Felix Stalder on Fri, 18 Sep 1998 18:32:39 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Steve Cisler: Electronic Public Space in 1998

Electronic Public Space in 1998: Civic and Community Networks

Copyright Steve Cisler 1998.  <<cisler@pobox.com>

On a summer evening in 1997, I was gazing down at the piazza in the
center of Milan. Here, in the industrial center of Italy, there exists
a place to meet, to eat, to stroll, to talk, to propagandize, to relax,
and at the very edges there are places to sell and shop and to worship.
It is the essence of a vibrant public space: open, accessible,
multi-purpose, and supported by the public that makes use of it. My
vantage point that evening was the veranda of the Milan city offices
that overlooked the square. A group of us were attending the first
meeting of the European Alliance for Community Networking. Many of us
hoped that the electronic environments we were building would resemble
in some ways the piazza of Milan, Italy.  Here was one of the nerve
centers of the global economy, able to maintain such a cohesive yet
diverse environment, when other cities, including my own, San José,
California ( "the capital of Silicon Valley"), are struggling for a
center, a sense of identity, and purpose. In the midst of the forces of
globalization, exemplified by the Internet, the local community
networks are also searching for their own identity, a central theme
common to all of them,  as well as economic stability. 

Community networks are part of electronic public space.  Some community
networks provide dialup access to local information and to the
Internet; others provide a social network to discuss local
telecommunications issues and ways of working toward solutions that
lead to economic development or use the online tools to carry out
experimental projects. Many encourage the production of locally
produced web material and databases or foster local discussions through
systems such as local Usenet groups, FirstClass, Caucus computer
conferencing, or regional mailing lists.  The most numerous electronic
public spaces are  public access points in libraries, telecenters,
neighborhood learning centers, youth organizations, museums, and
community technology centers. Integrated into many networks and access
locations are training programs to help the public make use of the
equipment and networks. This hybridized online and physical space is a
manifestation of the electronic commons.

Electronic Commons

The ideal of an electronic commons or public space is not new. Civic
groups have struggled for control of radio spectrum and cable
television channels and production equipment. The battle for low power
community radio broadcasting is still being fought. In the United
States the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility hosted
roundtables in 1992 and 1993 to discuss the concept of electronic
public spaces in the digital age. This was a time when the Internet was
breaking out of its research and academic origins to enter the
consciousness of journalists, teachers, librarians, civic leaders, and
the business community. 1993 was also a period when the Cleveland-based
National Public Telecomputing Network had spread the gospel of the
Free-Nets around North America and to other countries. Dozens had
started up and were the only way that many citizens had access to the
Internet. Very few people were making money off of the Internet. It was
a great time to buy stock in Cisco. 

I wrote an
 in 1993 entitled "Community Networks: Building Electronic Greenbelts"
to introduce the concept of locally controlled  electronic
communication systems in various cities and towns in the United States.
Now, five years later, many of the community networks described in the
essay have shut down, but others have taken hold in other towns. We do
not have a reliable count of these systems, but most in the business
believe that the number in the USA is about 200-300, the same now as in
1993. These changes and failures have taken place during a period of
hypergrowth of Internet users and providers, but the rising tide did
not cause all the yachts to rise at once.  I want to reflect on the
changes that are taking place in the online world as well as the
physical places where people gather to gain access to the Internet and
other digital information. 

The Internet: Systems of Isolated Craving?

