This essay is based on notes from a speech about national perspectives on community networking issues, given to the first British Columbia Community Networks Conference, Whistler, British Columbia, May 10, 1998.
If "community" is no longer limited by geography, if "distance is dead," then we've all got some serious thinking to do. My personal faith in the fact of community remains unshaken by anything I've learned from doing that kind of thinking. I want to spend a few minutes telling you why that's so.
Here we are in the knowledge society! How does that feel? When you want to talk about how it feels, where do you go? Some people believe you just do it. You connect the networks, and any unintended consequences of technological change get dealt with on the run. Some people look at the unintended consequences and see darkness in the heart of technology. They say - we must stop until we understand it better than we do. Most people (me included), expect some good stuff and some bad stuff. We wouldn't mind having a more informed choice. But, being Canadian, we get uncomfortable if we have to oppose anyone to get it.
Those of us who've been elected to represent you as Telecommunities Canada directors have to work within that range of opinions. We've found a few things to say about the role and purpose of community networks that we think are important. If what we are saying is true, then there are some other things that do have to be opposed - cautiously, politically in the best sense of the word, but never-the-less opposed.
What is essential to community networking is becoming fairly clear (although how we go about making the case is just as murky as ever):
Now let me begin with some of the murky parts....
Community networking in Canada has now been clearly discovered as a political agenda. The free wheeling days, when there was of no high-level interest or occupancy of our turf, are over. But, in order to realize community online, you need to have a concept of electronic public space. EPS is an ingredient that's missing from current public policy.
On many levels, Canada has been talking about a "Universal Access Strategy." But the question is, - access to what? There is a serious and seemingly unbridgeable disjunction between the content of public policy debate, to the degree that the debate is itself "accessible," and the content of public interest group concerns.
In what is clearly a "Market Model" of universal access, the government views electronic public space as a minor zone of the information highway. If that zone had a purpose, it would be to buffer "consumer" criticism in the unlikely event that "price" fails to resolve issues of market access to technologies for those who can't afford them. Private corporations are engineering the information highway as a market place for electronic goods and services. It's a construction project, where "infrastructure" means the technology of telecommunications networks. The networks are essentially closed, unless you can afford the price of admission. In the market model, government's role is to regulate market failure.
On the other hand, the public interest groups involved in telecommunications convergence and deregulation issues have a "Social Networks Model" in mind. In this model, the information highway is merely the commercial zone of electronic public space. EPS is a social zone of open networks and connectivity that grows and evolves. The networks aren't "built" at all. "Infrastructure" means - how do people organize themselves when they connect using telecommunications networks, and what is the socio-economic impact of that restructuring? In the social networks model, access is a matter of citizen participation in virtualized social process, and government's role is to regulate an electronic commons which has multiple competing interests that influence the public good.
Obviously, your idea of what universality is all about changes depending on which of these incompatible points of view you hold. Which model do you want TC to represent? Do you want us to continue to try and drive that round social peg into that square market hole? Is this still a good idea, or should we change direction? It's getting hard, because the previous absence of "public" dialogue about universal access has now changed to a proliferation and fragmentation that's headed off in many directions. But it's still mostly just government talking to industry.
John Manley, Minister of Industry, in a speech to the Canada By Design Visionary Speaker Series at the McLuhan Institute in Toronto, March 12, 1998, titled, "Canada on-line: getting Canadians connected," stated:
|* "Our objective here is to provide all Canadians with opportunity of access to a world-leading information highway infrastructure....It will require partnerships with the provinces and the private sector to make this a reality."|
Note that there are no references to any "partnerships" with the social sector. If Manley accepted the EPS model, he'd have put us into the equation. "They" may figure out that "community" is the missing element in "Connecting Canada." But, if we don't tell them, probably not.
Manley is outlining a top-down approach that ignores the fact that communities are learning the reality of life online as fast as anyone else. Later speeches by both the Prime Minister and Mr Manley on the "Connecting Canada" agenda have begun to mention support of the Federal Government for the "Smart Communities" concept. So far "Smart Communities" appears to be a method of retaining local decision-making about community connectivity in the hands of elites. That certainly makes it consistent with the federal government's top-down approach.
