Thank you for inviting me. When I visit Seattle, I feel like I'm with Vancouver's big sister. Whatever Vancouver has, Seattle has more of and bigger. In many respects this applies to your community net too. I'm especially impressed by the way in which you've reflected your vibrant activist community here. Congratulations.
The US has a fantastic history of grass roots and community activism that we can learn a lot from in Canada, where we have a history more of looking to the state to support well meaning endeavours.
I'll start with something that belched across my screen last week. Presswire - January 12, 1998 "Excite chosen to give free Web-based email addresses to entire generation in Britain"
"In a dramatic move, Excite, Inc. (that's Nasdaq: XCIT if you want to invest!) today announced that the company will issue a free Web-based email address to every school child in Britain as part of the UK government's NetYear initiative .... Ten million UK schoolchildren are expected to get lifelong email accounts through the year with ExcitePost." They go on to offer every US child in the 'NetGen' era free life-long email in case you're feeling left out.
I'm fairly new to this business and I'm not a technical person. I'm still struggling with the language. To me TCP-IP sounds faintly medicinal, PERL is a semi-precious stone and surely "server-side includes" is something you ask a waiter for. However, as you've heard, I've been dabbling in alternative media for a few years and some of the issues I'm encountering with Community Networking are reminiscent of community radio. I want to emphasize that although I owe all my notions of community networking to the discussions I've had at Vancouver CommunityNet and elsewhere, I'm not representing VCN policy here - these are just my opinions.
However, using VCN as my example I'd like to share some thoughts and opinions on a few component parts of what we're doing and where we can go with them. Constructing a public space on the Internet is at the heart of our mandate, but I think it's hard to do solely online. By a public space I mean one that is for people not for state or corporate interests. I think the best way to do this is to collaborate with groups in ways that involve at least some face to face interaction. Alternative media have been constructing public space for many years, I think we can learn from their experiences. I'll start with some of our history as a new medium, talk about our approaches to access and communication, then on to technical issues and working with groups.
We started back in '93 when a group of librarians, community activists and computer scientists came together to try and form a public alternative to the commercial ISPs in Vancouver. Though not couched in those terms, the goal was clearly to create a public space on the Internet. We applied for and were refused charitable status very early on, but appealed the decision to the Federal Court of Appeal and won in 1996. This landmark decision had wide implications - I'll read you a short bit of the judge's decision to give you the flavour.
"Information is the currency of modern life. This has been properly called the information age. The free exchange of information amongst members of society has long been recognized as a public good. It is indeed essential to the maintenance of democracy, and modern experience demonstrates more and more frequently that it, more than any force of arms, has the power to destroy authoritarianism. The recognition of freedom of speech as a core value in society is but one aspect of the importance of freedom of information."
It's worth noting that Justice Hugessen talks about the exchange of information rather than information provision. He's talking about communication rather than access to information - people having a place to communicate freely.
When any new media or technology appears, new possibilities occur. In trying to construct and maintain a genuinely public, space our job is to continue to explore and enlarge these possibilities.
I think alternative media is necessarily defined in relation to something else. KPFA and community radio in your country came directly out of McCarthyism and the media treatment of it. A critique of the mainstream is implicit in both the form and content of alternative media. What's out there? What's wrong? What's missing? and why is it so mushy?
Democratic control and public participation was a part of the vision in heady early days of most new media. Even television and radio had huge democratic potential. Ironically, the telephone which was initially thought to be an excellent broadcast medium has turned out to be the most participatory and democratic in a real sense of hte word.
However community radio and TV have established themselves as important even if marginal media. Like them, I think we should openly state that we're here to reflect the lives of ordinary people, and that means we have a different set of goals than America Online or CompuServe.
There are no easy answers on how to create public space when the world seems to be lurching towards a corporate controlled total environment with the state as its watchdog. In my culture the problem started way back with the fencing of the common lands in the seventeenth century and has proceeded apace since then. Yet, we still have parks and bits of wilderness even now, and the fight for them continues. The same goes for media from small publishers through community TV and Radio. Perhaps we thought the Internet was going to remain one huge common? But it never really was and is quite evidently not now. We'll have to struggle to retain some part of it just like other media.