As the commercialization of the Internet has accelerated, it has
presented a challenge for towns, villages, and neighborhoods and for
the electronic community networks that have been formed in hundreds of
areas around the U.S. and in other countries. On the one hand the
Internet serves as a gateway to a huge warehouse of partially sorted
information, entertainment and as a contact point for talent, for
friends, for merchandise, and for digital artifacts that are not found
locally. On the other hand, the Internet is having a corrosive effect
on some local institutions and culture. Local bookstores are losing
sales not only to large chains but also to the online stores including
amazon.com which now has more than 1000 employees and is branching out
into other retail fields. Local banks are closing in a wave of mergers
and consolidation of branch services into automated kiosks and outlets
in supermarkets, supplemented by online access. Auto dealers are
competing with mega-merchants on the net. Microsoft has moved into real
estate multiple listing services on the Web. Travel agents compete with
electronic bucket shops and ticket auction houses as well as online
sales by the airline web sites.  The California state legislature has
passed a ban on Internet taxes, and the Clinton administration also
supports this decision. This could result in a loss of local revenue.
For some businesses, the growth in electronic commerce has been
beneficial. Not only do large businesses have access to new markets;
small firms do as well.  In  Libby, Montana, a sculptor who signed up
for access through Kootenet, the local Internet cooperative,  began
doing so much business over the Internet that he closed his studio that
catered to the vacation traffic that passed by during the warmer
months. Who benefits? There may be more wealth coming into the
community, but another storefront has closed. Ron Rappaport of Zona
Research speculates  that the rise in online barter and auction systems
are a threat to  flea markets and garage sales, those events where
people clean out their houses and on the weekend, put up for sale just
about anything that a vacuum cleaner can't ingest. These sales serves
as much as social events, as small market exchanges.

Local economic development and community networks

Some community networks are very suspicious of business, and some
businesses, especially Internet service providers, are distrustful of
non-profit organizations that offer some of the same services for free
or at a greatly reduced rate. Business pressure on the city council in
Salem, Oregon, forced the open.org community network to raise the
subscription rate from $5 per month to $7 for unlimited PPP access to
the Internet. In Eugene, Oregon, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (our
tax collectors) have challenged the right of a community network to
sell low cost Internet access. This may escalate into a national crisis
that will threaten the charitable status of many other community
systems that provide similar services. Other community networks work
well with the local ISP,  like PrarieNet in Illinois, by avoiding
offering competitive services such as PPP. 

Since 1996, many for-profit ventures have concentrated on local regions
for city guides and services aimed at middle and upper income Internet
users. The more significant ones are CitySearch, AOL's  Digital Cities,
Microsoft's Sidewalk, and countless efforts by local and chains of
newspapers. Peter Krasilvosky recently issued a  paper  for the Markle
Foundation that discusses options for community information systems to
cooperate and co-exist with some of these commercial ventures. For some
systems like Austin Free-Net, this cooperation seems to work.

Many successful community systems are closely tied to the regional
efforts at economic development.  This is especially true in rural
areas of the United States.  I have visited two exemplary efforts in
the past 12 months: Kootenet in Libby, Montana, and ACEnet in Athens,
Ohio. Kootenet is an unofficial co-op that pays the highest price for a
high speed T1 line (approximated 1.5 million bits per second) in the
sparsely populated rural state,  yet sells dialup access at below the
U.S. average and has extended service far into the rural areas of
Lincoln County. Spinoff programs are opening learning centers, using
school facilities after hours. Most important of all, they have
included all the parties in the conversations about the future of the
network. They need more capacity in their network, and each part of the
government and industry, as well as many citizens, are offering to help
or to work together.  <<www.kootenet.net>

Some community networks are trying to integrate the needs of local
small business with the power of the Internet. ACEnet, the Appalachian
Center for Economic Networks in Athens, Ohio, makes use of the
Southeast Ohio Region FreeNet to link microfirms and help them sell in
high value markets, to help tie together small firms within a
community, and to link up similar projects nationwide.  Many of these
are part of food production networks. In addition, ACEnet is training
young people and women who were receiving government assistance to
learn new skills in the microenterprises or in computer repair.  This
is a region that has a very high rate of unemployment, so this program
stands out as one. where technology is well integrated with social and
economic programs that are well suited to the area.

