference) were unabashedly idealistic. They included the "development of civil society in a post-apartheid South Africa", "civic networking at the local community level", "economic revitalization," "environmental consensus building and education", "providing open forums where free speech is encouraged", and "bridging the gap that currently exists between people" to name just a few. Taken as a whole, the goals reveal the optimistic belief that a more equitable, egalitarian, and convivial future is possible -- if people are willing to work towards it. This vision is quite different from those offered by corporate interests, either major political party, or the semi-official cyber "visionaries" currently on the lecture circuit. In addition to providing a vision, these goals establish a basis for action for thousands of experiments in community-building. These local experiments include community computing centers, employment services, electronic memorials, social and political activism, economic development, health- based self-help forums, teen counseling, assistive technology, electronic pen pals, training and distance learning, homework assistance and many others too numerous to mention.
Perhaps the unfolding of time will belie this optimism. Or perhaps not. At this moment in history, while new communication paradigms are being shaped, it may still be possible to play a leading role. But this moment won't last forever. And effectively seizing this moment will require persistence and hard work. As abolitionist Frederick Douglass reminds us, "Without struggle there is no progress".
Community networks may continue their rise in importance or they may fade into obscurity. Community networks will not be killed by a stroke of the pen, a judge's degree, or a rejected funding proposal. If they wither away it will likely be for reasons that we see today; attitudes that can sometimes be found within today's community network movement. These counterproductive attitudes include:
This last attitude has three consequences: Don't involve the community; have "professionals" guide the project; and don't think politically.
If a community network is seen as a utility, like electricity or gas, that is always available and is paid for with a monthly check, then it can be provided by the government or by business with little or no involvement from community members. This would mean another lost opportunity for citizen participation and another lost opportunity to help rebuild the community.
Community networks as utilities offer little excitement. The commercial network providers don't sell their services as merely utilitarian. Their system may make your life more exciting (or so the ad copy implies). In print ads for the "new" Prodigy, a sultry "Loni" (who loves to "pseudo chat" on Wednesdays at 9:37) is shown lounging against a car provocatively declaring "Let's just say I don't hang out in the knitting forum". The other commercial services offer a smorgasbord of virtual excitement, edification, and entertainment all for a small monthly charge. Although community networks may not want to entice users with sex (although an on-line Dr. Ruth would be a valuable service!), they should be made as useful, interesting, and exciting as they can be.
We know that information and communication services provide benefits unequally. University of Washington professor Philip Bereano's reworking of the old maxim makes the point clearly: "Only the naive or the scurrilous believe the Third Wave claim that 'information is power'. Power is power, and information is particularly useful to those who are already powerful." Information is actually quite plentiful: we are already on the receiving end of a firehose of information with neither the tools or the time we need to give it adequate consideration. If all this information were power then surely there would be enough power for everybody! We find that the opposite is closer to the truth: the asymmetry of power is becoming greater every day, and computer networks are probably contributing to the problem. The powerless are becoming increasingly isolated. Their opinions are infrequently sought; their concerns are often not even acknowledged.
Therefore it isn't enough to provide more information. People with no access to power -- let alone to computers -- and whose voices are seldom heard need to be partners in the design of new services. These services could include job information and electronic forums for laid-off workers, crisis referral information and information on civic assets -- churches, organizations, meetings, projects, and programs. Most importantly, the services need to be tied to community programs: literacy, economic development, job training, activism, cultural events, education, and others. And tying community networks to community programs and community organizations is diametrically opposed to the idea of information as a utility to be metered out by a telephone or cable television company down an information super pipe way.
A common complaint among community networkers today is that they don't have enough money. While this complaint is true enough, it sidesteps the real issue which is the lack of community understanding and support. While money is indispensable to a community network system -- for telephone lines, hardware, office space, and staff -- its acquisition should not become the sole motivation of the organization. I've heard more than one developer say that if they didn't get one grant or another they'd be forced to start charging users. Although a very small fee might ultimately be justifiable, this decision may begin a gradual shift in emphasis from a public library model to a commercial model -- like Prodigy or America Online, a profound change indeed.