Vancouver Community Net interpreted its mandate to create public space in specific ways: We put together the largest free access modem pool we could afford, we put terminals in public places and made a space for groups to put their information online.
By investing heavily in phone lines to provide "universal access to information" Neil Guy has shown that we entered into a no win game: most of our dollars go to phone lines, but like auto traffic when you add a new lane, the traffic increased so that people went elsewhere in frustration and no longer supported us. However poor people who can't go elsewhere - stay, but of course they can't support us financially, at least nothing like to the level needed for the phone lines.
Public access terminals may be a better use of our resources. Currently we have them in libraries and some community places. We still offer text based access. However, the City of Vancouver decided to place Web browsers in libraries.. and lots of them - so with the advent of Hotmail and Yahoo's mail service etc. we're quickly becoming redundant. Our federal government apparently wants to place a Web browser every 10 blocks in cities across Canada. Schools, libraries and cafes are offering cheap access - there are even coin operated terminals. And these connect to what is increasingly a corporate controlled space.
Right now, our system is text based, and while affordable, it's looking less inviting these days, with graphic web based email available at most of the terminals I was mentioning. It's easier to use the latter and that means it will likely predominate in the long run. To add to this, we're rapidly heading towards a post-literate society where people want to choose between icons and don't want to type text commands. This raises important issues if Community Nets like ours want to make access both affordable and easy.
We also provide information though our own community Index and offer web pages to non-profit organizations. But information itself doesn't necessarily empower people. As the saying goes, "if information was power, librarians would rule the world" - of course politicians deal in the hard currency of communication. Liz Rykert of Web networks in Toronto remarked that the Web is modeled on a magazine format and that is not a good model for communities trying to build a public space... as we've already seen though, it's good for advertisers. According to a co-worker, Steven Chan, the web model of seeking and extracting information also separates providers and users. I believe we should be looking more at new ways to communicate to build community online.
Like the early days of Co-op Radio, community nets are often a difficult marriage between technical people and community activists. Something along the lines of "here's the technology... just come and use it!" The Vancouver CommunityNet started by being fairly technically driven but within a community vision, now the social agenda is becoming more prevalent - And our focus is turning towards what we're doing with all this wonderful technology. We should be trying to construct democratic forms with what technology we have rather than push the technical envelope. I think we have to pay careful attention to backward compatibility - I frankly admire the people who pick up an old XT from the junk store and use it to communicate with the world. While everyone says buy new - we should be looking to conserve and allow people to use old equipment.
We also need to pay attention to the forms of communication software we are developing and installing, - ideally I'd like to see software that encourages collaboration like multi-user fantasy games but with a greater attachment to the real world. Currently even email seems to encourage the sort of mutual aggression seen in rush hour drivers behind their windscreens.
Another reason to watch our technical excesses is that David Noble has made the interesting case that the technological imperative is more rooted in a yearning for transcendence than in providing social benefit. Much game software seems to support this desire to escape these earthly constraints. However, our business is with the everyday lives of ordinary people.
Our goal of community building by using community networks must also build in unmediated face to face interaction. David Noble has noted that political action as a group demands mutual trust - and it's very hard to build trust on the Internet. The Web is often more individualized than TV or radio since at least listeners and viewers have shared experiences which they can talk about later. I wonder, is there some way we can share experiences which develop mutual trust in the context of community networking?
Even the public spaces we do construct are not necessarily sustainable without public support. If people don't understand the value and relevance of public space it won't survive. We need to educate people about the value of the public component of what we are doing in our workshops and classes to make our movement sustainable.
