E-Topia / Designing Cambridge:
How Can Information Technologies Serve Cambridge?

Saturday, Nov. 22, 2003
10-11 am
Room 6-120

linked forums: 21st-Century Communications for Our Community and How Well Does Media Serve Cambridge Citizens?


For over a decade, the convergence of the computer and telecommunications industries has inspired grand predictions of a bright new world of freedom and prosperity . . . an "e-topia." And we have seen advanced communications technologies help to improve business practices, enhance medical services, enrich educational opportunities and deliver a wide array of entertainments to our homes. But how can these advanced telecommunications services be used to foster strong local democratic communities? How are these communications technologies being used, if at all, in the City of Cambridge? And what role, if any, does local government play in making sure 21st-century communications technologies serve public needs?


Keith Hampton is assistant professor of technology, urban and community sociology and holds the Class of '43 Career Development Professorship in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.

Richard O'Bryant is assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University.

Mitchel Resnick is a professor in the Media Lab where he co-founded the Computer Clubhouse Project, a network of after-school learning centers where youth from under-served communities learn to express themselves with new technologies.


MITCHEL RESNICK described his project, now international in scope, to involve children as creators and designers of new technology.

The Computer Clubhouse (http://www.computerclubhouse.org), begun ten years ago in the MIT Media Lab, is a network of after-school computer centers for young people in low-income communities. The main focus of the project is to offer new means of expression rather than merely to provide access to new technologies. The project was at first associated with the Lego Company, creating "programmable" Lego blocks. The research group tested these blocks with kids visiting a local museum (now the Museum of Science in Boston), and later, in response to interest from the museum and young people in the community, started an after school program at the museum. The project expanded to Boys and Girls Clubs in Boston, and eventually to national and international locations. Resnick noted that often technology is presented to kids only as entertainment (gaming) or as a means for looking up information. In contrast, the Computer Clubhouse's goal is to let kids see themselves as designers and creators with technology, and thus, to see themselves as creative, competent learners and strong members of a community.

RICHARD O'BRYANT began by discussing the Camfield Estates Project (http://www.camfieldestates.net), a project he worked on as a graduate student at MIT. The Camfield Estates is a housing development in Roxbury, Mass. The goal of the project was to study how technology contributed to community building, residents' self-sufficiency, neighbor-to-neighbor communication, and increased access to information that previously necessitated outside services. O'Bryant showed a short video summary of the project and discussed some of the project's findings. The researchers found that the residents, identified by the digital divide as those least likely to use new technology, were able to use this technology on a regular basis after initial training. O'Bryant noted that although the results cannot be attributed entirely to the project, over the project's two year span the Camfield Estates developed a stronger sense of community, and the residents were better able to accomplish activities from the home.

O'Bryant also discussed his current research, which investigates the relationship between those who have Internet access and those people's political participation, including the potential of Internet voting. The goal of this research is to study political participation in low-income communities, and to discover the extent to which Internet access might increase political participation in these communities.

KEITH HAMPTON's work has two primary focuses: how new communication technologies affect social relationships and community, and how to create new technologies that can be used to build stronger communities, build social capital, and build connections within neighborhoods. Hampton's work focuses on middle-class rather than low-income communities because middle-class communities currently tend to have more access to new technologies, and thus provide a more natural setting for research. He noted that his work is informed by a "social network" perspective in which both online and offline communication must be studied in order to fully understand either form of communication. The social network perspective also includes a focus on individuals' "weak" social ties, in addition to the more often studied "strong" ties. Hampton discussed three current projects.

The first project he discussed was Netville, a project in which he moved to a suburb and supplied the residents with technologies such as broadband Internet access, videophones, neighborhood email lists, multimedia chatrooms, and music sharing programs. He found that the residents primarily used only the email lists, and that those residents who were "wired" visited each other about 50% more often and talked to their neighbors about twice as often.

The second project Hampton discussed, E-neighbors, was designed to confirm the results of the Netville project by replicating it in the greater Boston area. This project is focused on four neighborhoods, three of which were provided simple technologies such as email lists, with the goal of finding how these technologies affect both neighborhood social relationships, as well as individuals' other existing relationships. Thus far, Hampton has found evidence that Internet relationships do not become strong social ties, that those with greater face-to-face contact have smaller strong tie social networks, that higher web use (not email use) correlates to less weak social ties, and that higher telephone use increases diversity of social ties. The project also found that residents began to use the email lists as a means for political discussions, and that this contributed to an increase in political participation in the community.