In contrast, much of the selling and consuming on the Internet is
between the individual and the firm, whether it involves the purchase
of X-rated movies, discounted airline tickets, or an item obtained at
an online auction. In the novel Mao II,  Don DeLillo writes about
"systems of isolated craving" which are supported by the "technology of
consumer fulfillment" in which the Internet now plays a major role: to
do more than sell to a customer. The Internet marketers want to bond
with and cater to the customer by entertaining him, eliciting responses
to questionnaires in exchange for prizes, by building up a profile of
habits and purchases and demographic background and then aggregating
that information with other habits collected by other firms. The
individual is invited to join  the communities of consumer interest
(Nike, J. Peterman, Macintosh zealots, microbrew drinkers); they are
courted, given a virtual home, and reinforced with coupons, gossip,
insider news, and conversations with other brand loyalists. In most
cases, the technical resources available to the companies and marketing
firms greatly exceeds the local, grass roots efforts that are trying to
"build community" by providing these pre-fab structures online. The
more recent trend of companies funneling more and more resources into
so-called "portals" or points of entry for the consumer to an array of
information, entertainment, and product destinations means that these
sites (Yahoo!, Excite, Alta-Vista, Disney, AOL, Wired) will be able to
saturate the other media to advertise the benefits of heading for their
particular URL. Space in the real world is being filled with ads just
as screen space is. Even the rubber dividers supermarket shoppers use
to separate their purchases on a conveyor belt from those of other
people in line now carry advertisements. A number of community networks
(and many other non-profit sites) are accepting banner ads as a way of
staying afloat, or to become less dependent on grants and donations.

In _Breaking Up America_ , Joseph Thurow argues that the social
fragmentation evident in post-war America is accelerated by target
marketing which encourages loyalty to products or just the web sites of
companies with a dominant position online. The emphasis on these media
"communities" will make the geographic communities less important, at
least to those who are online. Without appropriate fora for inclusive
conversations and debate, democracy is threatened. Those conversations
that do take place will be within the confines of media worlds
populated by people with similar tastes.

Those who are working to spread their own community network in their
town or country or region believe that the conversations and
interactions should span economic and age differences and include
groups that have traditionally not had equal access. Besides the local
groups promoting this goal, national governments in Europe, South
Africa, and North America are also promoting the goal of universal

How important is universal access to the Internet?

In some sectors of North American and European society there is a rate
of connectivity to basic telephone services of more than 95%, but in
other sectors and many rural areas as well as most of the developing
world, the number of subscribers or even people who have any kind of
access  to a telephone, is extremely low. Even fewer are using the
Internet (or have even heard of it.) One of the ways this problem is
being solved locally is the establishment of local access places known
by many names: telecenters, telestuygen (Sweden), cabinas públicas
(Peru), telecottages (UK), Amic@s (Paraguay), community technology
centers, digital clubhouses, networked learning centers (USA), and
espaces numérisés (France). The International donor agencies are
betting that these centers are the best way of bridging the growing gap
between people, towns, and countries where some have affordable access
for some and expensive or even no access for most of the other
inhabitants. In writing about this topic for international librarians I
described one of the more advanced sites, the Digital Clubhouse of
Sunnyvale, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley:

	The Digital Clubhouse located in a shopping center in Sunnyvale,
California, provides free training, access to the Internet, and courses
on digital storytelling, using several dozen high end Macintosh and PC
workstations. All of these have a fast connection to the Internet. They
are working on some projects with the local public library, but most of
their activity involves community organizations, especially those that
would have trouble getting online or learning the advanced skills
provided by the Clubhouse. Currently, young people are working with
World War II veterans to tell their stories using new media.  Digital
Clubhouse strengths are the training staff, the strong emphasis on
people meeting people at the center, and the interest taken by the high
tech business community in Silicon Valley. This non-profit franchise
model is being replicated in other U.S. states (Maryland and New York),
and other countries have expressed interest in setting up their own. 

Community/Civic Networks and the Shortcomings of the Internet

Everything is not on the Internet, but some writers and net devotees
act as if it is, and that anyone not using the Internet is deprived,
out of touch, off the grid, and not ready for the 21st century.  Yet,
thirty-nine percent of the American public has no intention of buying a
computer, no matter how low the price. The Internet does not reflect
the reality experienced by many Americans, but because of its
attraction and importance to some sectors of society and to parts of
the economy, local communities need to come to terms with the Internet,
to help shape its content and to make it work better to reach the goals
set by different institutions in the places we may call home.

