The Promise and Challenge of a New Communications Age
Unlocking the Doors to Opportunity
© 1995, Morino Institute. All Rights Reserved.
- The Communications Revolution
- A Framework for Understanding the Challenges of Interactive
- An Agenda for Action
A Context for Change
A century ago farmers and their families led lives of isolation that is almost
unimaginable today. This isolation was broken only a few times a month when the family or
one of its members walked or rode a farm wagon or buggy to buy supplies and pick up mail
To alleviate this, farm state legislators began pushing for a revolutionary postal
program known as rural free delivery (RFD), which would provide farmers with daily mail
service just like their city cousins. The postal service and urban representatives
resisted the idea, partly on the grounds that city people would be subsidizing the
The farmers carried the day and the RFD routes quickly became conduits not only for
daily deliveries of postcards and letters, but for newspapers and magazines and packages
of all sizes and descriptions. The magazine and advertising industries boomed and a whole
new industry was created, the mail-order business pioneered by Sears-Roebuck and
Montgomery Ward, which sold everything from straight pins to farm implements.
Rural free delivery was followed in short order by the telephone, the radio and the
automobile. Each, in turn, greatly reduced rural isolation, created new businesses and
stimulated existing ones, and wrought far-reaching and undreamed of social and economic
Today, the entire world is confronted with a wealth of new opportunitiesand
riskscreated by an even more profound revolution in human communications. Its
effects are already widespread and dramatic, and they are accelerating.
Although it stems from advances in communications technology, this is a revolution of
human potential and opportunity. Technology, which sometimes fascinates, distracts and
dissuades so many, is of secondary importance. This revolution is about how we
communicate, and as a result, it has major implications for our lives, our work and our
We cannot opt out of this revolution. Its happening all around us as any review
of recent news will show. It is upon us and nearly everyone will be part of it whether
they consciously choose to or not. It is having an impact on everything from the economy
to government to medicine and education.
This presentation discusses the nature of this revolution, developing a common-sense
context to help individuals understand, prepare for and affect the course of change as it
pertains to their lives, families and communities. Such a context is necessary to help
sort out the technical claims, the prophecy and, frankly, the hype that so often
characterizes the discussion. The presentation:
- outlines the nature of the revolution, the new medium of
interactive communications that makes it possible and its most significant social and economic implications.
- establishes a framework for some of the most important challenges we must address if we
are to realize the full potential of the new communications medium.
- proposes an Agenda for Actionof specific recommendations for how individuals and
groups can take advantage of the burgeoning opportunities the revolution offers to improve
their lives, institutions and communities.
I. The Communications
There is no question that the ways in which we communicate are changing rapidly. Claims
of 500 television channels and shopping from home may dominate the news coverage, but
there is something much more fundamental and meaningful occurring. Its roots lie in the
convergence of communications and information technology, and we can only guess at its
future impact on people and organizations. We know from recent experience, however, that
the effects will be profound and, based on the pace of its acceptance, that those effects
will come quickly and touch nearly everyone.
Roots of the Revolution
This is the fourth major social and economic revolution in the United States that has
stemmed from technology. The first was the development of the nation's railroad system
between the Civil War and World War I. The second was the investment in industrial
equipment between 1935 and 1973. The third was the computer era mainframe through
personal computers from the 1960s to the present. Each caused changes that
fundamentally altered lives, communities and the pattern of history.
Now, in the 1990s, the fourth major technological and economic revolution, the
revolution of interactive communications, is emerging. It could well dwarf the earlier
communications revolutions begotten by the telegraph, telephone, radio and television.
This revolution is significantly different from its predecessors in that it isn't
experiencing the slow start-up period that characterized the others. This is partly
because its explosive growth has been fueled by the media coverage it has drawn. It is
marked by a number of phenomena:
- the announcement of the National Information Infrastructure agenda in 1993, the
so-called "information super- highway."
- the emergence of the Internet, the giant network of thousands of local networks which
links millions of people and information resources around the globe. It is the most
dramatic illustration of this new way of communicating.
- the struggle for future market position among the converging telecommunications,
entertainment, publishing and information technology industries as they announce
and discontinue mergers, acquisitions and mega- deals.
- a growing populist communications movement in which electronic bulletin boards,
community computer networks and other forms of public access networks have evolved at
The essence of this revolution is a new communications medium that puts power in the
hands of individuals, completely reinventing our ability to reach people, acquire
information and distribute knowledge.
The New Communications Medium
The driving force in the communications revolution is
interactive communications. This new communications medium already links millions of people around the globe with
networks of computers and telecommunications devices. The computers are intelligent
moderators that manage, manipulate and store messages of various kinds the written
word, sound, pictures in a digital form which can be passed through
telecommunications "pipes" such as phone lines, fiber optic cables, satellites
and wireless devices. Technically it is often referred to as computer-mediated
Interactive communications supports all forms of dynamic communications
one-on-one, small group, mass broadcasting and a wholly new form of many-to-many
interactive mass communications. One of its most powerful characteristics is that it can
enrich communication by combining all other forms of communication text, audio,
graphics and video in a single message. It does so without regard to the distance
or time differences between people, since it can store and hold messages until the
receiver chooses to view and respond to them. It offers powerful and timely access to
information and knowledge, which opens up a vast array of opportunities.
The most important aspect of interactive communications is that it inspires engaged
participants rather than passive listeners or viewers. Its unique potential is that it
empowers every participant to be a publisher or producer of information as well as a
consumer. Experience with the Internet, commercial services like America Online,
electronic bulletin board systems, and local networks indicate that this is what people
want most, by a large margin.
Interactive communications is transforming society and altering many aspects of
peoples livestheir jobs, education, medical care, personal relationships,
their communities, governments and other organizations. Why? Because it makes possible a
quantum leap in communications power for everyone, not just those who can afford a
printing press or a television station.
The striking growth of interactive communications is testimony to that power. That
growth has been made possible because the cost of the new information and communications
technologies is falling rapidly. Although for many people it is still out of reach, entry
and usage is becoming much easier and more affordable. Our use of interactive
communications is now limited by funds, fluency and imagination. We seldom are limited by
computing power, bandwidth or any other technological factors.
A New Communications Model
Through interactive communications, people are learning to communicate differently. Not
simply with a different device, as from writing letters to a greater use of telephones,
but in our patterns of access which change fundamentally. There are three primary ways in
which these patterns change:
- We can build new communities of communication, whether that means creating the
"virtual communities" based on common interests that are so characteristic of
the networks, or facilitating contact and collaboration in our real local communities.
This changes the patterns of how individuals communicate with other individuals.
- We can reach more people, more easily singly or en masse and we can
develop new channels for interacting with or bypassing organizations and
institutions. This changes the patterns of communication for organizations and their
- We can reach and treat information differently, getting it more quickly, in more forms,
from more sources regardless of length or medium. This changes the patterns of access to
The results are many, and they raise many issues. Some arent new, but they become
more acute: How do we deal with information overload? How can we navigate all of these
sources? How do we structure information to make it usable? What will be the new
etiquettes and protocols? How do we assess credibility?
Take, for example, the fact that network communications can be essentially anonymous.
This can be beneficial in that it disguises the differences, such as race, physical
impairment or social position, which often impair communication. But it also aids in the
distribution of fallacious information, emboldens antisocial behavior and makes possible
Some results are not only new, but radical. One of the most significant is that it
severely limits, if not completely eliminates, the ability of an individual or
organization to control its communication with and among constituents.
Consider a typical business. Traditionally, its messengers executives, sales
people, public relations professionals have dominated the communication flow and
content to the outside world. Stockholders, customers, the press, suppliers, partners, and
other involved parties learned about the company mainly from company sources. The same was
true for non-profits, government agencies, or almost any institution in communication with
constituents. Successful organizations listen to their constituents, to a greater or
lesser degree, but feedback has rarely been as clear or controlled as the
With interactive communications, however, these constituent groups now can talk to each
other about the organization, sharing knowledge and experience, both good and bad.
