Internet is NOT inherently democratic FWD

Tom Boland (
Sat, 25 Apr 1998 12:45:04 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  CC Replies to author Neil Ruggles <>

NOTE:  I wrote Neil asking permission to forward HPN a 1995 post of his
that  I'd seen in the Archives of COMMUNET: Community and Civic Network
discussion list  Below, find his reply to me, folowed by his 1995

*Neil's reply to Tom*

Absolutely. I'm glad to share these ideas with HPN. Sorry for the rambling
nature of what follows, but I thought my current views might interest you.

The nonprofit, Community Operating Systems, Inc., referred to in my earlier
posting is now defunct. I started it with a colleague to promote
community-based technology centers. After a great deal of thinking, I have
concluded that such centers perpetuate a misguided and arrogant view of
what is important to build community. I have therefore removed myself
completely from any efforts to promote technology in these communities.

My conclusions and decision were strongly influenced by the book, "Building
Communities from the Inside Out" by Kretzmann and McKnight. That book
inverts the traditional model of economic aid to disadvantaged communities.
It assumes every community has a wide array of existing community assets
and suggests that economic interventions should always build on those
assets. Most efforts to introduce computers into communities without them
start from an opposite premise-- that the community is somehow deficient
and needs computers to bring it up to some "standard" imposed from outside.
The computers, the technology expertise, the choices about what programs
and technology to offer, and even the decisions about organizing and
running the technology center, often (usually?) come from outside the

The proponents of the Internet claim the net promotes community. For the
homeless, it does offer several benefits: it offers a home (email address
or website) where they can be found by anyone; it offers a way for
geographically dispersed people to share experiences and ideas (email,
lists); it offers a voice for the homeless to communicate with anyone
(email and website). Yet realizing these benefits requires some way to
actually contact homeless people to tell them about computers and the net,
to show them how to use email, and to tell them where they can use the
computers. If that network of personalized contact exists, in my opinion,
it holds much greater potential for empowering the homeless, than the
computer does.

Moreover, personal contact provides a much stronger way to organize people
for political action than the disembodied internet. Only after a group is
organized the hard way-- through personal contacts-- can the Internet work
for the group. (an aside-- this is yet another reason why the Internet
favors existing power structures. They are already organized, and can most
effectively use the power of the net.)

My own experience shows me that relationships that form online are fragile,
and that communications are easily misunderstood. I have written at length
online about the superficiality of "intimate" online relationships and
political discussions. Both involve emotions and conflict, but the
unreality of the net tends to distort our capacity to deal with both.

Even when technology is supposedly being introduced to bring jobs into a
community (as the centers I planned were going to), it brings with it the
old-style "needs" and deficiency thinking. Community members are usually
perceived as needing computer training, and the centers are introduced to
provide this training. Why not instead design work that uses people's
existing skills (eg. day care, senior attendants, couriers), and introduce
technology afterwards that specifically enhances people's ability to
perform _those_ jobs. (eg. newsletter, bookkeeping, scheduling).

Compounding their recklessness, the planners of technology centers often
ignore the reality that maintaining technology is an expensive proposition.
It requires continuous renewal of both the technology and the user
training, both of which are possible for business, only because business
makes money from its technology. Without such renewal, as some schools have
discovered, the training available on older machines ceases to be relevant
to business.

For reasons I wrote about in another posting, I believe people who only
access computers at community technology centers are at an inevitable and
permanent disadvantage to those who use computers at home or in jobs. The
amount of time people use computers on the job is much greater than that
available even in the best of technology center training programs. This
enables people using computers at home or on the job to learn more, learn
faster, and learn more relevant things, than those using them at access

Training programs at such centers will rarely do more than prepare people
for the lowest level positions-- data entry jobs. These are dead end jobs
which may soon migrate overseas where the labor is cheaper. Corporate
networks make it possible to input data anywhere and almost instantly
transfer it to  corporate databases wherever they may be.

Most computer centers in disadvantaged communities therefore do little more
than train servants to better serve their masters. They provide little or
no opportunity to actually join the technology elite.

Certain educational technologists like Bruce Lincoln at Columbia's
Institute for Learning Technology, advocate bringing the most advanced
technology to disadvantaged communities. Bruce has has some success doing
so in Harlem. But in my opinion, social realities make it much more likely
that the most advanced technologies will end up mainly in the hands of our
middle and upper class neighborhoods. Leaving the poor, and the homeless,
even further behind. And ultimately, making them irrelevant.

Again, sorry for this long message. Do with it what you wish, but credit me
if you publish any of it.

I no longer believe it is possible for "technology to rebuild communities".
Only people can do that. And they must do it _without_ technology.

Neil Ruggles

*Neil's 15 Sep 1997 post to Community and Civic Network discussion list*

...The Internet can be a superb tool for connecting people who for one
reason or another are isolated from others-- the homeless, prisoners, the
disabled, people in mental institutions. It is truly wonderful when
disenfranchised groups like these can use technology to regain their
dignity and express themselves.

But the benefits all depend on access. And access can be a fragile thing.

Institutionalized people, for example, can only use the Internet when their
institutions allow it. If they start accomplishing _politically_
significant things with the Internet, the privilege can quickly disappear.
Moreover, their email can be easily and legally monitored, making it hard
to say things the institution does not want said.

And most lists....depend for their existence on
the goodwill of private institutions-- in this case, St. Johns. The very
fact that St. Johns can easily host hundreds of lists-- or not-- at its
discretion gives it enormous power compared to you or me.

And let's not forget that the entire infrastructure on which the net
depends is mostly privately owned by large organizations-- universities,
telephone companies, and corporations. Continued access to this
infrastructure depends largely on decisions over which most of us have
little control.

Note too that those who rely on public access to the Internet are in a much
different position from those of us with personal access.

A good analogy can be seen in public transportation vs. private cars. Many
urban poor cannot reach suburban jobs because they depend on public
transportation and cannot afford the cars that would get them to the
suburbs. Public transportation, as we all know, has a limited reach in the
United States, and rarely gets broad public funding. And even when
available, public transit has limited hours of operation which further
constrain those who depend on it. Not to mention the crowding and
discomfort common to eg. the New York subways.

The parallels to public access to computers should be obvious.
Opportunities for access are limited by location, institutional hours of
operation, by the number of people competing for access, and by
institutional budgets, which determine the kinds of hardware and software
available. Note too that computers usually cannot be "borrowed," and even
if they can be, Internet access and phone lines cannot be.

All of this points to public access computing as a bandaid. In reality,
computers and the Internet shift power strongly into the hands of those
with personal access, and to the large organizations that control the

That is the "inherent" message of the Internet, if we are looking for one.

Neil Ruggles

Executive Director
Community Operating Systems, Inc.
35-45 78 Street, Suite 52
Jackson Heights, NY 11372-4761


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