Do we have any other allies at the national level? Very few. There are federal departments with mandates more broadly social than the enterprize focus of Industry Canada. These departments are waking up to the realities of electronic delivery of government service. But, as they do, the policy vocabulary begins to shift. The engineered precision of "information highway" becomes "Canada as a knowledge-based society and economy." While bureaucratically inclusive, the phrase "KBSE" is a mouthful that is unlikely to capture the public's imagination. Also there are a number of euphemisms for community networking which have emerged - community learning networks, broadband community networks, and, as I just mentioned, smart communities. Sometimes these phrases are defined by the agencies that coined them as alternatives to what they negatively contrast as the "freenet model."
From its beginning, TC has consistently used the general term "community networks," not freenets. There is evidence that the euphemism's have been consciously chosen to avoid overlap and the appearance of alignment with the existing autonomy of community networking. They may view tarring the members of TC with pursuit of the epithet "free" as useful in a competitive sense. It just might evoke a kneejerk public response to treat community networking as one more example of the excesses of minority expectations for government expenditure. In the past, the word "freenet" certainly did wave a red flag in the face of some internet service providers.
Industry Canada's Community Access Program (CAP) usually places sustainability at the top of its critical issues list. They have been successful in encouraging thousands of Canadian communities to "connect" to the Net in a physical sense, and they are legitimately concerned to account for achieving results that will continue after their support ends. However, the concern for sustainability is a distraction that only serves to exacerbate a "stovepipes" (education, libraries, health, etc) competition for resources. In the long term, there are two reasons why the realization of community online (But not necessarily the mix of groups in any particular community networking association) is completely sustainable:
There is another new Industry Canada program, VolNet, designed to support connectivity among organizations in the voluntary sector. As the national advisory board for this program ramps up, there have been both national and regional discussions of how best to contribute existing community experience of networking to its organization. However, that experience is miles ahead of the thinking of several of the national agencies involved in the program's establishment. They have tended to view the offer of experience and sharing of existing linkages as an attempt by community networking associations to compete for scarce resources. TC has been advised to "wait" receptively and patiently until the unconnected national organizations can catch up with what's occurring at the local level among their members.
For the rest of my remarks, I want to turn to talking about some rules of thumb we've cobbled together that outline why community networking is so important. While there will not be broad consultation on universal access in Canada, there is already selective and sector oriented consultations going on at many levels. Having something clear to say about the role and purposes of community networking can still make a difference. So, lets turn away from the murky politics of universal access and toward some positive things you can say if you get drawn into those consultations.
1. IT'S THE COMMUNITY THAT'S THE NETWORK NOT THE TECHNOLOGY.
Community nets are about people and connecting them. The networks are social networks. We're concerned about what people in community DO with the technology, not the technology per se.
2. NOW WE MAKE OUR NETWORKS AND OUR NETWORKS MAKE US
We need a model of how change works that isn't technological determinism. There is, however a link between the tools that we create and the transitions we face. As deliberately constructed groupware, community networks are tools that do change the way we connect in social networks. Electronic mediation of social networks is new and different.
3. THE ROLE OF COMMUNITY NETWORKS IS TO TURN THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING SOCIAL IN ELECTRONIC PUBLIC SPACE INTO PRACTICES THAT SERVE LOCAL NEEDS
Community networks are not about providing electronic non-profit services at all. They are about how a community captures what it is experiencing and how it turns those experiences into practices that serve its needs (ie. we make our networks and our networks make us!). A community needs to have a community network to understand how that feedback is working to its advantage.
There is a memorandum of understanding between TC and Industry Canada "to enhance the ability of Canadian communities to utilize electronic public space". (Aug 17/98). It defines community networking this way:
|"Electronic public space is a shared learning space. It is the community that is the network, not the technology. The creation of a community network extends the idea of community into a shared electronic public space, a new not -for-profit transaction space, where the impact on community values and social interaction is worked out in new ways. The role of community networking is to turn experience of the transition into practice."|
This is a process definition that's about how a community learns. It is NOT (repeat NOT) a "services" definition. The services we provide are the "how to" part of community networking. They are not the "why." We are saying that the real value of a community network comes from the degree of autonomy or control it gives a community over what it learns about change and about adapting to new circumstances.