If the focus is on money then the focus is unlikely to be on community outreach. If the focus is on money, especially on getting large amounts of it in the short run, then the organizers will be more likely to accept a deal -- any deal -- with a large organization that could swallow them or cause them to water down their principles. Finally, focusing on the acquisition of money in the short run blinds organizers from envisioning sustainable models for the networks.
Attention to the technology itself is valid but should not predominate. While software engineers may know how to build programming language compilers and word processing applications, they don't know how to build community. In general, the world does not proceed by the same orderly and inflexible logic of computers. And trying to conceptually force-fit the world into such a framework can make the community networking project seem irrelevant, uninteresting, unrewarding, and elitist. If community members perceive the project in this way they are unlikely to have any enthusiasm for it.
Community network developers, perhaps because of a focus on the technology, have done little to advance their cause politically. Unfortunately, many people now fear and mistrust politics and feel that participation in the democratic arena is obsolete (thus leaving decision-making to those without such doubts). But the democratic arena, for better or worse, still exists, and it is a proper place in which to debate and discuss the future of democratic technology.
The fear of politics can unnecessarily expose the entire movement to external threats. Currently Democratic Senator Exon and others are pushing legislation to enforce "on-line decency" in a way that will force Free-Nets and other community networks into the uncomfortable, unwanted, and wholly impractical role of network censor. Although a stronger challenge could scarcely be imagined, the community network community -- with some exceptions -- is strangely silent.
Is it too early to work with legislators or to hire lobbyists? Is model legislation needed? Developers are building local technological models but perhaps it's time to build local social and political models as well. In many cities there are government efforts to put information on-line and provide other services. While many of these efforts appear to be as unapproachable as the commercial services, government is still (in theory at least) answerable to the public. Developers need to be working with local governments to insist on strong community participation and oversight and to ensure that they receive other information in addition to that which their friendly telephone, cable television, and computer companies may supply. Developers also need to be working with the local PEG (public access, education, and government) community because they have waged similar struggles in the past. And community network organizers in communities all over the world might begin to contemplate what types of relationships they need to build with each other.
While the counterproductive attitudes I have described may contain the seeds of self-destruction for community networks, there is no ill intent within the community of community network developers. Many developers (myself included) are relatively new to the idea of community development and organizing, having come from technical backgrounds such as computer science or software engineering. We may also be naive. We expect the righteousness of our cause will prevail or that democratic, community-oriented computer networks are inevitable. Even a cursory look, however, at the history of communication technology will reveal the unwarranted optimism of this view.
The medium is currently malleable enough to be coaxed into various shapes. On many levels there is a struggle for these "shapes" of cyberspace. The struggle is waged with ideas, debate, and investment (both of time and money) and everybody who discusses these issues, influences policy, or builds on-line systems is involved. It is largely a struggle of consciousness: Who will define this future and what future will they define? Will pay-for-byte, pay-for-view, and home shopping crowd out public dialogue and deliberation, educational programming, and alternative voices? Will there be a public place in cyberspace for seniors, youths, or people with disabilities? The time may be short -- and those with other views might move faster and more decisively and more persistently than community networkers.
Determining the nature of public cyberspace -- and whether it exists at all -- will be due in part to the efforts of community network developers. To this end, developers need to form strategic alliances with community organizations. When organizations begin working independently through their own channels, the momentum will grow rapidly. Developers need to go to these groups and tell powerful, idealistic, and transformative stories. Computer companies, telecommunications and cyber-pundits are not the only ones capable of crafting alternative futures for cyberspace.
While working with other community organizations is crucial, developers also need to register lots of users -- tens and hundreds of thousands -- and make sure that they are finding the information and services that they need. Make sure also that they are engaged in a dialogue about the future of free, public computing. The community network message is simple, yet it is powerful and compelling. In spite of the high intensity rhetoric to the contrary, people still "get" public libraries, free fire and police protection, free public universal education, and free public, community cyberspace.Jan. 1996