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The Promise and Challenge of a New Communications Age

Unlocking the Doors to Opportunity
1995, Morino Institute. All Rights Reserved.


  1. The Communications Revolution
  2. A Framework for Understanding the Challenges of Interactive Communications
  3. An Agenda for Action
  4. Notes

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 in town.

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 rustics.

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 changes.

Today, the entire world is confronted with a wealth of new opportunities—and risks—created 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 communities.

We cannot opt out of this revolution. It’s 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 Revolution

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 grassroots levels.

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 communications.

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 people’s lives—their 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 constituents.


  • 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 information.

The results are many, and they raise many issues. Some aren’t 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 electronic stalking.

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 organization’s message.

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 experienced—long 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.

Economic Changes

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.

Job Shifts

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.

Globalization

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?

Downsizing

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 everyone.

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 themselves.

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.

Leveling Hierarchies

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- Packard’s 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 can’t 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 control.

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 moment’s notice.


  • 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 infrastructure.

Individual Empowerment

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 and communities.

  • 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 nation’s 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 economic growth.

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 century.

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 individual’s 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 communication.

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 services.

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 larger players.

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 individual citizens.

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 include:

  • 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 community opportunity.

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 today’s "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 Prodigy’s 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 populations.

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 physically handicapped.

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. What’s 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 networks.

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 ambiguous.


  • 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 electronic data?


  • 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 signatures?

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 technological policy.

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 step.

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

  1. 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 NetTeach 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 you’re already a user of the medium.


  2. 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.

    Don’t 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.


  3. Gain the critical skills and literacies.

    Yes, using interactive communications will take some work. It’s 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.


  4. 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

  1. 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 haven’t seen a single child who isn’t excited about talking to kids in faraway places, to see that they have things in common with others. It’s going to become increasingly important to kids’ lives and it’s an equity issue. Without this experience they won’t 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.


  2. 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.


  3. 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 ACE’s 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 do not.

Establish Your Criteria for Action

  1. 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.
  2. 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 else’s. Then publicize your successes — or failures — so that others can learn and develop new approaches
  3. 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 society’s 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 can’t 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.

Notes

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: Communicators of 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," Advances In 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

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