There is a huge difference between the idea of "community" and what happens to it as it goes online, and associations of community-based organizations, services and individuals who come together for purpose of community networking. TC is quite conscious of that distinction. In order to shape a national perspective on the role and purpose of community networking, it is essential to place the realization of community online as the central issue. TC is, therefore, more about community and community development than it is about community networking.
4. ON THE NET, COMMUNITY PRECEDES COMMERCE.
Electronic commerce can and does reinforce community and extend value to members. Community and commerce are not at odds with each other. Commerce is an essential driving factor in the success of community. But communities occur because core values are shared, not sold. It is communities of special interest that aggregate the markets that make electronic commerce possible. You really don't get what's different about transition to that "knowledge-based society and economy" until you realize how essential open and distributed dynamic social systems (ie, communities) are to the success of electronic commerce.
What's really new about this is that it's the demand side (the community) that owns the "market," not the suppliers of services within it. For example, there's a recent Microsoft ad that states:
|"Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime. Enlighten him further, he owns a chain of seafood restaurants. Where do you want to go today?"|
I'd re-write that statement this way:
|"Give a man a fish, he eats for today. Teach him how to fish and he will eat till the fish stocks collapse. Teach him to understand the system in which he, his neighbors, and the fish stocks interact, and the eating of all three will be sustained forever."|
Ownership of a chain of restaurants is the only conclusion of electronic commerce that Bill Gates can see. Accepting responsibility for systemic ecologies of relationships (ie. for shared aggregated common interests) gives you an entirely different conclusion. Where do you want to go today indeed!
We know that bandwidth costs are descending towards zero. It seems likely that the next phases of the federal Community Access Program (Urban CAP and VolNet) will take a community-based "consortia" approach. From their point of view, it's easier to administer 50 contracts based on major urban areas than 5000 contracts for separate urban access sites. Here's a neat unintended consequence for the government's major private sector partners. Because of deregulation, communities of common interest in the social sector are finally beginning to band together into "buying cooperatives" to negotiate bandwidth price. My guess is that Urban CAP's consortia are going to accelerate this aggregation of demand for bandwidth, driving the cost of bandwidth even more rapidly toward zero than the government's corporate partners are anticipating.
It's no longer a supply side equation. I encourage you to take every advantage of deregulation you can find. Use the urban CAP money to organize consortiums, but then use the consortiums to negotiate decreased bandwidth cost, knowing that the power is now on the demand side. You'll know when you are getting good at it because your problems will become politics, not technology. Existing telecommunications carriers are terrified of descending bandwidth costs. Bell Sygma trademarked "integrated Community Networks" as a plan to make sure you never learn just how powerful aggregated community demand is becoming. The aggregation of needs through bulk purchase was behind the BC Accord, and the corporate recognition of the consequences of that is partly why it's stalled.
Do not wait for someone else to act on your own behalf. This is certainly one time where you should "just do it!" You are being sung lullabies to keep you asleep. If you look the deregulated communications market straight in the eye, you'll find some exciting opportunities for effective and sustainable community development.
What is it that we really need to do, what factors are essential to our success in realizing community online? To me, it's the autonomy to learn and to grow from the basis of our experience. That's where the "knowledge" is in a knowledge-based society and economy. It's the idea of "community" itself that is essential, and if you don't talk about how it feels, it will slip out of your grasp. All you'll have left is Bill Gates' chains of seafood restaurants.
I'd like to close with a paraphrase of a definition of community that I took from Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers' article," The paradox and promise of community," in the book, " The Community of the Future," The Drucker Foundation Future Series, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1998, (9-18).
"Take care of yourself.
Take care of each other.
Take care of this (place)." ...of this electronic public space.