How can community networks provide some counterbalance  to these trends
and outlooks? If they understand the community they serve, they will be
in touch with a wide range people and not just the clickerati but also
the people not online, including those who would like to be but cannot
afford it or who would like to sample it, and also those who see no
compelling need to use computers. The community networker will help the
local businesses and schools and service organizations understand the
forces exerted by the Net. They will help facilitate discussions and
meetings about the effects of the Internet and how through local
action, community businesses and groups can harness its power to make
the local community stronger.

The Future for Community Networkers

If we look at local initiatives and the current trends, there are
various avenues community networkers should take: working to humanize
some of the larger infrastructure projects by helping the proponents
guide their efforts toward genuinely useful applications and understand
the new technologies that vye for our attention and understanding. Many
of the so-called "Smart" projects usually imply that broadband
connectivity in a region or school leads to an intelligent workforce,
brilliant students, and a well-connected citizenry. Usually these
affect a rather small portion of the population in a geographic area.
Public education campaigns, public access sites, and social networking
are required to spread the benefits beyond the existing knowledge
workers and early adaptors. This is our work. Community networkers can
help put a human face on a technology that confuses some and repels
others by showing how local problems can be managed by combining
traditional problem solving skills with knowledge about the Internet. A
group of Palo Alto citizens who had been meeting online and
face-to-face for several years, held a city council candidates' night
to allow the politicians hear different visions of the digital future
and to tell the audience how they would use the fiber optic network
that the city is installing. In September, 1997, citizens from all over
France met in Parthenay, France, to learn from their experimetns in
democracy and technology. These examples need to be commonplace, not
the exception.

Community networks need to work outside of their local service area
too. In Minnesota, Missouri, and Michigan, as well as the province of
British Columbia, there are regional associations. Charlotte's Web in
North Carolina is doing outreach in the whole region. National
organizations like Telecommunities Canada have been in place there for
more years than in any other country, and the Association For Community
Networking in the US will celebrate its first birthday in October 1998.
They are struggling with the need for sustainable business models,
useful models for project evaluation, and campaigns for greater public
awareness. The European Alliance for Community Networking is working
with the Telecities consortium of the EC. Both AFCN and EACN held
conferences in July 1998 and are planning activities for the coming
year. Another activity involves the use of community networks as bases
for regional and even global organizing and interacting with those
groups which do not own their own infrastructure. An example of this
might be the groups that were opposed to the Multilater Agreement on
Invenstment (MAI). While they used web sites to spread information,
they could have also used community networks as a local anchor for a
global effort. All of these efforts, national, regional, and
international, need your interest and your support. By bringing your
interests and talents in art, music, political activism, and technology
you can diversify and strengthen the local groups and add to the
collection of stories that demonstrate the usefulness of these
citizen-based efforts. 

Articles and web sites:

ACEnet, Athens, Ohio. http://www.seorf.ohiou.edu/~xx001/

Association For Community Networking. (AFCN). 

Cisler, Steve. "Building Electronic Greenbelts".

Cisler, Steve. "Telecenters and Libraries"

Digital Clubhouse, Sunnyvale, California. http://www.digiclub.org

European Alliance for Community Networking 
http://www.bcnet.upc.es/ecn98 and home.inreach.com/cisler/milan.html

Kootenet, Libby, Montana.  http://www.kootenet.net

Krasilovsy, Peter. "Community Resources on the Web: Building Usage and
Long-Term Viability," Project Report. Arlen Communications, 1998.
http://www.markle.org (search on author)


Krasilovsky, Peter. "Community Resources: Self-Sustaining Online
Models". An Arlen Executive Briefing, July, 1998. http://www.markle.org
(search on author

Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

OPEN, Salem, Oregon. http://www.open.org

Palo Alto Fiber Backbone http://www.cpau.com/telecom/keyben.html 

Parthenay, France. Sept 1997 conference report.

Telecommunities Canada. http://www.tc.ca


Les faits sont faits.

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