The final project Hampton discussed was the Network Awareness project. This project's focus is on how communication technologies, particularly position-aware technologies, can be used to build community. Hampton concluded the talk by noting that new technologies do not cause social change, rather they afford social interactions by breaking down barriers of social contact; that the Internet should be treated as part of existing social networks, rather than as a separate social domain; and that place remains an important concept despite the reduction in special barriers due to new technologies.


QUESTION: How do projects such as E-neighbors deal with privacy issues of email lists?

HAMPTON: We make it an opt-in service. We don't do anonymous because there are some experiments we've done in the past where that has proven to be a little bit ugly. We also very much limit the size of neighborhoods to about 200 homes, and what we find is that if it goes beyond that or becomes anonymous, people forget that they are actually communicating with neighbors who live very close to them, and often say things that you wouldn't want to say to a neighbor when you have to pass them in the street for the rest of your life.

HENRIETTA DAVIS, vice mayor, City of Cambridge: I just ran for office, and was communicating with a lot of people using many different methods. It strikes me that running for office you're creating a neighborhood of people also. I wonder, practically, what is this software and how do you get it?

HAMPTON: We're getting ready for the public release of E-neighbors. Hopefully in the spring we'll have a website where you can show up, enter in your zip code, and it will identify online neighborhoods that are near you or allow you to create your own online neighborhood. You can set up our own neighborhood email list and all of the services that we've been providing to these existing neighbors.

PHIL LONG: I was interested in the Camfield findings. One of the findings seemed to be a 20 percent decline in the use of the technology over the several years that you were looking at it, and I'd be interested in your comments about that.

O'BRYANT: That was an interesting finding for us too, and at first it was a little concerning. But, it was just around the website because the residents allowed us to keep web logs, so we collected data on who was using the website and how often it was being used. But, what we were able, after further analysis, to realize was that once people reach a certain level of comfort with the technology and have found what they needed as it relates to the site, they would usually only come back when they actually needed something from the site or became familiar enough where they didn't have to continue to stay at the site. And, once people became more comfortable with the technology and Internet use, traffic began to go other places. So, as opposed to staying at the Camfield site and what was specific to Camfield, they began to venture out to other areas of the Internet. The website drop in usage wasn't as troubling as we had initially thought because the web log showed that people were going other places.

LONG: Do you have statistics on the overall technology use? Use of the website went down, but the overall use of the net, do you have statistics?

O'BRYANT: The average was about 3.8 hours per day; with most of the participants saying they use the computer and the Internet everyday or almost everyday. So that was showing that it wasn't consistent with a drop in the website, that usage was still high, although the website use had dropped.

QUESTION: Could any of you provide any insight into how the use of technology is affected by language barriers, and how technology might adapt to accommodate that?

O'BRYANT: For out particular project that was one of the unexpected challenges that we came across because some of the residents were strictly Spanish speaking, and all of the Spanish translation software that we found was not adequate. But, in addition to that we found that there were literacy challenges within the Spanish speaking community. So, even if you translated it, you still had to deal with the issue of whether or not they could actually read. So, that was one of the lessons that we learned, and in hindsight, we would probably take more time at the front end identifying those residents who were strictly Spanish speaking, identify the kind of tools that would be adequate for them and address that issue accordingly.

RESNICK: One issue that has come up for us as I mention our Computer Clubhouse network has expanded internationally. We're now in seventeen countries, and we do have an intranet that connects members and staff at all of the different Clubhouses, which leads on one hand to some language barriers. On the other hand, it also contributes to new language opportunities. A lot of the members in US cities don't have English as a first language. It helps connect them to others. There are a lot of Latino youth here who are now speaking online with kids from the Clubhouses in Costa Rica, Brazil and Columbia, opening up new possibilities to see the broader community that they can be a part of through that language. We also are looking at different types of language translation. We find that, with kids, bad language translation is often still good enough to support interesting communication.

QUESTION: I'm interested in the Camfield Estate. These findings help increase the voter participation and political participation in Boston? These studies involve mostly involve African-Americans or other ethnic groups?

O'BRYANT: The Camfield Estates development is mostly African-American, with a pretty good number of Hispanic and Spanish speaking residents, but there were some whites, some Asians, and some Native-Americans in the development. Unfortunately, only the African-American and Hispanic residents participated in the project. In relation to voting, that was one of the things that we did capture. Voting did increase during the life of the project, but it occurred during the time of the 2000 election, where voter participation increased everywhere, so that would not be a good indicator for the rest of the low-income communities in Boston. However, that is where my interest is taking me, to try to find out about voter participation in other low-income communities.

