Re: Internet is NOT inherently democratic FWD

Sandy Andrews (
Mon, 27 Apr 1998 00:29:06 -0700 (MST)

Really interesting article, thank you for finding it, Tom!


On Sat, 25 Apr 1998, Tom Boland wrote:

> 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
> post.--Tom
> ____________________________________________________________________________
> *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
> community.
> 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
> centers.
> 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
> 718-476-3692
> __________________________________________________________________________
> *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
> infrastructure.
> 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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