The Universal Service "Win-Win" Solution A Time for Grand Collaborations!

by Frank Odasz

  As multiple major governmental and corporate telecommunications infrastructure initiatives move forward there is increasing tension among those who fear the hundreds of locally created community networks will be preempted by the financial muscle of monopolistic interests.   The reality of the situation is that creating autonomously controlled local networks demonstrating the authenticity of widespread purposeful citizen participation can only be achieved through a "Win-Win" ongoing partnership between the builders and the users of our emerging National Information Infrastructure.   The former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment clearly states: "The diversity of applications necessary for a successful NII can only come from the citizens themselves."   Government and corporations can provide the physical infrastructure of wiring and banks of modems as well as financing for community training and technical support centers.   The social info-structure, however, the very heart of any community network, requires genuine citizen participation at many levels. Top-down monopolistic networks without the validation that comes from measurable, purposeful bottom-up participation will become embarrassing 'white elephant' projects.   It is a major cultural shift for citizens to adopt any new communications behavior. Change doesn't come easily. Bringing our existing social structures into the online environment will open many new possibilities for more effective communications, but it will take time for us to become comfortable with both the technology, and conceptualizing these new communications benefits.   The common challenge we're all involved with, from the highest top-down corporate executive, to the lowest blue collar worker, is defining the ongoing process by which we can all find a way to keep up with the best "affordable and appropriate" communications survival tools.   What we're all needing is definition of the process by which we individually get the help we need to continuously learn, experiment with, and evaluate the increasing variety of new communications options.   * Expectations increase with experience.   You can't effectively tell someone about the advantages of email. They have to experience these advantages firsthand to understand. And the same is true for each successive level of empowerment;     * Online searching for Information   * Self-directed lifelong learning via Internet   * Online group discussions for public problem solving   * Self-publishing on the World Wide Web   * Entrepreneurship via Internet global marketing   * Electronic Democracy; participation in Government   * Transnational activism; supporting global causes regardless     of nation's boundaries   GRAND COLLABORATIONS The emerging state of Internet and personal computer technology have the world poised for the emergence of not only widespread community networking, but also for transnational "Grand Collaborations." If AT&T were to join its infrastructure with the International mission of the US Agency for International Development, matched by a training program and research development initiative funded by the Kellogg Foundation, worldwide citizen interest would be instantaneous.   The WWW makes it inevitable that simple entry level self-directed learning programs will allow quasi-literate persons in any culture to simply point and click their way through short learning experiences that will produce near-immediate tangible benefits regarding self-empowerment, familial protection, and community/cultural support such that individuals can quickly learn how to become self-directed lifelong learners. Basic literacy can be taught through web-based instruction on CDROM, preparing learners for Internet navigation.   UNIVERSAL SERVICE: Infrastructure *<Plus>* Infostructure!   Following on the theme of universal phone service, much deliberation is taking place as to what degree of Internet access constitutes "affordable and appropriate" universal service.   * The medium with the highest potential social benefit is also   the most affordable and accessible.   Ironically, the most powerful of all online capabilities is very nearly the cheapest; Internet email. Offline readers are software programs that allow anyone, anywhere with a computer and modem the ability to send or receive messages, written offline or for reading offline, at a cost of under one cent per page.   This has yet to be recognized as the most powerful ubiquitous communications capability in human history. Functional with web-pages as well, the latest offline readers stay connected only long enough to send and receive essential information, allowing the time consuming, and potentially costly, reading and writing to take place economically offline.   VALUE VS VOLUME: The value of information most needed by citizens is generally not related to the need for the highest bandwidth. "Human bandwidth" is what is most needed and is not limited to large volumes of data. "Human bandwidth" is the value of the relationship between learner and mentor. The information most people desperately need is generally not volumous, but context sensitive; requiring human assistance to determine what specific information is needed by an individual at a given time.   