Furthermore, the message is not necessarily mediated by the press nor is it one-on-one
dialogue. With a single message, one disgruntled stockholder can now contact thousands of
others seeking participation in a class-action suit. A vendor with unpaid bills can more
easily ask others whether they are having the same problems. A reporter can pick up these
stories while browsing the nets.
The Transformation Has Already Begun
This is already happening. Intel's recent public relations debacle with its Pentium
chip blew up overnight. The scope of publicity and attention was almost entirely the
product of people communicating over the networks.1
Thousands of users were complaining about a problem that only a relatively few had
actually experiencedlong before Intel's chain of command could assess the
significance of the reaction. Because the company was behind the information curve, it
appeared unresponsive as a relatively small problem took on disproportionate importance.
The story appeared in the trade and general press before Intel was prepared to cope.
Or consider a political example. Although it can't be quantified, it is clear that
network broadcasts by a small group of people played a part in the defeat of former House
Speaker Tom Foley of Washington in the November, 1994, elections. Whenever the congressman
would speak, his opponents immediately produced and distributed a state-wide response.
Other examples abound: in global humanitarian efforts as reported by the Freedom Forum 2; in emergency response to disasters
like the Los Angeles and Kobi, Japan earthquakes3 and the recent bombing in Oklahoma City; in the coordination among
environmental leaders around the globe following the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The
power of this medium to move outside the normal boundaries of communication and enabling
people to engage, discuss or influence an issue is formidable.
Dramatic Change for People, Organizations and Society
It is all but impossible to postulate the actual effects such change in our
communication patterns will ultimately have on people, communities, the economy and
society. Those who try to predict the future are almost inevitably wrong. But we can see,
mostly from what has already begun to occur, some broad patterns of change that will
affect nearly everyone.
- There will be sizable economic and business shifts.
- The roles of intermediaries will be permanently altered.
- Hierarchical organizational structures will be eroded.
- Lines of authority will continue to blur.
- The ways in which we teach and learn will be fundamentally altered.
- Individuals will become more empowered.
These changes have both benefits and risks for people and organizations. What benefits
one may threaten another.
The communications revolution is transpiring in a world of economic restructuring,
redefinition of work rules and jurisdictions, alterations of the workers' relationship to
their employers and the changing nature of work itself. Interactive communications is
facilitating and accelerating many of these changes, leading to promising new
opportunities, but also eliminating patterns we once took for granted.
The fear of every technological revolution is that it will displace jobs. This happens,
but new technologies invariably create more, and generally better, jobs than they destroy.
The explosive growth of personal computers has created far more jobs in every aspect of
communications hardware, software, and information creation and handling
than it displaced. Many of the employees let go by IBM went into business for themselves,
some even contracting with IBM itself.
The same is true with interactive communications. It is creating a whole new education,
knowledge, entertainment and information industry. Two of the fastest growing companies in
the United States are America Online, a network services provider, and Netscape
Communications, which develops software for displaying and viewing online information.
Entertainment companies are spinning off new businesses in partnership with telephone
companies, cable television providers, publishers and software developers. The recent
creation of the New Century Network is an example.
But many jobs are being lost, or at least redefined. Organizations in all sectors are
looking for new ways to enhance their effectiveness and interactive communications will
help them do so. One way is by facilitating creation of a global marketplace for
intellectual services. Certain areas in India, for example, have emerged as major hubs for
software development. Interactive communications makes it feasible for companies anywhere
in the world to use these talented workers rather than more expensive workers in their own
countries. More prosaic examples exist inside every country. One can live comfortably in
more remote areas for a fraction of the cost of our major population centers, such as
Boston or the San Francisco Bay area. Why pay the higher fees of local programmers writers
or educational developers in these areas when talented professionals in other regions may
be just as effective but much less expensive working over the networks? Many economic
development groups in non-urban areas have already begun intensive campaigns to lure jobs
and businesses to their areas by enhancing their electronic infrastructures.
This is just one element of interactive communications globalizing effects. Many
organizations anticipate competing in markets all around the world. What is often
forgotten is that foreign companies also find it easier to enter your market. Not every
organization will win these battles, and this is not limited to businesses. What will
happen to local environmental organizations when similar groups in Brazil or the
Philippines begin to raise funds in the United States?
Interactive communications also will affect jobs by facilitating the
"downsizing": movement. Businesses, government agencies, non-profit and other
organizations are attempting to reduce expenses by streamlining their operations.
Interactive communications enables them to shed middle layers of management whose function
is to mediate between organizational levels or constituents.
As in every technological revolution before it the railroad, automobile,
television, telephone, etc. there are both benefits and challenges in this
revolution. The benefits greatly outweigh the risks, however, primarily because of the
economic opportunities the revolution is creating. Interactive communications is relevant
to everyone except those in the most basic service jobs and offers opportunity to nearly
The Changing the Role of Intermediaries
The second major impact of the communications revolution is that it will greatly
reduce, or eliminate, control over communications by the traditional intermediaries
these organizations which historically have controlled the flow of information to the rest
of society. This control is increasingly being shared with and passed on to individuals,
local organizations and communities. The process, known as "disintermediation,"
eliminates the middlemen who simply expedite distribution without enhancing the value of
what is transferred.
There are two major types of intermediaries:
- Gatekeepers. These are organizations that perform what are basically
"pass-through" services such as simple bank deposits and withdrawals,
clearinghouse services or processing classified advertisements.
- "Value-added" providers. These are organizations that add value to the
transaction process such as the news and editorial content of newspapers and television or
the analytical and advisory reports of public interest groups. This is the process of
creating knowledge, education or entertainment.
Financial services are a good example of the difference between gate-keeping and adding
value because, like most institutions, they do both. As producers of investment advice,
they add knowledge value to the raw data of stock and bond performance; a service which
people are willing to purchase based upon its quality. On the other hand, when they simply
transfer buy and sell orders from customers to the trading floor, they are providing a
gate- keeper function because individuals are prevented from conducting such transactions
Through the communications revolution, many gate-keeping functions probably will be
eliminated or have their roles reduced. Consider automatic teller machines (ATM). Enabled
by networking technology, they have profoundly changed the role and importance of branch
banks by allowing customers to bypass the intermediary the teller and
directly access their bank accounts.
"Value-added" intermediaries, on the other hand, may see their importance
increased. In a world of exploding information, new paths to people and the need for
timely access, these individuals and organizations will become ever more necessary.
Interactive communications will work similar changes in other traditional intermediaries,
from publishers, to civil servants to teachers, physicians, nurses.
Disintermediation will add momentum to the economic shifts previously noted, because it
may add to the decline of entire job sectors. The introduction of the desktop computer has
led to a downturn in secretarial and administrative hiring.4 Those who are hired now require new skills usually computer
literacy and are often given greater analysis and management support
responsibilities. Thus, their value-added capacity is greater.
Most importantly, disintermediation greatly democratizes access to the means of
communication and to information and knowledge. It takes the power conferred by the
control of information away from a tiny elite and makes it available to many.
It has been noted that interactive communications facilitates organizational downsizing
by reducing the importance of middle management. In fact, one effect of the new medium is
that, overall, it helps level hierarchical structures.
Interactive communications facilitates dispersed collaboration, which in turn
facilitates teaming at the project level, regardless of geographical distances or social
and cultural differences. One example is Hewlett- Packards customer response network
which includes some 1,900 technical personnel in four centers around the world. They all
share the same constantly updated database and customer problems are relayed to these
centers depending on the time of day. If the first center cant solve the problem by
a certain time, it follows the sun. The California center, for example, will pass it to
the oncoming shift in Australia.5 Management structures in such an organization cannot be typical lines of command and
The process of disintermediation also helps level hierarchies because it makes it
easier for anybody inside or outside of an organization to communicate directly with
anyone else. In most organizations that have become heavy users of electronic mail, for
example, this has led to a much more open culture that obviates the need for intercessors.6 This greatly speeds the
flow of information. Instead of moving up and down the chain of command and then
horizontally to other departments, individuals, customers, suppliers, etc., and back
again, information moves laterally among all the elements involved in a job. While this
does not mean, nor does it predict, flat organizational structures, it does suggest the
rise of new ways to look at how we work and what jobs will be like; especially when taken
in combination with interactive communications other abilities to facilitate work
from home, the use of contract services in lieu of full time employees and the
distribution of work forces.
