media democratic societies employ have profound effects on how
democracy is conceptualized and practiced. Any type of communication
technology has some malleability and can be made less or more
democratic through a variety of means. Many "digerati"
seem to believe that the Internet is inherently democratic.
Sadly, most signs indicate that the Internet is becoming less,
not more democratic. As an unrepentent meliorist, I will offer
several concrete suggestions (such as community networks) --
worth considering in the event we as a society decide that democracy
deserves more than lip service.
Platform for Change?
At a recent
conference in Germany the question of the Internet as a "platform
for change" received top billing. While the rapidly expanding
worldwide communication infrastructure may very well become
a platform for change, it is far from obvious what the nature
of the change will be. Different people say different things.
If we listen to cyber-pundits (the so-called digerati) we will
learn that in the future things will be really great,
really exciting, really cool. We also learn that
the Net will be "immensely democratic" and, incidentally, there
will be no need for government support, or, for that matter,
government at all.
are dangerously simplistic... Certainly there is potential for
wider democratic participation using the new medium. For the
first time in human history, the possibility exists to establish
a communication network that spans the globe, is affordable
and is open to all comers and points-of-view: in short, a democratic
communication infrastructure. Unfortunately, the communication
infrastructure of the future may turn out to be almost entirely
broadcast where the few (mostly governments and large
corporations) will act as gatekeepers for the many; where elites
can speak and the rest can only listen. Four years ago, fewer
than 2% of web sites were commercial; now over 80% are for financial
gain. The future infrastructure will likely focus on entertainment,
that which can bring in the most revenue -- sex, violence, special
effects -- and devote little attention to services that educate,
inspire, or help bring communities together.
government, at least in theory, is the best ally that communities
have in shaping an information and communication infrastructure
that effectively meets human needs. This realization, however,
may come too late. Government has already ceded nearly all of
the leadership role it once had. In the next few years the large
telecommunications and media corporations are likely to control
nearly all aspects of the Internet and the technologies that
arise from it. Unfortunately a proactive government approach
in unlikely to develop in the absence of a strong, unified voice
from citizens, activist organizations, non-profits, libraries
and other groups, and this effort is unlikely to coalesce with
the necessary strength and speed.
is faced with a multitude of critical decisions and communication
technology will undoubtedly play a major role in these decisions
and in the years to come. Because of the massive resources that
corporations can bring to bear, new communication technology
will probably be used to reinforce and bolster existing patterns
of ownership and control - merely reiterating the historical
pattern of we've seen within the US with other media, such as
radio and television. On the other hand, the possibility, though
remote, that new communication technology could be used
to re-orient the fulcrum of control by promoting a more democratic
and inclusive dialogue does exist. New communication technology
could provide forums for voices that have long been ignored
-- women's voices, the poor, minorities, disabled people. And
it could be used to enable communities to have a deeper
involvement in their own health, education, and civic decisions.
Moreover, the new communication technology could help
relieve strains on government by unleashing the creativity and
civic problem solving capabilities of people and communities.
To understand how we might begin to actually realize some of
these possibilities let us look more closely at what we mean
is not a commodity like shampoo or dog food. One doesn't buy
it at a shopping mall or discover it nicely wrapped under a
Christmas tree, a gift from the government or the technology
gods. It is more like a philosophy, a way of life, and a lens
for addressing social concerns. It is less like a noun and more
like a verb.
is notoriously difficult to define; even among scholars there
is no agreement on an exact definition. Nearly everybody, however,
agrees on certain elements. One of these attributes is inclusivity.
This means that everybody can participate and, in theory,
that those with more money than others should not be able to
purchase more influence with their money either directly or
indirectly. It also means that society needs to closely examine
the ways in which people participate in public decision-making
(at community meetings, for example) and help ensure that those
ways don't favor the privileged. Secondly, there must be ways
that citizens can place their concerns on the public agenda.
