What follows here is an examination of the implications of that third level of access by reference to the circumstances and concerns of a particular community network. A member of the board of a grassroots commuity networking association in a small Canadian town recently asked me:
"How does the evolving structure of our community network fit into the spectrum of others out there?...Our Web site has never functioned as a true community network, with membership and dial-in access....I had always assumed that at some point we would be offering memberships for low cost dial-in access. For one, we need some revenues and two, I thought that's what community networks are all about?"
Here's an outline of that community network's circumstances:
There are four major concerns that should preoccupy a community network association and thus define the local electronic public space it sustains:
COMMUNITY - because the intersection of virtual community and geographical community requires a new approach to community development
COMMONS - because a community network's primary responsibility is the defense of universal access to electronic public space as a commons
CONTENT- because the content of the electronic public space that the community network provides through computer mediated communications is not a commodity. It's behaviour. It's a dynamic process of informing through dialogue, and it's the chief means of learning netiquette (the rules of social interaction and citizenship in cyberspace)
CARRIER - because there are many possible routes in and out of a community network, but the community networking association is responsible for moderating the experience of being there.
In the new politics of electronic democracy, nobody represents any one else. Everyone speaks for themselves. Community control of a CMC system creates a comfortable space to sustain the many forums, the hundreds of on-going dialogues about issues, services and needs, that this requires.
Public policy debate about the nature of Canada as a knowledge society assumes that the issues of "transition" and "convergence" are economically and technologically determined. Transition is seen as a matter of regulating business competition in the shift from a national broadcasting and telecommunications system to a national "information highway" system. In other words, the transition is not really all that transformative. It's essentially only an engineered extension and intensification of existing infrastructure. People who participate in creating Community nets view transition more broadly as a problem of social adaption in a shift from an industrial economy to a knowledge- based economy. For community nets, it's a matter of being digital, of anticipating the social consequences of our transition to a society where expression via all "media" converges to a single symbolic representation. For Netters, to understand this transformation is to act on it.
Peter Drucker has explained how the role of the social sector is central to understanding the structure of a knowledge society:
"The right answer to the question Who takes care of the social challenges of the Knowledge Society? is neither the government nor the employing organization. The answer is a separate and new SOCIAL SECTOR....Government demands compliance; it makes rules and enforces them. Business expects to be paid; it supplies. Social-sector institutions aim at changing the human being." [Peter F. Drucker. The age of social transformation. The Atlantic Monthly, November 1994. 75-76.]
We use CMC systems to revitalize communities as a strategy of "engagement." Creating community networks and assisting net connection for social sector organizations is strategically significant because it ignores the role of government in favour of direct action or "self-help." This allows us to set the agenda and the vocabulary of debate, and forces government and business into the reactive mode. I believe it is already clear that it's individual action, and not the government, that's going to save us. But the message of community- based self-help is a message that broke governments can hear.
As self-help, community networks are an enormously cost-effective means of sustaining beneficial adaption to a knowledge society. Canadians are putting their hearts and souls into creating community networks for very good reasons. They are not doing this to increase Canada's global competitiveness (although they will). They correctly see the uncoupling of corporate reliance on local resources as an economic strategy that is clearly hell-bent on destroying their communities. They are doing it because it lets them grab hold of the same communications power that the corporations are using, but applying it for the purposes of strengthening relationships, sustaining economies, and improving quality of life in the places where they live. In short, they do it because it's good community development.
The experience of electronic community and the community development potential to be found in new communications media being explored by community networks is a significant national resource. People in community networks are learning how to live life in knowledge society. They are participants in the design and use of new organizational forms, not the present organizational forms that are being superceded. Electronic community networks let people experience virtual community and new forms of social interaction on their own terms.
The central role of community networks is not to be either carriers of communications services or content providers. Their purpose is to defend universal participation in, and access to, electronic public space. Electronic public space is a commons. In defense of the public good, both the Telecommunications Act and the Broadcast Act assume that traditional media operate in a commons. Why are we abandoning this assumption in the extension of public policy into cyberspace? But the regulation of electronic public space as a commons is not the same thing as "spectrum" management. Cyberspace is not a scarce resource. Therefore the resource allocation strategies that now drive competition among global businesses and nation states are no longer synchronized with the realities of a knowledge-based economy. Beyond competition, there is an economics of cooperation, where the more you share what you know, the more you know.
There is a way to avoid the classic Industrial Society trap of institutionalizing a service that separates participants into clients and service providers. Ask yourself, are you:
This question is a function of ownership. If you said "providing for," you haven't got beyond industrial society models of how to structure organizations. If you said "caretakers" then you understand that the answer to the question of who owns a community network is that "we all do."