Blurring Lines of Authority
Interactive communications blurs the lines of authority, that are normally imposed
through controls such as hierarchies, geographic borders or clear jurisdictions. When
people have greater access to information, and a much broader, instantaneous ability to
communicate, it not only breaks down the lines of control within companies, institutions
and governments, it weakens and potentially obliterates the boundaries. It may well change
our definitions of communities, the lines between governmental jurisdictions and the laws,
treaties, and policies that define and support them.
Take, for example, in business, where the lines between the research, production,
distribution and advertising departments are broken down in a team-based new product
introduction, or, in a recent legal case, a couple who operated a bulletin board in
Memphis, Tennessee, were arrested and convicted for transporting obscene materials across
state lines. They had downloaded pictures from a system in California which, although
legal in that state, were considered pornographic in Tennessee. The Supreme Court allows
communities to apply local tests in determining what is obscene in their jurisdiction. It
protects the possession of obscene materials, even when it violates local community
standards, but not the transportation into those communities. Since information routinely
travels across local and even international gateways when moving through the Internet, the
potential effect is to prohibit anything disapproved of in any single territorial
location. This is precisely the kind of uniform standard that the Supreme Court's
community standards test was designed to avoid.
Interactive communications also places heightened emphasis on the credibility of
sources. It is not a new problem, but the sheer volume of information and the number of
people distributing it makes credible authority much more important. A prime example was
the way in which Internet users fed Western news reports back to the people holding the
Russian White House during the coup of 1993. Those reports, which contradicted the
misinformation published by the local media and the coup leaders, were a key factor in the
democratic forces decision to continue their struggle. Like any medium, however, it
can be used just as easily for lies as for truth, and the multiplicity of sources makes
the problem more acute.
Perhaps the greatest implication in this blurring of authority, is the way interactive
communications allows people to completely sidestep institutions. For example,
circumventing the gatekeepers at government agencies is helping people take more immediate
control of their relationship to government. Individuals who once felt powerless to change
the course of events are discovering new ways to make their voices heard. Public access
networks are helping community members develop their own means for solving problems
directly and together.
And yet it is also possible that interactive communications may help splinter and
segregate people. Beyond the debates about whether traditional media lean toward one
ideology or another, with interactive communications one can easily arrange to receive
reams of information entirely from a single perspective. This, combined with the extended
personal dialogue that interactive communications makes possible, could lead to greater
divisiveness in the community at large.
New Ways to Learn
It has been rightly observed that, in terms of individual and organizational success,
the movement toward a Communications Age puts far greater emphasis on education and
"intellectual capital" than almost anything else. The people who hold knowledge,
or who know how to locate or create it, are the ones who will thrive. Interactive
communications has the potential to reinvent learning and the delivery of education in
ways never before possible.
- It encourages informal, personal learning because people can reach out directly to
others who have information and knowledge, not just in their classroom or school, but
throughout the world.
- It enables teachers using the widest definition of that profession to
deliver and exchange course information, resources and curricula at a moments
- It provides affordable, interactive distance learning with a minimum of equipment. The
best teachers can now reach hundreds and even thousands.
- It makes possible the methods, processes and facilities for continuous, lifelong
learning because everyone, children or octogenarians, can find the educational materials
that they need.
The most exciting potential of interactive communications is that it enables a new
concept of "on-demand learning." In a world where the amount of information
available is exploding, and knowing how to learn may become more important than what one
knows, emphasis for most people may be on learning broad competencies rather than tightly
focused disciplines. The networks allow an individual to reach out anywhere for specific
training in a given area at the time it is needed. The promise of on-demand learning
fueled by the advances of digital libraries, networked courses, archives of news and
current events and the simulated learning environments made feasible by virtual reality,
offers enormous benefit to all sectors commercial, government, educational and
nonprofit. But only at the cost of a transformation or reinvention of our educational
The culmination of all these other implications of interactive communications leads
inescapably to one conclusion: the increasing importance and empowerment of individuals,
regardless of location, economic status, political affiliation or any other criteria. By
connecting people with others, to vast resources of information and by helping them bypass
intermediaries who have monopolized access to knowledge and opportunity, interactive
communications is helping people take greater responsibility and control over their lives
- In Cleveland, 47 families, each of which had a member suffering from Alzheimer's
disease, were linked via an inexpensive computer net on which they were able to get
valuable, timely information from doctors and nurses. Perhaps even more importantly, there
evolved a closely-knit mutual support group as the families came to communicate directly
with each other. Studies of networks like this show that there are 30 times as many
demands for two-way communication as requests for information.7
- A group of low-income families in California were in danger of losing their homes and
having their families torn apart. Over a communications network, their lawyer learned of a
new rule from Washington through which he managed to save their homes just a few days
before they were due to be evicted, and weeks before the local housing agency heard about
it. Only interactive communications can supply this kind of reach for the individual and
this level of timeliness.
- More than a third of the residents of Blacksburg, Virginia, a town of 36,000, are on a
computer network called the Blacksburg Electronic Village which links them to each other,
the city's businesses, government departments, schools, doctors, hospitals and
entertainment. It enables them to communicate with their government, shop with local
retailers, get medical advice and, most important, talk to each other. The system,
established by the city government, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Bell Atlantic, and
local businesses and organizations, is "a precursor of other places, of what society
and technology will begin to do on a broader basis in future years," according to a
Bell Atlantic official.8
- Humanitarian groups increasingly are using interactive communications to collect
information about human rights violations, identify and warn about existing and developing
trouble spots, mobilize public opinion against violations, and coordinate emergency and
disaster warning and relief projects. Interactive communications are the despair of
dictators and totalitarian governments; fax machines and computer modems have been major
players in freedom uprisings from Tienamen Square to Africa.
One particular way in which interactive communications can inspire people is by helping
them start and grow their own entrepreneurial businesses and civic movements. By placing
mass communications in the hands of people, along with better tools for creating
information, entertainment and education products, it is helping individuals circumvent
the previous need for large amounts of capital. One person, or a small group, can
legitimately create, produce, promote and distribute an electronic newsletter at
negligible cost. People in rural or disadvantaged areas can reach nearly any corner of the
earth to ask a question, raise a grievance, provide a service, deliver information or
market a product.
An Age of Opportunity
The social effects of interactive communications economic shifts,
disintermediation, leveling of hierarchies, blurring of authority, new ways to learn and
individual empowerment present a wealth of opportunity for people who are prepared
to accept it. But the medium is still young and much of its promise may never be realized
unless we take steps to ensure that it matures in a direction that ensures broad benefits.
Of the challenges that may prevent this, nothing is more important than providing
access to the new medium for the broadest range of people and education in the necessary
skills and literacies. The timing also is crucial, because as a society, we are already
making decisions about how interactive communications will be made available and
regulated. The results of those decisions will determine who benefits from the new medium,
how, and at what cost.
II. A Framework for Understanding
the Challenges of Interactive Communications
The networks that make interactive communications possible are there to help people
connect with other people, help institutions connect with their constituents and help both
people and organizations connect with information and services. It is about enabling every
person to be a participant, creator, and producer rather than just a consumer of
information. It is about the creation of a more informed citizenry, the stimulation of
business, the improvement of health care and education, and the reinvention of
institutional functions and services.
The success of this opportunity depends upon how rapidly we achieve critical mass in
the number of companies, organizations, institutions and, most importantly, individuals
that use these networks and the knowledge they make available. We must make every effort
to stimulate growth in the number of people and institutions that are connected and to
motivate them to communicate with each other, make their respective bases of information
available on the networks and find ways to collaborate on common goals.
