Projecting the 21st Century
By Jon Lebkowsky
JANUARY 25, 1999: Gary Chapman gets around. Originally from California and formerly a member of the Green Berets, Gary was director for several years of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, followed by a stint as director of the same organization's 21st Century Project. He is currently director of the University of Texas' 21st Century Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. He writes a regular column, "Digital Nation," for the Los Angeles Times, is associate director of the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute, and has worked to bring Internet access to low-income neighborhoods in East Austin. Gary and I kept stumbling into each other online and off, so it made sense for us to drink a lot of coffee and have a long conversation, most of which is recorded here for posterity.
Gary Chapman: That's a big subject! I think that a lot of people in the technology policy community feel there's a kind of vacuum with respect to crafting a vision for why the United States should invest in science and technology in the future. That's seen as a liability in forming consensus about what we should be investing in, but also an opportunity for helping craft a new vision.
The last organizing principle of technology policy was the Cold War, and that lasted for 50 years. But that's pretty much over, and now we need a new organizing principle. It's not clear what that's going to be. There's been a de facto consensus around global economic competitiveness, but that doesn't really seem to have the same kind of glue that the Cold War rationale had. So I think there's still work to be done on crafting the vision, and I think there's certain pieces that have to go into it:
GC: There are different models for doing that. One is the process that was proposed and investigated by Jim Fishkin at the University of Texas. This is a deliberative democratic process wherein people are allowed to interrogate experts, and are given background material, things like that. Experiments have been conducted by the Kellogg Foundation using scientific and technological subjects to investigate whether or not people can be brought up to speed on a controversy that involves technical issues, and the general thrust of that research has been positive, that people can understand these things. And incidentally, the Kellogg research indicated that most ordinary citizens come to the same conclusions as experts, given the range of alternatives. So it's not like doing that would throw science and technology on a completely different course. It's likely that it would be similar to what scientists and engineers want to see happen, but it would have the additional benefit of more public support.
GC: The Internet might have a role in doing that. There might be experiments in participatory groups that are linked with each other through communications technologies, things like that. There are certain kinds of issues that are global by their very nature, like biotechnology, for example, or some agricultural issues. People in agricultural societies are concerned about seed monocultures and similar things that are being promoted by American corporations, and that can have devastating effects on the livelihoods of people who work in those economies. That's the sort of thing that might promote dialogue between Third World people and people in the United States.
GC: It's a little early to be doing experiments like that, because the technology's not widespread enough. I think perhaps the new kind of agent approach I discussed in my latest article, "The Future Is Beyond the Box," could be used as a kind of feedback mechanism for some interesting studies.
We do probably have enough Internet penetration now to try and do some participatory experiments. One of the problems with participatory experiments, of course, is that in order for people to be persuaded that they should participate, they have to have some sense that it's going to make a difference. And right now we don't have any mechanisms by which we could give them that assurance. Right now it's mostly just for curiosity's sake and for research purposes. What we really need is a way to ensure that their opinions will have some impact.
GC: Yeah, I think that any experiment that involves Internet participation would have to have some serious controls built into it, and probably the best control would be the ability to bring those people together face-to-face. That is, they might get things started on the Internet, and they might finish on the Internet, but sooner or later I think they'd have to meet in person.
GC: Right. In the early and mid-1990s, we were running Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility on the Internet, but there wasn't any way that we could avoid having meetings of the board. It would've been a lot cheaper if we could have avoided that, but there were just things that we couldn't get done online. That's not to say it isn't useful in preparing meetings and following up on things. But you can't avoid the face-to-face contact.
GC: That's right. It's just too easy for people to write e-mail, and it's too easy to fake it, to generate what appears to be a large volume of e-mail, but which in fact may be, as you said, a spoof or a facsimile of real popular support. You really have to have what I call "body power," just show up, show what you think.
GC: Jini Connective Technology, the Sun solution, has mini-registries of Jini devices that can be part of a collection of things that can see each other without needing Internet protocol addresses. That's one possible solution. And Jini agent software can go out and find other Jini agents. Most of the Java innovations, like the Infospheres Project software from Cal Tech, can work on a peer-to-peer architecture, but they tend to implement it in a client-server model first, because that's what everybody's using. It's kind of a chicken-and-egg question, you know ... when do you make the leap to start abandoning the client-server model? It'll have to some when the hardware base is out there, so that people can start to use these things without being switched through a server.
GC: First, I should say that nearly all the credit for this should go to Austin Free-Net, and to the Austin Learning Academy, since they're the ones who've really been carrying the ball. Especially Ana Sisnet of Austin Free-Net and Tony Williams of Austin Learning Academy, and Lodis Rhodes, my colleague at the LBJ School. We were basically trying to figure out whether or not there were optimal ways for introducing computers and the Internet to a low-income community. We concentrated on the 11th and 12th Street corridor in East Austin, where the median annual income is about $6,000 a year. This is a very different from communities where you typically find computers in Austin.
The research question became "Are there some conditions in a community that better support the introduction of technology than others?" We tried to use the public access model (terminals in libraries, churches, etc.), instead of some other alternative, such as subsidizing personal computer ownership. We saw this as a much more viable way of getting the technology into the community, instead of trying to figure out how we could get computers for individual families.
Then we discovered that it was important for this community to see itself reflected in the resources they were accessing on the Internet. In other words, they needed people to send e-mail to, and they needed Web pages that were interesting to them. So it became important to generate ways for them to make content that they wanted to see on the Net. That was something we hadn't really anticipated, to begin with. So the role of digital cameras and scanners and systems by which you could get pages up without knowing HTML became much more important than we had anticipated.