Establishing a community network is one of the few ways available to us to defend the principle of equity of opportunity in Knowledge Society.
There is a grey zone in the technical architecture, where the switches that are in the Net and the switches that are in the community net overlap, where what's inside and what's outside the community network is not yet clear. If you remember that community networks provide access to technological systems as a means to provide access to social systems, then the point of owning a hardware / software platform for the virtualization of community becomes clearer. It's the community itself that "controls" the space that the hardware / software platform makes possible, NOT the community networking association. They are stewards of a place where the community learns how it feels about things. The only reason people will come to that place is because they identify with it. They feel they own it. It's the next homepage after the personal homepage.
In order to clarify roles in what they see as competition, commercial carriers, ISPs and government departments go on about the "business" of community networks being "content." Community networks must retain control of any means necessary to maintain open access to an effective electronic public space. There is not now and there never will be any money inherent in doing this. It's a social necessity for equity in a Knowledge Society, NOT a commercial service.
A community net is OUR electronic public space on the Net (cyberspace), the "place" where we do OUR thing. Our presence on the net interacting with each other creates as a by-product our contribution to the global net. The act of creating a community net makes all its participants citizens of cyberspace as well as citizens of a set of geographic locations. Contributing a dynamic picture of local "culture" is an important part of civic responsibility in a Knowledge Society.
Community networks are Canadian culture made manifest. Canada's presence in community networks on the Net is a global expression of Canada's role and identity in cyberspace. It is a picture of ourselves being ourselves, for ourselves, but that picture is also available for any of our Net surfing visitors. As a country, if we do this first and we do this better than anyone else, our experience of what happens in the transition to a Knowledge Society does become a key global export "commodity." But the expression of our experience of our culture is more than that.
The federal government's "Information Highway" policies define "culture" as inherently a "content" commodity and nothing more. Whereas, on the Net, the expression of community that occurs in electronic public space is not really "content" at all. It's a window on our lives as we live them, and therefore, for outside observing netters, it's a living manifestation of our local culture. In, for example, the context of tourism, we MAY want to commodify certain aspects of that window, but certainly not all of it. And we certainly need to be assured that the use of that expression of ourselves remains in our control.
I am not saying there's no content. I am saying that the content itself is NOT the community network's job. It's the participants (or "members") that supply the content; either as passive information that describes organizational or individual concerns, or actively through dialogue about issues, questions, motives, accountabilities and explorations of the reasons why. The community network merely guarantees access as a right to the "space" where that can happen. Then, to ensure that it does happen, it moves heaven and hell to ensure high rates of participation. It makes the "space" where that happens comfortable, familiar, convivial, and safe. In short, this is pure community development, cultivating new virtual neighbourhoods in new virtual communities. If you think that virtual shopping malls are being designed to provide space for informed citizen interaction, just ask yourself how much RL private malls do that now.
Community nets must orient their growth toward meeting the needs of marginalized groups. Because of this, some ISPs see a community network partnership as a sort of useful means to create a dumping ground for "low end" services. This is a "cream skimming" attitude. Establishing easily accessible electronic public space that is kept open by community networks for general public use increases the demand for commercial Internet services overall. But it does even more than that. A community net provides space for experimentation with Internet functions. The "content" that the general public may wish to place in electronic public space will be different from the commercial services, but may be just as "high end." And many people, particularly young people, have both the desire and the ability to write public domain code that increases the effectiveness of sharing in electronic public space. Often, it's the brokest people in our society that are the most creative.
Governments have a growing interest in using the Internet for cost reduction in distributing the "content" of government services. Essentially, their current view is based on a "broadcast" model. But no one government will succeed in providing a single window for governments overall. Yet the high rates of participation necessary to create cost savings in the shift to electronic delivery of government services are less likely to occur unless participants feel that they have easy access at the desk top level. Community networking is the best least-cost method of working together to achieve this. Government networks will themselves benefit from higher usage if there is a general public acceptance and use of community networks that include a rich selection of gateways to many types of government electronic services.
Some governments at the municipal and provincial level are already contracting with community networks for backbone services. The models provided through current examples can be generalized to all levels of government. The resulting partnerships will accelerate the evolution of a low cost national system of universal access to electronic delivery of government services. It will also sustain community-based control of computer mediated communications and the essential role of community networks in defense of electronic public space.
In the twentieth century, we've lost the battle for self expression of public voice in all other media. Please, not this time. The expression and control of a local viewpoint is an essential counterbalance to the forces of globalization. Ultimately, culture is about identity. It's about people's right to say who they are, to tell their own stories, ie to define themselves for themselves. What is in community networks IS an expression of a community's culture. As the Net sustains our intensified relationships, the Net becomes one of the best places to see how we are learning and living our lives.