If the public agenda is monopolized and manipulated by corporations,
politicians, or the media, for example, democracy is seriously
imperiled. Thirdly, democracy requires a deliberative public
process. This point contains three critical ideas: deliberative
-- adequate time must be allotted for hearing and considering
multiple points of view; public -- the discussion takes
place in the daylight where it can be observed by all; and process
-- the procedures through which concerns are brought up, discussed
and acted upon are clear and widely known. Fourthly, there needs
to be equality at the decision stage. At some point in the process,
the measure under consideration is accepted or rejected by a
vote, in which all those who are entitled to vote have equal
influence. Finally, representation is usually part of a modern
democracy because of the impracticality of involving extremely
large numbers of people in a legislative process. Incidentally,
in a democracy, this approach can be changed -- by the will
of the people -- into a system that is more "direct" or, even,
into one that is less direct. The existence of the Internet
does little to obviate the need for representation. Imagine
the complexity, confusion, and chaos if every citizen of a large
country -- or even a small city -- were expected to propose,
consider, discuss, and vote on legislation. We'd certainly get
a lot more e-mail!
of government without active participation from the people is
not a democracy no matter how enlightened or benign the de facto
guardians may be. If democracy is not championed and exercised
by the people it atrophies like a muscle that is never stressed.
Moreover, citizen participation must be encouraged -- not merely
tolerated -- by the government. Democratic participation in
the US, according to most indicators, has been steadily declining
for several decades and many observers feel that this is at
least partially due to the concentration of media ownership
in private hands.
must be a partnership between the governed and the governors;
a partnership with blurred and negotiated lines of responsibility,
but a partnership nonetheless. Although many in our government
may never have given this matter much thought, all of these
observations have important and immediate implications for proactive
government involvement in the development and management of
new democratic digital networked systems.
and the Internet
utopians and cyber-libertarian pundits often ascribe near-magical
qualities to the Internet. George Gilder, for example, thinks
that the Internet is "inherently" democratic (although any
government intervention would diminish this). On the other hand
Gilder believes that television is inherently undemocratic and
there is nothing (especially government action!) that could
possibly be done about that. Fantasies aside, even a cursory
glance reveals that the Internet is far from democratic given
the attributes of democracy discussed in the last section. Unfortunately,
the situation seems to be deteriorating. While Internet usage
is still wildly accelerating, much of its use is passive --
surfing the web has many of the same connotations of compulsive
purposelessness that channel surfing on television has. Moreover,
almost all new users still arrive from the upper economic brackets.
The use of the Internet among those in the bottom economic fifth
has hardly budged in the last decade. People in this quintile
do not generally have computers at home, nor have they received
the specialized training or free access that business people
and university attendees have historically enjoyed.
there are few examples of democratic processes on the
Internet: People typically equate and confuse open and undirected
discussion with "democracy." Henry Robert took nearly 40 years
to devise his "rules of order" which enables people in face
to face meetings to raise issues, discuss and debate alternatives,
and make decisions collectively in an open, orderly manner.
This system, in everyday use by associative bodies both small
and great all over the world, by no means guarantees
that the decisions will be the best, or that everybody will
be happy with the outcome. The process only guarantees that
there will be an opportunity for each person present to participate
on an even footing.
It is also
important to realize that there is nothing inherently
democratic about Internet technology; both radio or television
could have been shaped into media that was more strongly democratic
yet this potential was largely ignored and swept aside as economic
and legal policies that favored private use were enacted.
(Vocal chords may be the communication technology that comes
closest to being equalizing. History has since produced policies,
economic and otherwise that have raised some voices to higher
platforms, while advanced communication technologies have produced
media that enable some voices to travel even farther...) And,
finally, it must be pointed out that the American taxpayer who
paid for the initial Internet was never consulted on possible
directions; all of the major decisions involving the development,
deployment or use of the Internet have been done in the almost
total absence of public participation. In fact, it almost appears
that many of these decisions were made with uncharacteristic
speed so as to avoid public input that might in fact raise uncomfortable
questions about social uses or public ownership.
in the U.S. there is an astonishing number of grassroots projects
in the area of democratic communication technology. Not only
are these projects evidence of an overdue renewal of interest
in democracy but they suggest that now is the time for a concerted
effort to weave these projects -- heretofore disconnected --
into a tapestry of compelling community strength and creativity.
section I focus on projects in a single city in order to show
the richness and popularity of this new type of activism. Seattle
may have more of these projects than many other cities but similar
projects are being organized all over the U.S and the world.