When we started by putting the terminals in libraries, the librarians were a little bit reluctant to have them be content-enabling devices. The librarians see them primarily as ways to get information, not put information on the Web. And that meant that we needed computers in other places to serve that function.
Those have been interesting lessons. We've also seen that people in East Austin seem to be more interested in online resources that are tied to their community. That's another thing that we didn't really anticipate. On the west side of town, cyberspace tends to be a lot more diverse. It's basically the aggregate of whatever anybody is looking at, whereas in East Austin, it tends to be much more closely mapped to the concerns of the community.
GC: Yeah, when you sit somebody down in front of the Web for the first time, a common response is, "Well, this is pretty, but what's it for?" If you just say, "Well, it's a whole world of information that comes from all over," that doesn't help very much. But if they can get a picture of it that corresponds to their view of what their community is like, that's a much better hook.
This is somewhat controversial. Some have pointed out that people in low-income communities access sites just like everybody else. Kids are interested in sports and celebrities and things like that, too. In one program, there's a "key pal" correspondence going on between women in East Austin and South Africa. So it's not that they're totally uninterested in the world at large, it's just that they tend to want to see their community more on the Net than is my experience in more affluent communities.
GC: Pretty well. Training new users is less a problem than training trainers. We've got loads of technically skilled people in Austin. What we don't have are loads of those technically skilled people who know how to train new users. That needs a lot of work. Also, a lot of community networks have found that their biggest problem is managing volunteers. Though they may have loads of volunteers, they don't use them effectively because they don't have the money to hire a volunteer coordinator. A lot of those volunteers get disillusioned, either because they're not used well, or because their expectations are different from what they wind up experiencing with new users.
The problem is an interface or match between those two groups. When that works well, then training is not a problem. So we tell community network people that you really have to focus on the training of the trainers to get them to be really good at what they do. The rest will follow.
GC: Right. Often the best trainer is somebody who's just learned, because they're closest to the new user in terms of experience, and they don't take a lot for granted about the technology the way that experienced users do. So Austin Free-net, in its free classes for new users, has tried to impose the obligation that they train somebody else as soon as they get comfortable with the technology. That's probably the best constituency to use as trainers.
As far as how well Austin is doing, we hear that Austin is a role model for other communities, which is good news. But I think we still have a long way to go.
One thing I would like to see is for companies in the area to get together and establish a training facility in East Austin for Unix system administrators, to get young people into learning how to do hard-core system administration, which is where the jobs are. These kids can learn that stuff, and it would be really useful to the private sector to have a steady stream of new system administrators, because they're constantly looking for them and paying them high salaries.
I was talking about this with my father this past week. He went to Dearborn High School in Dearborn, Michigan, which was right next to the Ford Motors plant. Ford had a program where they would take kids from the high school and put them in an advanced school for tool-and-die making, because it was important for Ford to have really good tool-and-die makers. There was the assumption in the high school that, if you were one of the people selected for that program, you had it made. You were going to be a Ford employee for life, a tool-and-die maker, the best in the world. High-tech companies should be doing the same kind of thing here, not one company, but a consortium.
GC: Austin seems to be on this very interesting, maybe unique kind of cusp, where the future seems to branch. On the one hand, it could turn into Silicon Valley, which would not be a good thing. Silicon Valley is having all kinds of problems ... housing prices, quality of life issues, traffic, inequities in the economy. Or Austin could go some totally new direction, and have a high-tech economy that avoids those kinds of problems. Developments that we're seeing in the last six months to a year suggest that a lot of people in the city are beginning to understand that we're at this crossroads. The 360.Alpha meeting the other day was an indicator of that. Some of the things that the mayor has been doing indicate that he understands. He likes to say that Austin used to have a two-party system, environmentalists and developers, and now that's starting to change. We're starting to see some of the business people say, "Wait a minute ... if we continue on our present trend without a whole lot of foresight and thinking about it, we could, in 10 or 15 years, be just like Silicon Valley, and wishing we hadn't done that." I think a lot of communities in the country are going to be watching us to see how well we handle this, and what kinds of decisions we make.
GC: There are ways that we could build consensus that don't involve just the city council process. Silicon Valley has this model organization, Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network, which is tasked with looking at all of the problems of Silicon Valley, and trying to figure out how to solve some of the quality-of-life issues that they've run into. Unfortunately, Joint Venture Silicon Valley is about 10 years too late for them, but as far as the way the organization works in building consensus across a lot of different constituencies, it's really a model. And that's something that I think we should have here in Austin. Right now we've got isolated pockets ... the University, the high-tech industry, the state government, the city government, and so on, but not a lot of crossover between them. In fact, for those of us that are at the University and working on high-tech issues, it's hard to reach the high-tech constituency with the message about what we're doing. Likewise, it's hard for them to reach us, and tell us what their concerns are. Somehow we've got to figure out ways to build those lines of communication.
GC: I think the people in 360.Alpha are headed in the right direction. However I think they're concerned that, if it's opened up to a much wider participation, they'll lose some of their support from the high-tech executives. I hope that's not true, but I would like to see them move toward the model of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, where you get much broader participation. And Joint Venture Silicon Valley has a lot of support from within the community, from people that otherwise you'd think would be butting heads with each other. They look to that organization and say, "This is a way for us to sit down at the table." So that's what we need.
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