Anything that blocks or hinders ubiquitous, affordable access to interactive
communications or education in its use, not only stifles opportunity, it is
counterproductive to the nations future. Unfortunately, a number of challenges exist
which may prevent building the necessary critical mass of knowledgeable users. The
challenges are natural because interactive communications is such a radically new
prospect, but they must be addressed by governments, institutions and citizens. This
framework of challenges includes:
- Guaranteeing affordable, ubiquitous access.
- Providing education in the necessary skills and literacies.
- Ensuring the growth of broad economic opportunity.
- Striking a balance between competition and the public interest.
- Ensuring full inclusiveness.
- Adapting public policies and legislation to protect individual rights while supporting
Advancing Beneficial Social and Economic Change
Just as interactive communication influences all facets of community life, so does it
challenge and test the underpinnings of our society: our economic system, social
contracts, public policies and laws. Will this new medium support or erode social and
economic values such as free market competition, the importance of universal education,
equal opportunity, or the protection of basic liberties? Law and public policy have often
lagged behind the pace of technological innovation. As communications policy is debated
vigorously in the next few years, it is important that citizens understand these
challenges, consider the options and that all voices are heard in the debate. The ways in
which each of us, individually and collectively, influence the outcomes will have a
profound effect on the quality of our economic, civic and cultural life well into the next
Guaranteeing Affordable, Ubiquitous Access
Unless every individual, organization and community has affordable access to
interactive communications, the new Communications Age will never realize our most
positive vision for its potential.
Interactive communications takes place across a vast, interconnected web of diverse
networks. The technical, financial and social investment required to conceive and build
the essential infrastructure of a global system is justified by the prospect of a critical
mass of users and the benefits it can create. As during the development of railroads, the
telephone system and the interstate highway system, a commitment to ubiquitous access is
essential to the success of such a fundamental civic resource.
Building Critical Mass
The value of an information and communication infrastructure increases exponentially as
the number of points or people it encompasses increases. In the 1980s, Federal Express
learned this in a compelling and surprising way. As the company opened new hubs in its
distribution network, logic said volume in existing hubs would ease. In fact, total
traffic over the network increased and so did growth in all of the centers. The company
grew dramatically from the added business in the new hubs and benefited from overall
improvement to its entire delivery system. It is not a zero sum game in which one sector
grows at the expense of another.
Similarly, each network in the vast web of networks that support interactive
communications takes on greater value as the number of people connected through any one of
them increases. This is one reason why the Internet has experienced such incredible growth
to reach critical mass. It is a primary reason why almost all forms of access to the
Internet, from America Online to local Internet providers to public access networks, have
ex- perienced such explosive growth.
To reach critical mass, interactive communications should be as common, available, and
affordable as electricity was in the industrial growth period of the United States in the
20th century. The foresight Franklin D. Roosevelt exercised in the municipal and rural
electrification programs paid off in the prosperity of the post-World War II era.
Preparing for the Future
For example, the municipal electric utility in Glasgow, Kentucky, plans to offer 2+
megabit/sec access to their customers for $19.95 per month. It will give homes a tightly
integrated suite of power management, cable programming, full voice telephone services and
a data line for computer access. The company provides the wiring, hardware and software
for a city-wide online network that includes a competitive cable television service and
phone system. The company educated the city's citizens and businesses on what the network
would do and installed lines and software in homes and businesses. This will give Glasgow
a competitive advantage and head start over areas that don't offer such integration or
whose prices do not allow ubiquitous access. By making the investment in infrastructure
for all the potential users in its service area, Glasgow is most likely to attain the
critical mass necessary to spread its investment and operating costs over a large customer
base, offering the low rates that allow the greatest number of people to benefit.9
The Public Access Role
Although a healthy, competitive marketplace that has room for many players is the
driving force for cultivating the necessary critical mass of users, there must also be a
strong public interest presence for addressing local needs and reaching communities which
may be under-served by business interests. The vibrant, growing, grass-roots movement of
public access networking has begun filling that need admirably, but there is more to be
done. Government, private and public grant-makers must take up the challenge to fund and
support these networks, to help them mature, reach more people and become integral parts
of the local information infrastructure.
Providing Education in the New Skills and Literacies
As the vast web of global and local information networks grows, several new skills and
forms of literacy are becoming essential for anyone who wants to reap the full benefits of
the Communications Age. An individuals ability to capitalize on the opportunities
offered by interactive communications requires mastery of these information and
communication proficiencies, much as we depend upon reading and writing today. They go
beyond the technical knowledge of how to use computers to include:
- Navigational skill:the ability to move smoothly among arrays of autonomous and
globally interconnected information, contacts, forums and discussion groups in order to
locate and connect to information and expertise from relevant sources.
- Information literacy:an understanding of which information is most useful,
relevant, and reliable, as well as the ability to analyze, distill, integrate, compose and
classify information to create knowledge.
- Distribution skill:frameworks for rethinking methods of packaging, presenting,
providing access and disseminating information and knowledge in this new medium.
- Communications literacy:integrating new forms of information, knowledge and
message development into evolving patterns of organizational and interpersonal
As information becomes more rapidly and readily available to people everywhere,
specialized knowledge may no longer be the sole province of an intellectual elite or be
restricted to clusters of libraries, museums, and universities located in geographic
centers of learning. For the institutions that must impart and cultivate these new forms
of literacy, interactive communications presents a formidable challenge to traditional
methods of research, teaching and learning. The challenge will require nothing short of
reengineering our educational system and curricula: K-12 education, vocational and
technical programs, higher education, on-the-job training and an array of opportunities
for lifelong learning.
Ensuring the Growth of Economic Opportunity
Ubiquitous access notwithstanding, most people will not bother to get online, much less
use interactive communications to its full potential, unless there is a compelling reason
to do so. The quality and relevance of communications on the networks and the value of its
information and knowledge are of paramount importance.
We must encourage those who have valuable intellectual assets of all kinds to provide
them to the public. Economic and industrial policy must create favorable conditions for
private industry and the public interest sectors to develop accessible knowledge
repositories, new tools for accessing information resources and value-added communications
The Ability to Compete
Because interactive communications enables any participant to store, send or receive
large (or small) amounts of information to so many others, it opens up knowledge-based
economic opportunities to start-ups, self- employed people, public service groups, the
financially disadvantaged, rural localities and others. For these enterprises, the low
cost of entry to interactive communications is good news a powerful leveling factor
both socially and economically which allows individuals, small business, or
non-profit organization to work with, compete against, or impede the efforts of much
A similar technology allowed many budding software firms grow and compete in the 1970s
and 1980s against the wealth, power and sophisticated sales forces of large, entrenched
firms like IBM. They used the telephone, a ubiquitous and affordable communications
medium, to build effective, less expensive marketing and support channels. In the
nonprofit sector, organizations have been able to mount influential lobbying efforts and
public information campaigns, leveraging the efforts of small staffs and volunteers with
the power of interactive communications. The Advocacy Institute, a Washington DC based
public interest group, has waged an effective anti-smoking lobby against the tobacco
industry by setting up ScarfNet, an online forum for institutional collaborators and
The Need for Strategic Planning
To ensure a level playing field, one that is conducive to entrepreneurship and economic
opportunity, we must be certain that our communications policies support conditions in
which a new generation of information industries can thrive. Economic and industrial
policy also must support this goal, remaining open and adaptive to a perpetually changing
and unpredictable stream of technological innovation. It must invest in new industrial
infrastructure even before the existing investment has reached obsolescence.
Too often, public policy is sidetracked by pressure for expedient, short-term actions.
Now, more than ever, policy-makers must remain focused on the future of the country in
order to establish the foundation for long-term benefit. As we contemplate and frame
policies for the future, we must remain committed to finding the delicate balance between
offering incentives to innovation and entrepreneurship and protecting the public interest.