ROBERT WINTERS, editor, Cambridge Civic Journal: Can anyone comment on how one or two people can really sway the ultimate results in any of these experiments? In other words, you can put the technology out there, but if one or two people in a user group really know how to make an email list work, that group can become very organized while in another group nothing happens at all. So, it's not just access to the technology; it's the human beings who make it go. A second and negative side of this is a pattern of online-community formation referred to as "the bad chasing out the good." What starts off as a lively online community with lots of representation ends up being dominated by a few members, and people just throw up their hands and say "I'm out of here."

HAMPTON: I have a couple of comments. The first is that in my particular work we operate under what we call a threshold theory. In Netville, we observed that there are always a couple of people who are going to get involved. For those not so inclined, often what it takes to get them involved is observing other people who are involved. The great thing about the neighborhood email list is that it is very visible, and if you see a couple people participating, you begin to think that there are more people participating than there really are. It's like a domino effect; it really starts to increase participation. But, it also works in the opposite effect. As soon as something bad happens, and suddenly communication stops, it just stops and it's very hard to revive. We've also found in E-neighbors that there are just some neighborhoods where, no matter what you do, unless you go in there and publicly intervene, you'll never get people involved. There are some neighborhoods that are already involved enough that they just don't want anymore, and there are other neighborhoods that are particularly transitory neighborhoods, or neighborhoods that are younger, that tend to just not want to be as involved. For the fact that they're so transient, the attachment level goes down a little bit, and it's very hard to get them involved no matter what you do.

RESNICK: On the point of a few people making a big difference. You allude to one example where there might be only one or two people who know how to set up the list and then it can take off. So, that's a case where a few people with some technical knowledge can make a difference, and that's certainly true. But, I'd want to make sure to add that we see a lot of cases where a few people make a difference, where it has nothing to do with the technology, but people act as the social glue of the community, whether it's a proximal, in-person community or an online community. Or, in lot of the type of activities that we work on at the Clubhouse, where it's about creative expression, a few people with a background in the arts who really know how to bring out the expressiveness of others can make a much bigger difference than those who know how to use the technology.

O'BRYANT: What we've found in Camfield is that those people who were actively involved, similarly to what the voting study was talking about, were the ones who were really active and involved online. So, board members, people who were more active and more known. For our purposes, it was a good thing because it helped to keep what little bit of activity going, and it helped to support the other residents who may have had a little nervousness or trepidation about using it become comfortable with it because these people continued to use it.

QUESTION: In the Computer Clubhouse study it seemed as though your introduction of technology was centered on the individual's engagement with it and empowering them as a consequence, or perhaps improving esteem and creativity. The other two seemed to be much more about using the technology in a communication sense, perhaps more with people around them, but also as much with anonymous or third parties outside of the regular communities. Were there any elements or spillovers between that interaction in the Computer Clubhouse context and the computer as a communications tool and its impact on the social structure and the social interactions of the kids?

RESNICK: We paid a lot of attention from the beginning to issues of social interaction and building of community. We paid more attention to those issues than to the computers as communication tools within the Clubhouse itself; it wasn't just about individual empowerment, but building the community from within. Increasingly, over the years it's also been reaching outside the walls of the Clubhouse. There's a lot of work now with kids in the Clubhouse doing work in the community to try to address challenges in the surrounding community of the Clubhouse. One of my graduate students has a project called the Young Activist Network where young people at more than a dozen of the Clubhouses work on projects investigating the different issues in their communities, mapping social networks in their communities, getting an understanding of how interactions happen in their community, identifying problems and needs in their communities, and seeing how they can use technology to develop solutions to those problems. Up till now most of the focus has not been on the use of communication technologies in doing that, it's been much more using digital cameras to document things. Communication in the sense of making presentations to help convince other people about the problems, but hasn't been focused on using Internet technologies. We have Internet connecting the Clubhouses, but it has been used mainly by staff to share their ideas - it hasn't been at the core of what the Clubhouse has been about.

QUESTION: How do you go about building up these email lists? Is there any source from which you could get email addresses?

HAMPTON: The E-neighbors site will have a function built-in so that you can email your neighbors. But, there are many other examples in Canada, the U.S. and Europe where people have gone door-to-door and done that initial legwork to get the email addresses. It makes collective action easier over time because, right now, the biggest barrier to collective action is the 25 feet between you and your neighbor's front door and the effort it takes to move from door to door and the energy required to do that, and the printing of the paper to get the signatures, and the coordination. All that is much easier over email.