Education in critical use of the Internet is also important. We all know when we go to the supermarket to take the headlines and pictures of the weekly world news and national enquirer with a grain of salt. But these basic skills are not as well developed for the Internet. Ellen Balka raised the interesting issue of how few users know the ways in which different search engines get different results let alone how to sort information, judge it, weigh it and evaluate it. Telling the difference between advertising and news is not always so easy. This sort of critical literacy is maybe an important building block of a public space.
As you have seen, I'm leaning towards the idea that rather than focusing on individuals and access, we focus our attention on groups from our communities. In any city there are thousands of issue and interest related groups that make up the very substance on which democracy is built. Training can be more effective in groups with shared interests. Groups with shared interests are also more likely to pass on the skills they've learned to those that follow them as part of the ongoing work of the group.
Often community groups are involved in creating their own public space which can be enhanced by using community networking tools. Also groups usually have some face to face contact outside their Community networking context. As shown be Steven Chan, we can go deeper still in the direction of community development, by bringing groups together with other groups.
Currently at VCN we have a number of projects which touch on these issues: Our Spanish language project works with groups to help them and their members overcome barriers to access. Interestingly, we're finding that the greatest barrier is not so much language as knowledge of our existence. Also the older people in the community want face to face contact and show a healthy disdain for computers. Younger people have seen the ads. and want more bells and whistles than we can offer. Though needs seem to have differed from what we expected, by going through existing groups, we have reached a lot of people with very few resources, and were enabled them to discuss the possibilities of community networking in their communities.
During the People's Summit on APEC we provided a Web cafe on site for people to write reports and communicate with home organizations. Our web site had conference information, links to issue forums, related documents and an automatically archived listserv. We produced a daily communiqu=E9 ofworkshops, discussions and reports online and on paper for the next morning. We had hoped to organize regional workshops for overseas contribution to the conference but our timeline was too short. However, we'll be maintaining the site as a resource for APEC issue groups around the world up to the next summit in Malaysia.
With our communities connect grant we're trying to get closer to the heart of the matter. We are working with local environmental groups to design a coordinated website to highlight issues and solutions for an ecologically responsible and socially just vision for the Vancouver region. We're still grappling with how to articulate this common vision online using a web based model for groups working together. Not only are we faced with the challenge of helping groups work together online, but they also have a wide range of skill levels. Some have very fancy web pages others have no email address - at least everyone has a phone.
Another reason for working closer with organizations is that public access terminals seem to be more sustainable when they are integrated with the programming or activities of the hosting group. Here again we can't just put technology out and expect people to use it to construct public space, it has to be integrated with other meaningful interaction and activities.
Alternative media are in my opinion a fertile area for collaboration between Community Nets and other organizations - they too are in the business of creating a public space in the predominantly corporate one around us. They are also used to generating current, filtered information on a regular basis - a weakness of the Web. We work with newspapers easily but what about creative partnerships with other media?
In working with a weekly 3 hour radio program, I've found that posting the plan for next week's show to the web, then emailing it to a list, complements the radio work and even allows me to collect feedback. But more, I look forward to taking advantage of the asynchronous nature of the Internet by uploading interviews to allow people to listen when they want. Radio4all is a site dedicated to distribution of alternative radio programming as downloadable files. It takes advantage of the recent price drops in sound cards to an affordable level.
We could also work with alternative TV by providing support ,commentary, contacts, and other background materials for programs. Program related sites could promote local meetings and a host of other information to complement rather than mimic the broadcast programming. This content could of course also be subversive of the TV programming. By pushing the social envelope we can integrate a media educational component in what we're doing.
Finally, one area that I haven't touched on is the need for new metaphors. The Canadian information superhighway still seems like a place I'm more likely to be flattened by a semi-trailer - not my idea of public space. And while the web is better, personally I find spiders quite unpleasant. Concepts like speed, surfing, world at our fingers and even global village don't lend themselves to community building. We need a focus on communication, connecting people to people not people to information, here's a challenge for a new level of collaboration.
Of course if collaboration is on the table, there is room for collaboration between our community nets, I hope that at Vancouver Community Network we can build on your gesture of inviting me here to talk this evening. Thank you.
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