A LOGICAL PLACE TO BEGIN Organization of communications is the key, giving citizens the feeling they have a voice in an understandable and motivating context with as little 'training overhead' as possible. Autoexchange/Offline reader disks can be sent in the mail with 'plug and play' instructions, even for very narrow, specific applications.   For example, an autoexchange disk, when inserted into a computer could update the local computer with preselected updated web pages, search for specific current information, deliver an electronic newsletter, or send the users updated web page to a master server. Another alternative would be a citizen could create a web page by filling in the blanks, and then the disk would automatically post the page on a server, with the option the process could be repeated/updated at any time. Less is more when it comes to getting people excited enough to be motivated to learn more.   As flat rate Internet becomes locally available in more and more communities, and as the bandwidth increases due to better hardware and software, cabling and wireless, the multimedia capabilities become potentially more ubiquitous.   Thematic programs might engage citizens in responding via automated email upon receiving a disk in the mail, urged to participate by an email message from the governor.   Another program might involve indigenous youth in environmental protection programs based on connecting remote sensing devices via Internet, or performing monitoring projects worldwide.   Another might unite mothers worldwide around issues of childcare, or link women around women's rights.   Another might unite small business persons globally in creating a small business international trade matching system, which are already emerging in many forms. Similarly, gathering resources on what various countries and communities are doing successfully with telecottages, televillages, teleservice centers, and telework centers, would be of great interest to most communities.   Rallying citizens globally around specific causes, with specific training and action goals is becoming far more feasible than ever before.   The importance of the social info-structure, locally as well as globally, is that it is fundamentally relationship-based, and is inherently a mentoring and encouragement process based on personal trust in another.   Optimization of current low-bandwidth technologies has yet to take place, particularly in support of the great deal of conceptual preparation necessary to prepare people to optimize the emerging high bandwidth capabilities. It can take years to conceptually and culturally adjust to the full potential of email, alone.   Our current culture, despite the best public education system in the world, is basically a preliterate passive video culture yet to recognize its proactive literacy potential made possible by the sheer power of exchanging ideas via writing. Most of us read very little and write much less, if at all.   Email is the most scaleable, affordable, and powerful connectivity tool we have today, and its been around for over a decade. While the web is simple to use and motivational for beginners, the real power of functional information and interaction continues to text-based. Powerusers turn off the images on their browsers to speed up their searching time since its the textual information that will usually most benefit them.   This awareness has to be taught. What people need is not always what people think they want. Email alone, without some type of group conferencing plan to allow people to come together easily online, falls short of the potential for true community networking.   Interactive reading and writing is a completely new medium, yet to be recognized for its true inherent social and communications potential. Words are block sculptures of reality, and writing is fundamentally a thinking process. We retain twice as much of what we read compared to what we hear or see. The words of great men and women have endured throughout history. Reading a great book can make images and people live within us in a way more uniquely personal than movies or television, though many of us have never fully experienced this.   We can today automatically search volumes of text for specific phrases, in seconds. The written word has many powerful advantages over video information which are today not well recognized due to our cultural bias toward video and our low literacy levels. Video has many powerful uses, but video communications is not likely to prove more powerful than the written word for a great many purposes.   CITIZEN MINIGRANTS, RECOGNITION AND SHOWCASES: Citizen minigrants programs are needed to reward with recognition those who have used online communications to provide community service; demonstrating how to extend one's limited energies. We need showcases and storytelling on how citizens have been able to find small business contacts via networking and how "real benefits for real people" have been realized!   Many third world cultures will be leapfrogging over the industrial age directly from the agricultural age to the information age. Cultural protection, and entrepreneurship via sharing cultural accomplishments are key issues. Cultural transition in the face of contact with ideas from 'the outside,' pose dramatic risks as well as opportunities.   Ongoing training programs are needed, to teach all citizens how to become self-directed learners, but more importantly to be able to teach others what they've been able to learn. This is what community-building at all levels is fundamentally about.