(The recent TIIAP
Awards showcase the diversity and creativity of these projects
in the states. These projects can track their origins from many
sources, including city government, grassroots activism, academia,
and libraries, and many are the result of new collaborations
I have listed the projects below according to certain categories,
this is not a rigid or exhaustive way to describe these projects.
Also many of the projects fall under two or more categories.)
There is apparently a renewed interest within academia in community
collaboration on mutually beneficial projects. The "Civic
Capital" project" at the University of Washington, is a
good example of this. I've described some of the many important
opportunities that I see for increased academia / community
collaboration in other essays (Schuler, 1996; Schuler, 1997).
Activism. There are a number of community activism projects
in Seattle that use communication technology. Community activist
Anthony Williams launched Project Compute to establish access
to computer equipment, network services, and training programs
in a low income neighborhood community center. Roy Sahali, Michael
Grant, and others have worked to build a coalition of similar
projects, while Madeline Lewis, Lorraine Pozzi, and other activists
have organized the Homeless
Women's Network that is "dedicated to empowering women and
youth to overcome the limitations of homelessness and poverty."
Public Networks. Loosely based on the "Free-Net" model
which was itself was loosely based on the public library model,
the Seattle Community Network (SCN)
is the best example of a free public computer network in Seattle.
Offering free e-mail, mail lists, web siting, and other Internet
services to anybody (currently over 13,000 registered users)
and computer training and support to community organizations,
SCN, working in conjunction with the Seattle Public Library,
is striving to remove barriers to communication technology.
SCN, unlike most community networks, has developed a strong
set of principles (below) that are intended to institutionalize
the democratic objectives upon which it was founded. (Community
networks are discussed in more detail in the next section.)
Community Network (SCN) is a free public-access computer network
for exchanging and accessing information. Beyond that, however,
it is a service conceived for community empowerment. Our principles
are a series of commitments to help guide the ongoing development
and management of the system for both the organizers and participating
individuals and organizations.
to the SCN will be free to all.
- We will
provide access to all groups of people particularly those
without ready access to information technology.
- We will
provide access to people with diverse needs. This may include
- We will
make the SCN accessible from public places.
- The SCN
will offer reliable and responsive service.
- We will
provide information that is timely and useful to the community.
- We will
provide access to databases and other services.
- The SCN
will promote participation in government and public dialogue.
- The community
will be actively involved in the ongoing development of the
- We will
place high value in freedom of speech and expression and in
the free exchange of ideas.
- We will
make every effort to ensure privacy of the system users.
- We will
support democratic use of electronic technology.
to the World Community
- In addition
to serving the local community, we will become part of the
regional, national and international community.
- We will
build a system that can serve as a model for other communities.
to the Future
- We will
continue to evolve and improve the SCN.
- We will
explore the use of innovative applications such as electronic
townhalls for community governance, or electronic encyclopedias
for enhanced access to information.
- We will
work with information providers and with groups involved in
similar projects using other media.
- We will
solicit feedback on the technology as it is used, and make
it as accessible and humane as possible.
Although the government needs to be more proactive in this area,
it has not been totally inactive. The city government in Seattle,
for example, is pushing in several directions. The Seattle Public
Library provides public access terminals in all their branch
libraries. The city also runs PAN
(the "Public Access Network") which provides extensive information
on city agencies and city issues. People with the PAN project
also work with community groups to help them develop in-house
expertise and an electronic presence. (PAN, amidst some controversy,
recently dropped its "chat" capability.) The use of electronic
media has received more attention from the city recently largely
due to City council member Tina Podlodowski who has been promoting
the idea of "technology literacy" within the city. It now also
appears that several other city council members will weigh in
on these issues
Research. One of the most intriguing possibilities that
the medium offers is community research in which community members
develop and implement research projects that they themselves
have deemed relevant to their lives. The Sustainable
Seattle project developed a set of indicators (including
participation in the arts, wild salmon population, voting rates,
and many others) that provide useful data regarding Seattle's
"sustainability" over time. The project has launched electronic
"forums" on SCN and has also put a lot of information available
on SCN to help Seattlites (as well as people in other locations
-- "Sustainable Penang" in Malaysia, for example) get involved
with similar projects.