O'BRYANT: There are some online utilities that enable you to search for email listings in your area.

DAVID THORBURN, director, MIT Communications Forum: One theme I hear in some of the responses from the panel struck an especially resonant chord with me. That theme is a reminder of the limits of technology, an incitement not to become utopian about new technical possibilities because old, pre-technological skills are still important. I wanted simply to reinforce that and say something that's almost so obvious that we all take it for granted. People with very strong verbal skills, who read fluently and easily, master the Internet much more quickly than people who have limited verbal skills. The truth of the matter is that the computer itself, although it is more than this, is also in a fundamental sense a tool like a typewriter, like a book, for the exploitation of verbal or language skills. And one implication of this is that one of the strongest ways to empower people to use the Internet and to use computers well is to teach them to read and write, and to strengthen what we might think of as the most old-fashioned technology, which is the technology of language itself.

RESNICK: I'll point out a dilemma that we're facing right now that I'd be interested to hear your view on. We're setting up to strengthen the Clubhouse Village, the intranet that connects members of these 80-some Clubhouses. Right now we have the technology, when members post a project, they type a description of it. As you said, they could better communicate about it if they have the language skills to do it. Now we are able to have them just record a message about it, just hear about it, and I think we're mixed minds about that. In some ways, I think it would be much more likely to reflect on their projects, to add commentary to it, when we have the possibility of voice annotation. On the other hand, I think we'll remove some of the way that the Internet has been serving in the Clubhouse to have a motivation for learning more language skills because that was the way initially with the Internet to be able to describe your projects. I think we're opening up to more forms of communication besides the written word.

THORBURN: I would not undervalue oral skills at all. I think that many people are much more eloquent when they speak than they are on the page, and it's good that the technology enables that. But, both are verbal skills, and both are language skills, and skill with language is still the heart of what it takes to use computers well.

O'BRYANT: I would add to that, too. I sat on a panel at the Aspen Institute with some of the policy makers from the Federal Communications Commission, and they were asking the question about social justice and Internet use and trying to get people machines. I think that just to focus on getting people a machine and getting people Internet access falls short of what actually is needed. Just like Keith said, training people to use this stuff and showing them how to make good use of it becomes the most important thing because if you look at low-income communities, there's a lot of technology in low-income communities. Cell-phone penetration rates are off the charts in low-income communities. A lot of the technology that you wouldn't think was there is already there, but they haven't seen the relevance or haven't gotten comfortable with the computer or the Internet, and so they shy away from it. But, if you show them how to use it, show them the value of it, they will make the provisions to get the technology they need to do what they need to do.

MARK LLOYD: I know that all of you have talked about your projects, and I don't know if you've made it explicit that you are not doing work in Cambridge. Can you give us a reason why you are not doing work in Cambridge, and could you provide some suggestion about how the work that you're doing in these other places would apply directly to Cambridge.

HAMPTON: The reason that we didn't choose a Cambridge neighborhood as a field site is because of the student factor. There's just so many of them and they're transient. We didn't know what impact that would have on our study. We wanted something that was more normal. The other response is that I live in Cambridge. I'm a House Master on campus, and we're in a residential community that is very much dedicated to trying to become more involved with the Cambridge community. We've worked with Henrietta [Davis] in the past on this, and Mitch, Ceaser and I have talked about ways that we might be able to do more about integrating technology in some aspect of that.

RESNICK: With the Computer Clubhouse project, it's true that of the 80 or so Clubhouses, none are in Cambridge. We have about a half dozen in Boston, one in Lawrence, one in Worchester, so there's a variety in the area. There's not a scholarly reason for doing it, it's been largely opportunistic. We've opened Clubhouses where there's been a combination of a community organization that shares the spirit and a funder who is willing to put in the funds for it. We have done similar types of work in some of the schools in Cambridge, but with the Clubhouse haven't had the opportunity.

O'BRYANT: The same reasons that they mentioned. We didn't really look at Cambridge, but it wasn't that we didn't want to. Some of the communities in Boston were a little more representative of urban areas across the country. That's not to say that Cambridge doesn't have its challenges as an urban area, but Boston seemed a little more representative of that. And the convenience of it, we used some of our personal connections to get into some of the housing developments because it's just not an easy barrier to break to get into a low-income community. There's a level of trust that you have to develop, and you've got to deal with some stakeholders that have some trust within the community. That would be the most important reason for our doing it in Boston.

--summary by Brian Jacobson
--photos by Joellen Easton