Sound communications policy must encompass not only the influence and perspective of
large, well-capitalized businesses such as the telecommunications, cable and broadcast
providers, but also the budding information and entertainment entrepreneurs of this new
Communications Age. They also deserve the opportunity to thrive and compete.
Balancing Competition and the Public Interest
The complementary roles of public access networks and commercial service providers in
extending ubiquitous access is one part of a larger challenge: the overall balance between
a competitive marketplace and the need to serve public interest. Both can be done, but
only if we make the right decisions about implementation, control and policy. These
- deregulating the telecommunications industry
- safeguarding the integrity of the Internet
- supporting public access networking
- preventing restraint of trade
- ensuring the free flow of information
The debate over these issues will take some time to resolve, but it has already started
and powerful forces are involved. It is important that all sides weigh in, especially
those working to see that interactive communications becomes a tool for personal and
Deregulating the Communications Industry
A key step toward encouraging a diverse and competitive market is to fully deregulate
the telecommunica- tions industry. Local and long distance telephone services, cable
carriers, public utilities, Internet access providers, satellite companies, broadcasters
and others should be permitted to foster a competitive environment in delivering basic and
new services to everyone. Some telephone companies plans to deliver video dial-tone
is an example. Deregulation is necessary if we are to stimulate private investment in new
technology, improve the quality of services and drive down prices. We have already seen
the enormous benefit of such diversity to consumers in the divestiture of AT&T and the
resultant competition in long distance telephone services. Despite fierce competition
among carriers of telephone services, the overall system has worked well because it also
has been designed, through the principle of common carriage, to safeguard openness,
encourage connectivity and ensure the participation of all citizens. As the Internet
continues its exponential growth to become todays "information
superhighway," we must continue to protect the interests of the public even as we
encourage innovation and competition.
Safeguarding the Integrity of the Internet
It is of crucial importance to ensure that the management, control, pricing and growth
of the Internet enables it to evolve as a new communications infrastructure for everyone.
The Internet is a cost-effective alternative, and its decentralized communications
paradigm has the capability of transforming society. Its development must not be inhibited
because of attempts to defer the inevitable transformation of the current
telecommunications, postal and broadcasting infrastructures.
In the rush to "privatize" the Internet, we must not simply turn full control
over to the telecommunications industry, particularly not to the current telephone and
broadcast companies. These are the very firms most threatened by the type of open network,
many-to-many communications that can bypass much of their current infrastructure or, more
to the point, their legacy products and income streams. While we must aggressively support
these companies and help them through the transition of unprecedented change and challenge
they face, we must not inhibit competition by placing the full control over an
infrastructure such as the Internet into the hands of established interests that would
least benefit from the radical change it inspires.
Supporting Public Access Networks
Another safeguard against inhibiting competition is to advance the role of public
access networks. These networks serve local communities, are open to all citizens, have a
public interest purpose and provide access for those not served by commercial carriers.
Public access networks provide an alternative form of access and distribution, and an
essential check-and- balance function to their commercial counterparts. There are a number
of effective and valuable public access networks in nearly every state. In Montana, Big
Sky Telegraph has been a pioneer in the field of public access networks and education, and
several regions have developed civic nets, such as ORION, in Jefferson City, Missouri; the
Blacksburg Electronic Village in Blacksburg, Virginia.; Hawaii FYI; ACEnet in Appalachia,
The NCexChange in North Carolina and others.10
Preventing Restraint of Trade
As the telephone, cable, publishing, entertainment and computer industries continue to
converge, the creation of corporations that both provide the conduits for delivering
information (the pipes) and programming (the content) is inevitable. Restraint of trade
and anti-competitive practices will also be inevitable without checks and balances to
prevent them. Companies or alliances that provide both carrier and content services must
not be permitted to establish market positions that suppress competition.
There are examples of this in our history. John D. Rockefeller didn't create his
Standard Oil monopoly by controlling the means of oil production; he controlled the means
of distribution the pipelines and railroad freight rates. Sears-Roebuck was cited
for unfair practices because it used its dominant distribution strength to drive down the
prices and, eventually, the margins of its suppliers. In more recent times, we have seen
the problem of controll- ing proprietary platforms and applications with IBM and its
three-decade domination in mainframe computers. Even more recently, Microsoft's control of
the PC industry's primary operating systems as well as many of the applications that run
on them has caused controversy. Microsoft's plan to redistribute information from wire
services as part of its on-line service and the Sears/IBM-owned Prodigys planned
news service are examples of potential conflicts in this area. We must maintain a true
competitive balance to keep our markets open while maximizing the opportunities for all
information and communications entrepreneurs, large and small.
Ensuring the Free Flow of Information
Maintaining the free flow of information and knowledge among all citizens and groups is
essential. The privatization and commercialization of information offers enormous
opportunity for entrepreneurs and existing businesses to create new products, businesses
and opportunities. While we must do all we can to stimulate this development, we must not
allow commercial interests to turn all our knowledge bases into purely for-profit, coin-
operated information enterprises. Ownership of content information and knowledge
represents not only power, but wealth. Already there have been provocative disputes
over the control of content:
- Microsoft chairman Bill Gates' move to provide proprietary digital access to great works
of literature and art;
- Fights over whether the Security and Exchange Commission should provide information on
the public Internet versus the proprietary Lexis/Nexis network; and
- The privatization of government information into commercial products.
Throughout its history, one of the great opportunities this country has offered is the
availability of public libraries, public schools and public information made possible by
government services and nonprofit organizations. Our traditional, national value of
equality of opportunity will be severely tried unless certain types of information remain
in the public domain. Government information like Geographical Information Service data
and census results, for example, should continue to be freely available. If public
information is available on the nets as raw data at no charge or at a nominal cost of
distribution, entrepreneurs still can be encouraged to create value-added, fee- based
information products and services by packaging this information with contextual
supplements and analysis. While the most basic raw information will remain available to
everyone, some consumers will pay for these new products and services according to the
benefits they perceive.
Ensuring Full Inclusiveness
We live in a society divided by class, knowledge, opportunity and wealth. Despite this,
part of the greatness of our country has been that almost any person can achieve success.
It can be argued, however, that such opportunity is diminishing because of the growing
gaps in education and earnings. We must face the danger that we will destroy the remaining
opportunity of realizing the American dream if we do not ensure access to interactive
communications and provide our citizens with its basic skills and literacies. Many people
have argued that access to interactive communications, and to the new skills and
literacies it demands, will become yet another dividing line between "haves" and
"have nots." At least the potential of interactive communication allows us to
think not so much in terms of "have nots" but in terms of "who can."
If a sizable portion of the population, especially children, does not have access to
the knowledge and opportunity available through interactive communications, we all will
pay a significant cost. Society may never benefit from the innovation and productivity of
those who could have been active contributors. Such a gap will certainly put the
underclass at further disadvantage by sealing off a primary path to knowledge and self-
determination. We must ensure that everyone has access to the benefits of interactive
communications, especially those who are being left out of the communications revolution
the disadvantaged, the physically and mentally challenged, the elderly and rural
Helping Everyone Contribute
Interactive communications can so extend the ability of any individual to engage,
learn, participate or contribute, that it helps us to stop viewing people as
"disabled," as a burden or liability. The use of electronic mail by people who
are hearing-impaired as an alternative to telephone communication, or the use of speech
recognition by blind people to create written documents are two examples of how
interactive communications can empower someone who would otherwise be considered
By ensuring ubiquitous access and affordable services, it can be possible to include
people who are limited by physical or social barriers more fully in community life and
allow people whom we now consider "at risk" to be participants and contributors.
Whats more, by developing adaptive technologies, such as those which assist people
who are physically or mentally handicapped or culturally seperated, we simultaneously
invent well-designed, easy- to-use devices and facilities that benefit everyone.
We must not miss the opportunity that interactive communications provides to tap the
wealth of expertise, knowledge, productive power and innovation of all people. Many
initiatives to expand inclusiveness are ongoing, such as the partnership between the World
Institute on Disability, the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of
Wisconsin and the CPB/WGBH National Center for Accessible Media to develop consensus
agreements for making the NII accessible to disabled persons and language minorities. All
people should work to support groups like these and others, such as SeniorNet which
focuses on the needs of mature citizens and SalsaNet for multi-lingual users.