Media. The web currently is a natural haven for independent
media both as an adjunct to existing print media and as
the sole publishing medium. Amp
Washington Free Press,
and other Seattle-based periodicals are currently using the
web in this way.
Advisory Boards. The city of Seattle recently established
a Citizen's Telecommunications and Technology Advisory Board
to help advise the city on a wide range of communications technology
issues including public access television, the city government
channel, citizen access to city government and to other electronic
services, and to citizen "technology literacy" in general. Although
this board is new and the results are not in, the advisory collaboration
seems to be working out well.
Cafes and Other Public Technology Centers.
The Speakeasy Cafe is
probably the most successful Internet cafe in Seattle. Offering
an informal atmosphere with food, drink, inexpensive Internet
access, poetry readings, and art exhibits, the Speakeasy is
a good example of how technology can be integrated with other
community functions. There are several other Internet cafes
in Seattle and several projects in community centers. There
are also several community computer centers set up in subsidized
housing as part of HUD's Neighborhood
Public Access Media. There are also other types of access
programs such as public access television (channel 29). Radio
station KSER in Lynnwood, north of Seattle offers a wide range
of community programming. And last but not least, realizing
that the telephone may be the easiest and most commonly used
two-way communication technology, the Community
Voice Mail program helps set up programs in cities all over
the US to provide homeless and phoneless clients with free voice
Community Network (mentioned above) is just one instance of
a larger movement to develop community-oriented computer systems.
This section describes the general philosophy behind community
networks and how they relate to community work and democratic
computer networks, now numbering over 400, worldwide represent
one of the most authentically democratic and community-oriented
approaches to communication in existence. At a very general
level, a community network is a big electronic Bulletin Board
System that provides "one-stop shopping" for information and
communication about community-related meetings, projects, events,
issues, and organizations. Community networks are free
to use and free public-access terminals are part
of the community network vision. In addition to providing a
convenient repository for information these networks offer new
participatory opportunities for community dialogue. These
dialogues can be used to explore community concerns, debate
issues, build support networks, or to discuss cats, dogs, children,
parents, sports, computers, or any topic that people care to
networks, like democracy itself, are a complex social phenomenon
and, consequently, promote democracy in a number of different
ways. These various ways include (1) raising issues about control
of technology and access; (2) supporting independent media;
(3) supporting civic associations; (4) supporting civic assets
(schools and non-profit organizations, for example); (5) educating
people about issues and about technology use; (6) sponsoring
public forums on civic and other issues; (6) providing access
to government, candidate, and referendum information and issues;
(7) providing communication channels to government workers (8)
engaging in political work (organizing a rally in opposition
to the US "Communications Decency Act" for example); (9) providing
access to relevant data and other pertinent information and
knowledge; (10) promoting computer and network literacy through
free-access systems, and (11) providing access to civic "stories"
(See Sirianni, Friedman, and Schuler, 1995, and the Civic
Practices Network, for example) analogous to "citizen schools"
of the civil rights movement. In general, community networks
provide an important "existence proof" that demonstrates that
democracy in cyberspace is not an oxymoron and that it can be
an important civic institution that deserves support.
networks provide a good example of Hannah Levin's statement
(1980) that the "struggle to save community may create community."
In other words, a community network project provides an opportunity
for shared work and, hence, helps build community. And whether
or not a community network is used by large numbers of people
in a community it can help (in conjunction with other efforts)
to re-focus attention on the importance and legitimacy of community
of Government and Community
It is the
case, particularly in Western Europe, that government can provide
an effective impetus for alleviating social hardships. Now there
is increasing evidence that the conditions under which this
is true (namely competent and responsive government, adequate
resources, and popular support) may not be holding: governments
around the world are retreating from many of their previously
shouldered social responsibilities. While this trend may be
not be as inexorable and inevitable as it is sometimes portrayed
it seems prudent to briefly consider the proper roles of government
and the citizenry.