Businesses and governments are getting a free ride from community networks. When a community network begins to organize, it sometimes faces opposition from local private bulletin board operators, commercial suppliers of Internet connection and government departments struggling to serve by doing it "for" the people rather than with them. They say, "We charge for services that you're giving away. Your free services cut into our markets." This is nonsense. The experience of other communities has been that community nets create a market for all related services faster and cheaper than any other route.
At first glance, it seems reasonable to assume that it would be cost-effective for a Community Network to work in cooperation with local Internet Service Providers to provide the necessary technological expertise and infrastructure. If that partnership minimized technology capital and operational management costs, the Community Network association could focus more of its energies on promoting local dialogue, citizen interaction and social development. But I don't want to leave the impression that a community in all circumstance should opt for a relationship with an ISP. There could be advantages in such a deal, but no community network should preclude a full exploration of becoming their own service provider without doing their homework.
ISPs need community networks more than community networks need ISPs. A formal business relationship between a community net and an ISP *CAN* be beneficial. But new community networks need a pro forma agreement that spells out all of the options and liabilities in front of them before they sit down to negotiate with an ISP. They also need to have it quite clear in their minds that, if they're not comfortable that the demands of a true partnership are understood, calls for proposals will get them some interesting responses from a very competitive connectivity market. Unfortunately, Information about options is not readily available to most of the new communities addressing this question, unless they know who to ask. They should not be asking ISPs, and many government departments will dismiss community networking principles as "philosophy."
By giving up parts of the technology, here's what the community net loses. They'll lose by walking blind into a highly competitive ISP market that is clearly headed for a shake out. They'll lose the in-house expertise that allows them to effectively participate in designing the shift of standards for community networking technology platforms that is now underway. The underlying issue is continuing grassroots control of some dimensions of computer mediated communications. If they're not players on all levels, how will they know what matters? We don't know where the key innovations will come from, but I'll bet they'll come off the basement desktop of some net head who has been immersed up to his volunteer eyes in writing code that modifies community network software. I just don't see where ISPs (having large capital write down problems) have any interest in this outcome.
Most ISPs and many government agencies just don't get it. Community Networking is not merely an issue of differentiating carrier / content services. Community Nets are caretakers of electronic public space created by the community. They are not "service providers" of any kind at all. What they do provide is access to a dynamically evolving set of Internet-based functions that allow people in community to group. By viewing community networks as inherently information systems, they paint them into a passive "broadcasting" corner. The information systems perspective doesn't acknowledge the importance of community networks having a voice for speaking out to the world. It views everything they are building as an inbound funnel - where the suppliers (commercial and governmental) give, and the community (as consumers or clients) receive.
Hardware is just hardware. It can be located anywhere and owned by anybody. But operating system software is something else again. What really matters is that a community networking association is both responsible and accountable for the results of what happens when software is used or code gets changed. As caretakers of the community's electronic public space, all technology partners should be warned that they will have no role at the level of first principles. You don't need to control access. You must not control content in the sense of ownership. But you do have to control the operating system.
Remember your techies and keep them holy. They have crossed the mountain ranges of conventional thinking that separate us from a Pacific of the imagination. But also remember that they speak in binary code. To run your community network, you must find people who understand how technical and social systems interact. Because community networks provide the means of exploring precisely this problem, you should consider that your chief "deliverable" is the citizen of a knowledge society who understands what the impact of CMC on community really is. Does your technology partnership with any external agency guarantee that you can do this?
LOCAL INVOLVEMENT, rather than long distance direction by global systems.
PEER RELATIONSHIPS, for advice and issues discussion.
ATTENTION TO SPECIFIC LOCAL NEEDS, for the content of conversations that inform local decisions and actions. It's just not grassroots to say, as for example in polling or the Reform Party's Teledemocracy, "I'm going to ask the people hese 4 pre-determined questions, and abide by their answers."
Some people believe that community networks are a short-term phenomenon, that they will fail to scale up to very large levels of service on their own. They predict that community networks are not sustainable, unless they are run by businesses or governments. The consequence of accepting this negativism is to accept that the impact of living in a Knowledge Society is the destruction of community. I refuse to accept that. It's not my dream. I believe that understanding how virtual and social geography intersect and local application of that knowledge is the best route to creating a knowledge-based society that mutually reinforces the autonomy of individuals and the integrity of community life.
Telecommunities Canada Board of Directors
March 25, 1996