Adapt Policies and Legislation to Support Growth While Protecting Individual Rights
The power and reach of interactive communications is placing stresses on our legal and
regulatory systems that they were not designed to bear. Most of the issues are not new
freedom of speech, copyright, crime, privacy, search and seizure, for example
but the new medium adds twists that are new and unique.
- A hacker breaks into a California computer and downloads 20,000 credit card numbers.
- Pirates intercept cellular bandwidth, looting a cellular phone carrier and its users of
an estimated $500 million to $1 billion annually.
- An employee "kidnaps" a block of secret corporate data, locks it with an
encryption program, then sends the company a ransom note demanding a transfer of $3
million to a numbered bank account outside the country.
- A college alumnus reading an Internet newsgroup while on a business trip in Russia sees
an article he considers to contain obscene material posted by an undergraduate at his alma
mater. He pressures the college until the student is expelled.
One critical challenge in the development of the new medium is to adequately protect
civil liberties and consumers while encouraging new business opportunities that rely on
Privacy and Consumer Protection
We cannot view acts like those described above merely as instances of technical
creativity or the exercise of one's rights in a networked world. Just as we have taken
steps to protect civil liberties and consumers in almost all other markets, we must do the
same with interactive communications. Unfortunately, the medium works for the just and
unjust alike. It offers opportunity for the criminal as well as the law abiding. Scams,
mail fraud and the full range of consumer problems in other media also are present in the
world of interactive communications.
One important issue is how to prevent information about individuals from being
redistributed through marketing data bases: demographics, the origin and destination of
financial transactions or personal buying habits. While home shopping may be a great
convenience for many, it may also make them vulnerable to credit card theft, surveillance,
censorship or privacy infringements when such information is transmitted over a network.
It is important, however, that we not stifle the medium while it is still young by
implementing policies which may be obviated by innovative technologies. New developments
such as digital "signatures," public key encryption and various recognition
systems promise to solve some privacy and security problems for network users. But
technology itself will not be sufficient. We can no longer assume that we will be able to
apply legal principles that work in other media to the unique characteristics of
interactive communications. Nor can we assume that there are adequate means to enforce
laws and regulations enacted in one town, one state or one country, in the borderless and
global domain of the networks.
New Problems of Jurisprudence
Security and privacy are just two issues in which interactive communications is
creating new areas of jurisprudence. Many of the principles that apply to terrestrial law
such as property, ownership and the notions of what constitutes a
"place," a "community" or a "jurisdiction" all come
into question in the context of interactive communications. Some people believe there is a
developing need for a new body of law relevant to virtual communities and how these
virtual communities intersect with local ones. Certainly there is a need for thoughtful
adaptation of our most fundamental principles to the unique nature and circumstances of
the new medium.
The definition of intellectual property is an important example of how laws that have
been honed and clarified for existing media, such as broadcasting or publishing, must be
viewed from a new perspective. On the networks, the normative treatment of information
allows informal patterns of downloading and redistribution of an author's work without
receiving permission. The notion of copyright, as it might apply to a book or article,
must be redefined. On an electronic network, intellectual property becomes akin to what
author John Perry Barlow refers to as "wine without bottles." How will the law
recognize the ownership of ideas and expression in such a malleable medium? How will
authors and distributors be compensated for the information they produce? Other examples
that illustrate the need to adapt our laws include:
- the practice of interstate, interactive medicine, in which licensing regulations and
liability statutes in several jurisdictions may conflict, placing practitioners and
patients at risk.
- certification of teachers by individual states, which raises problems of licensing for
programs that employ distance learning.
- defining evidence to develop a legal search warrant in crimes involving electronic
communication across state or national boundaries. The origin, reflection and destination
of "evidence" bouncing through Internet gateways make defining a jurisdiction
- pursuing allegations of libel committed in online forums where the speaker's anonymity
may be protected by the particular policies of a private service.
While many civil and criminal laws will have to be re-examined and adapted through
legislation and the courts, basic liberties must remain intact and fully protected. Free
speech is free speech, regardless of the medium. Preserving core values enumerated in the
Constitution and Bill of Rights will present a different set of challenges to basic rights
of all citizens. For example:
- First Amendment cases testing the limits of censorship and freedom of expression. For
example, can operators of a private network censor speech they consider objectionable or,
like a common carrier, must the network support all forms of legal expression?
- Fourth Amendment cases challenging the definition of legal search and seizure. How
specific must warrants be regarding what may be seized during a search of computers and
- The rights of citizens to protect their privacy. In order to support the practical needs
of law enforcement (such as surveillance and wiretaps) can the government pass laws that
limit privacy protection supports, such as the use of encryption, anonymity or digital
It will be a long and complex task to resolve many of these issues, involving many
competing interests. But they must and will be resolved because they directly affect how
we will be able to take advantage of the power of interactive communications. The
foundation for resolution rests upon education and maintaining clear sight of the
underpinning core values. If we keep focused on core values, especially those enumerated
in the Constitution, we can more easily sort out the goals of law from the expedients of
The Impact on Politics and Government
The communications revolution will have a substantial influence on politics as well as
the role and functioning of government. In the most optimistic scenario, interactive
communications has the potential to stimu- late citizen interest, participation, and voter
turnout much as the printing press and telegraph did in the 19th century. Government
agencies and offices already have moved to provide details of legislation and programs
developing in Washington and in state houses throughout the nation. Many legislators are
finding that electronic communication makes it possible for them to interact with
constituents back home, conduct debates in a new public forum and register floor votes
from their home districts.
With its decentralized structure and ability to move data almost instantaneously,
electronic networks make it possible to poll the citizenry on a range of issues in real
time. The danger is, however, that electronic town hall meetings which employ on-the-spot
voting and electronic plebiscites are an invitation to demagoguery and reactionary
response just as innovations like radio and television have often strengthened the images
of authoritarian governments, charismatic leaders and mass merchandisers of goods and
political messages. Moreover, the ability to monitor the vote count at a polling place
minute-by-minute carries the dangers of corruption and distortion in the electoral
process. In these ways, electronic networks can as easily work to break down community as
to build it.
Because of pressing new questions of jurisprudence and public policy, officials must
rapidly cultivate an understanding of the impact of the Communications Age. They must
become knowledgeable of the benefits, issues and threats posed by interactive
communications and of its social and economic influence. Without this understanding, they
will be ill-equipped to fulfill their responsibilities.
The Need For Individual Action
This framework presents challenges of local, national, even international scale. And
yet, that makes the voice of individuals all the more important. The reason is that, for
the first time, interactive communications gives individuals the ability to reach out and
interact locally, nationally and internationally.
It is unfortunate that these decisions must be made at a time when the medium is so
young and so few people understand the importance. That is perhaps the greatest challenge
and it is one to be met by every person.
The Agenda for Actioncan provide a map
for learning more about the medium, helping to understand the challenges, engaging in the
policy debate and using interactive communications as a tool for positive personal,
professional, community and social change.
III. An Agenda for Action
One unique aspect of the revolution in interactive communications is that individuals
can affect the way the medium grows. That has not been true before. A handful of people
decided how the railroads and interstate highways would be built and who they would reach.
The federal government controls who can get and keep licenses for radio and television
broadcasting not to mention the large sums of capital needed to start and operate a
broadcast, newspaper or magazine operation.
The very nature of interactive communications, however, represents a passing of power
and control from the few to the many. As A. J. Liebling wrote, "Freedom of the press
is limited to those who own one."11 The new
medium can extend that freedom if we allow it. Perhaps more importantly, as organizations
increasingly rely upon interactive communications, individual involvement becomes a matter
of necessity. At stake is knowledge, access and opportunity for everyone, and for some
even survival. By simply becoming aware of the issues and potential we take the first
While we cannot control the growth of interactive communications, we can guide its
development so that consideration is given to the needs of local communities, the
guarantee of broad access and education, and the assurance that it supports, rather than
undermines, our core values. We can certainly take control of our own ability to master
the new medium and help our families and neighbors to do so as well. The following Agenda
for Action can help people turn awareness into change.