It is obvious
that even under the benign eye of the hypothetically most concerned
and custodial government there are many tasks and enterprises
that people and social groups will instigate and carry out on
their own. The ability of the citizenry to address social challenges
could be referred to as community work or community problem-solving
work is any activity that helps strengthen any of community's
six core values mentioned above. When U.S. Navy veteran and
anti-war activist Country Joe McDonald (with the help of many
others) made the names, ranks, and other information of all
of Alameda County's military casualties available electronically
on Berkeley's "Community Memory" (Farrington & Pine, 1997)
community computer bulletin-board system, he was doing community
work. When people tutor neighborhood kids, testify to city council
on the need for safe streets, publish an alternative newspaper,
help paint a day-care center, organize a rent strike, start
a farmer's market or neighborhood garden, they're all doing
provisos regarding the specific principles and practices it
is clear that the stronger the community problem solving competence
the less need there would be for government intervention. This
does not imply that government competence and community competence
sum to a constant, where a decline in one means an increase
in the other. On the contrary, some societies will be strong
in both, while others, sadly, will be deficient in both. In
fact, increasing the effectiveness of community work is important
even if government competence is high. (And increasing community
competence may even lead to increased government competence.)
In any case, a strengthened community competence is necessary
-- not just to compensate for diminished government involvement
but to guide the future of government involvement. In
other words the community should play a substantial part in
any change in the role of government even if this means
flaunting conventional wisdom of the digerati. Finally it is
important to point out that increasing community competence
(through supporting community networks, for example) is a critical
role of democratic governments, regardless of whether the government
is reducing its role in promoting social welfare.
for the Future
communication is at the heart of any democratic revitalization,
and communication in the modern age necessarily implies communication
technology. We therefore need to devise and implement
projects that integrate democracy and communication technology.
Disconnected projects are insufficient, however, as they are
likely to remain marginalized and unnoticed. A tapestry of democratic
technology projects that is part of a broad social movement
is required. Only if large numbers of people are involved in
the movement is there any realistic hope for increased democratization.
And only if there is a heightened awareness and a sense of necessity
and opportunity could any major change and re-orientation occur.
to the issue of democracy and cyberspace is not to cling blindly
to simplistic technocratic or libertarian platitudes. While
the Internet as "platform for change" may ultimately be dominated
by a handful of corporate interests (as is the rest of the media)
there are scores of opportunities for communities that want
to develop communication systems that are open, equitable, and
useful. Communities need to develop these systems and
at the same time fight for policies that strengthen public media
an diminish the stranglehold of corporate media giants.
begins today. We begin with a vision of the future-- of democracy
and of community and of increased human actualization -- but
also with the reality of the present, which includes people,
programs, institutions, policies, and technology. Therefore,
of necessity, our work involves new collaborations and coalitions.
Community groups must find common cause with many groups including
academia, labor, environmental groups, political parties, government,
and, where appropriate, business. It will be helpful to look
at what people are doing in Seattle and in other places, but
these are only the first steps.
is not pre-ordained and we know that the shape that a technology
ultimately assumes depends on many factors. For that reason,
activists for democratic technology must work together if there
is any hope of developing democratic space in cyberspace. It
won't be easy. For as abolitionist Frederick Douglass reminds
us, "Without struggle, there is no progress." I urge you all
to enter that struggle. This may be our best and last chance.
and Schuler, D. (1997). Reinventing Technology, Rediscovering
Community: Critical Explorations of Computing as a Social Practice.
Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Co.
S. (1995). (Ed.) Ties That Bind: Converging Communities.
Cupertino, CA: Apple Computer Corp. Library.
C., and Pine, E. (1992). Community Memory: A case study in community
communication. In Agre and Schuler (1997).
A. Jr., and Padfield, H. (Eds.) (1980). The Dying Community.
Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
H. (1980). The struggle for community can create community.
In Gallagher, Jr. and Padfield (1980).
H. (1971). Robert's Rules of Order, Revised. New York,
NY: William Morrow and Co., 1971.
D. (1997). Community computer networks: an opportunity for collaboration
among democratic technology practitioners and researchers. Proceedings
of Technology and Democracy: Comparative Perspectives.
Oslo, Norway: Centre for Technology and Culture (TMV).
D. (1996). New Community Networks: Wired for Change.
Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
C., Friedland, L., and Schuler, D. (1995). The new citizenship
and the Civic Practices Network (CPN). In Cisler, S. (1995)
(Ed.) Ties that Bind: Converging Communities. Cupertino,
CA: Apple Computer Corp. Library.