First, Prepare Yourself
- Learn about the new medium.
The first step is to understand that something big
is occurring. Educate yourself about interactive communications, the effects it is having
on society, business, jobs, government and communities both the good and the bad.
Even if you are not a user of this medium now, realize that your children will be, either
directly or indirectly. Understand the opportunities it can open for them and the threats
it may present Recognize that they will be at a disadvantage if they are not prepared.
Learn to distinguish the practical and relevant from the hype and extreme. Consider how
the widespread use of this medium may affect your career, institutions and future
prospects. Look for coverage of these issues in newspapers, magazines and on television,
but do not stop there. Learn from people who know how to use interactive communications:
friends, colleagues, teachers, librarians. Subscribe to relevant newsletters, like
Newsfor teachers. The medium is receiving a great deal of attention these days, so
look for seminars or lectures at community centers and other places. Join a local computer
user group. Do not be intimidated by the technology. In many ways the technology is the
least important aspect. Focus on the social and personal effects of interactive
communications, especially if youre already a user of the medium.
- Get connected and establish a network presence.
Awareness is a start, but
simply learning about interactive communications from magazines or newspapers is like
trying to understand literacy by having somebody describe the act of reading. You have to
get online and use the medium to truly understand its potential. If you own or have
regular access to a computer through work or school, select a service (or services) from
the broad range of options that best meets your needs: commercial providers like America
Online or CompuServe, Internet providers like UUNet or PSI, social purpose networks like
HandsNet, or public access networks like library networks or community/civic networks. If
you do not have regular access, search out public access facilities in your local
libraries, schools, community centers or churches. Focus on programs for youth such as
Playing to Win, Plugged In and The Valley, where people of any age are welcomed to learn
first-hand about the new medium. More and more, public access networks are providing
access points through community terminals or kiosks such as La Plaza Telecommunity in New
Mexico and the Columbia Online Information Network in Missouri. If there are no public
access services in your community, it represents a valid need. Raise the issue with local
government and community service leaders.
Dont simply subscribe to a service, use it. Explore the information sources, but
more importantly, communicate. Find someone to contact: a friend, an elected official, an
author. Identify a subject, project, cause or controversy that interests you and use it as
a platform for launching yourself on a quest for knowledge. The networks can be a valuable
tool for helping people cope with illness. Exchanges with caregivers and other patients
can provide necessary support and education. Ask questions. Seek help. Learn about real
activities not just those online in which you can participate. Possibilities
cover a wide field, from quilting, to pediatrics, to Shakespeare, to the environment.
Experiment with the services: email, interactive chat, subscription services. Join a
discussion group or forum and just listen until you feel comfortable enough to
participate. Even if you decide that it is not valuable to you right now, you will be
better prepared because that will change. As previously noted, the mere act of getting
online helps to build the critical mass and value of the medium.
- Gain the critical skills and literacies.
Yes, using interactive communications
will take some work. Its not like television where information or entertainment are
delivered with the press of a button. Just as we have had to learn the basics of everyday
communication reading, writing, speaking, listening we have to learn the
skills and literacies of this medium. They include new information and communications
literacies as well as the skills to navigate the networks and distribute your creations or
productions through this new medium. These are competencies that will help in most kinds
of work, occupations or avocations from doing market research, to building a neighborhood
action group, to finding new sources for a stamp collection. Sources for acquiring these
competencies are not difficult to come by: friends, seminars, associates, adult education
programs, books, community colleges, computer retail stores. Most communities offer low
cost training, some for free. Learning information and navigation skills is less formal
because it is still a developing art. Trial and error is a good start and you will learn a
lot along the way. Talk to teachers, librarians and to people in your own line of work who
use the networks. Again, consider joining computer user groups or clubs. Ask young people
they are sometimes the most knowledgeable users around. Look for mentors. Public
interest and nonprofit organizations can turn to consultants or groups like CompuMentor in
San Francisco or the members of the Technology Resource Consortium who advise non-profit
agencies on applying interactive communications to achieve their missions. Search the
networks and communicate with experienced network users. Many courses and documents are
available online free of charge.
- Volunteer for a community effort.
Discovering the benefits of the new medium
is often best done collectively. Volunteer with a school, library, public service group,
church or youth center trying to improve its organization or educate others through the
use of interactive communications. Help the teachers and schools. One community benefits
from their "technical angels," parents who volunteer their time to help with
technology programs. Visit homes for the elderly and help them explore the variety of
offerings, including SeniorNet. Very often, small is best. One project in the Boston area
has a single computer in a hospital emergency room connected to the local courts. It is
staffed by legal volunteers 24-hours a day to make the filing of restraining orders in
cases of spousal or child abuse easier and faster. In other cases, people are volunteering
to help groups like 4H, Girl Scouts, Association for Retarded Citizens, Junior
Achievement, Chambers of Commerce and so forth. Try joining with neighbors to explore the
potential of the new medium together, the way some people set up reading or investment
circles. Then turn that exploration toward a project for neighborhood action.
Next, Help Change the Institutions in Your Community
- Change your schools.
If we do nothing else to cultivate the benefits of
interactive communications, it should be to help more children use the new medium. It
opens for them new horizons, new ways of learning and communicating and can engage those
outside the mainstream. Fundamentally, it will be critical to their future success in life
and career. As Andrea Schorr, a program coordinator for the Computer Learning Center of
Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership (LEAP), a group working to improve the
lives and prospects of inner city children, observes, "I havent seen a single
child who isnt excited about talking to kids in faraway places, to see that they
have things in common with others. Its going to become increasingly important to
kids lives and its an equity issue. Without this experience they wont be
prepared to function in the workplace of tomorrow."12
Do all you can to help school boards and administrators overcome the inertia that keeps
them from undertaking this type of change. Demand that they prepare teachers and aides and
provide the opportunity to use the new medium as a tool to support education and tap
student potential. In some communities, the students and parents have "wired"
their schools, while in others the children teach the teachers and the parents. In still
others, they create "living curricula" as one class passes on what it learns to
the next. Encourage your schools to open themselves up "electronically" after
hours so that learning can continue outside the classroom.
This change requires time, commitment and funding. Encourage technology-savvy
businesses or organizations to adopt a school assisting them in implementation and
application of computers and networks. Look to the particular needs and issues of
individual schools, students and communities. Attend school board and PTA meetings and
constructively raise the issue over and over again. Find the champions among teachers,
librarians, administrators and board members and support their efforts. Develop fund
raising programs. Seek out donated equipment and software. Make sure that teachers and
administrators are well trained in the new skills. And do not limit yourself to the
schools in your neighborhood. Form coalitions with parents in other schools and other
districts. This is what the power of interactive communications is all about. It is
essential that the promise and opportunity not be limited just to those with the most
money or the most time.
- Formulate a blueprint for your community.
Insist that your local community, your region or state has a strategic blueprint for entering the Communications Age. It should be a long range plan that considers the needs of the community at large as well as the specific needs of particular groups and members. Make it an action plan, and be
certain that it speaks to your local issues. Reach out to as many people, groups, schools,
businesses, institutions and agencies as you can. The blueprint should include community
awareness programs, a regional public access network, telecommunications infrastructure,
community training and learning facilities, an information referral center or "help
desk" and an ongoing communications program that keeps citizens informed and feedback
coming in. Assemble an advisory board of leaders who can guide the enactment of the
blueprint, adapt it and mobilize support behind it. When a coherent plan has been formed,
search for funding among foundations, government grant-makers, service groups and local
business. As has been demonstrated in many communities, when thoughtful planning and real
benefit can be shown, these groups have been prepared to deliver in-kind and financial
support. The most important issue is to be sure that the whole community has a stake in
the success of the project. They must believe it is an effort which deserves individual
and community support including financial support because like parklands or
road repairs, it serves the public good.
- Demand awareness and change in the government.
Government can, and must, be an
integral part of the communications revolution. Its role is crucial. Some local, state and
federal leaders and agencies are aware of the changes and potential, but many more are
not. Too often they are focused on the technology rather than on the individual, social
and economic implications. One group that is helping is Americans Communicating
Electronically (ACE), an unofficial association of public servants and citizens exploring
alternatives for improving communications between the government and the public and for
making government information more accessible. According to Tom Tate, of the US Department
of Agriculture and one of ACEs leaders, "Early in the ACE experiment, several
forward-thinking public servants began looking to public access networks as vehicles for
that action. Since that time, more than 70 federal agencies have committed to making
information and personnel accessible electronically."13
Citizens should strive to see that government at all levels understands the issues of
interactive communications, that they are receiving the right education and training and,
most importantly, that they are thinking about and implementing processes that use the
medium to benefit communities. It is absolutely essential for citizens to require that
government employess and government information become available online and that they
advocate policies which advance the growth of interactive communications for the common
good. Write letters, attend town hall meetings, persuade elected and appointed officials,
form grass-roots lobbying organizations, work with local groups such as a local
public access network to form a multiplier effect in communicating with government
figures. Search out examples of how governments in other communities are serving their
citizens through interactive communications and examine whether such benefit is possible
in your community as well. These efforts are a great way to experience the organizing and
collaborative power of interactive communications. Help elect officials that understand
and support the responsible growth of interactive communications and educate officials who
Establish Your Criteria for Action
- Use common sense.
The potential of interactive communications is great, but
every idea about it is not. In pursuing efforts to use, apply and support projects, think
practically and use common sense. Apply the "human relevancy" test and avoid
getting trapped in the technology. Ask yourself and your colleagues: How will this benefit
people? What needs does it respond to? Are people prepared and able to use it? Find out
what initiatives already exist so that you maximize rather than duplicate efforts. Make
sure that people who benefit from the project contribute and feel a sense of ownership. Do
not assume their needs; ask what their needs are. Seek balanced solutions which take into
account the needs of the whole community and that make practical sense given current
levels of awareness and access. For example, do not rush off to build technological
infrastructure, such as major wiring projects, without understanding what will be done
with this infrastructure once it exists. "If you build it, they will come"
worked in the movie, Field of Dreams, but in the real world complex cable plants,
ATM switching and last mile cabling is expensive. Allow demand for information
and communication services to drive infrastructure, not vice versa. Creating demand and
awareness makes the acceptance of the costs for infrastructure much more palatable and
balanced. As in so many other times in the history of our use of technology, we
under-utilize what we already have, fixating instead on what we could do "if only we
had the newest and fastest." Reach for grand goals, but make sure that you have the
workable plans to achieve them. Seek innovation, but be careful of unreasonable, inflated
or prophetic claims. Just make sure you do something. Solve problems. Satisfy needs. Make
good things happen.
- Insist upon tangible results.
This is of ultimate importance. It is easy to
become swept up in the excitement and potential of the technology, forgetting that the end
goal is positive change. Building a public access network or helping a service group come
online should not be the end result. Enhancing community action or helping the group
improve its services should be. Unfulfilled expectations can actually be a detriment to
the growth of the medium if at the end of a process that requires time, education
and money people do not see an improvement in their opportunities, work, service or
achievement. Clearly establish your goals. Part of the mission of one project in Nebraska,
for example, the Community Networking Institute, is to create jobs and opportunity for
residents in rural communities. Know what you are trying to accomplish and, as much as
possible, delineate quantifiable and qualifiable outcomes. Carefully monitor progress and
adjust goals and processes as necessary. Use the tremendous power of interactive
communications to communicate with others that have done what you wish to do. Learn from
them, collaborate with them and share your collective results. Even after an initiative
becomes sustainable, continuously reevaluate its effectiveness. Above all, do not think in
terms of how many terminals are connected. Think about how you can improve your own life
or someone elses. Then publicize your successes or failures so that
others can learn and develop new approaches
- Encourage bold solutions.
Think big, but even more importantly, think new! The
promise of interactive communications is not one of small change and modest productivity
increases. It is one of sweeping transformation and innovation: the chance to bring
together dozens or hundreds of people to address a community problem, for children in a
small rural town to work together with other children in an inner city, for governments to
really reinvent the ways in which they deliver services. That is why we must focus on
social and economic goals, not just technological ones. Saying "we want to build a
network" means that the most likely result will be flurries of email at a slight
increase in convenience and efficiency. Saying, on the other hand, "we want to
improve the economic opportunities of our region" may lead to creating a human
network that actually helps commercial and social entrepreneurs succeed. Accept positive
change in any form, but strive for fundamental, quantum change as your goal.
Consider What Remaining on the Sidelines Means
Whether or not you are prepared to accept all the above efforts, we all must assess for
ourselves the risks of not being involved. Change is no longer a debate. It is happening
all around us.
Although the world will not be transformed overnight, the pace of change is startling
faster than any we have ever seen before. Avoiding it will become increasingly more
difficult. And each day on the sidelines is one more day of obsolescence, one more day to
catch up, one more day of having others make decisions for you. The costs of exclusion
will be severe.
An Opportunity for Discovery
The range of opportunity presented by interactive communications is much too broad to
fit in the confines of this presentation. For an individual, it can be like the great
voyages of discovery of a Columbus or Magellan.
Like most technological changes, many predictions about interactive communications will
go unrealized. Effects that were never intended or foreseen will result instead.
Take the case of cellular telephones. When introduced, expectations were that they
would be used almost exclusively by upscale business people and professionals. Prices were
high and sales projections were low. In only a few years, the price of a low-end portable
telephone has dropped to a penny, and demand has outstripped projections by millions. The
reason? Personal communication and safety. People were willing to spend even the higher
prices of a few years ago to speak with their family during long commutes and to ensure
that their loved ones would be secure if they became lost or their cars broke down.
The promise of interactive communications is that it can open doors of opportunity
to change lives, to close societys gaps, to open new horizons. Whether or not
that promise will be realized depends upon personal engagement and guidance for the public
good. It depends upon action.
George Bernard Shaw said, "The people who get on in this world are the people who
get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they cant find them, make
them." Our challenge is to ensure that this kind of opportunity remains open in the
Communications Age, in fact that it is expanded to include more people and even brighter
possibilities. Interactive communications, if used and cultivated, can be the means that
helps us do so.
1: Michael Schrage, "'When the Chips Are Down' Will Likely Be
Heard More Often In Computing,"
The Washington Post, December 16, 1994. Back
2: Research Group of the Freedom Forum Studies:
Conscience: Humanitarian and Human Rights Organizations Use of the Internet.
Martha Fitzsimmons, editor. (New York, NY: Freedom Forum, 1995) Back
3: "Earthquake on the Internet, A Shock Emailed Round the World,"
The Washington Post, January 20, 1995. Back
4: John Huey, "Waking Up to the New Economy,"
Fortune, June 24, 1994. Back
5: Thomas A. Stewart, "Managing In A Wired World,"
Fortune, 1994. Back
6: "Can We Talk Here? Can We Ever,"
Fortune, 1994. Back
7: Patricia F. Brennan, Shirley, M. Moore and Kathleen A. Smyth:
"ComputerLink: Electronic Support for the Home Caregiver,"
Nursing Science, June 1991. Back
8: "In Virginia, a Virtual Community Tries Plugging Into Itself," The Washington Post, Tuesday, April 11, 1995. Back
9: Summary documents of the NII Awards Program, 1995. Back
10: Morino Institute: Directory of Public Access Networks (Reston, VA:
Morino Institute, 1995). Back
11: A. J. Liebeling, "The Wayward Press,"
The New Yorker, 1961. Back
12: Tom Tate, 1995: personal communication. Back
13: Andrea Schorr, 1995: personal communication. Back