How can the Internet benefit ordinary people and improve their quality of life? Here is a personal perspective from Stephen Wilson, a former senior BT manager whose career has embraced many aspects of customer service, network and information systems strategy. He is a keen advocate of the use of information networking to help resolve social and environmental problems. He wrote this article in 1997.
As we move towards the 21st century, many people in both urban and rural communities are increasingly concerned about their future. There is a growing realisation that current lifestyles and economic policies are unsustainable, with escalating problems caused by many different, but closely related, factors. Examples include modern food industry practices, environmental destruction, growing inequality and alienation, and the erosion of democracy. These issues affect everybody's lives - both rich and poor - and are the inevitable result of free-market economics that ignore the human dimension.
Most people wish to live in a society which values the welfare of human beings, together with their environment and other life forms, above simplistic indicators of economic prosperity. There is a growing desire for a renewal of democracy, on a local, national and global scale, so that everyone, whatever their circumstances, has an equal opportunity to contribute towards the development of strong, coherent and sustainable communities.
Many communities have already responded to such concerns by evolving a variety of home-grown initiatives, such as:
In the past many of these initiatives
were carried out independently, often in isolation from others within
the same community or similar schemes elsewhere. However those
involved are increasingly identifying and developing links with
others who have similar objectives, sharing knowledge and experience,
co-ordinating their actions and finding strength in numbers. In other
words, they are forming Community Networks.
Community networks have always existed in some form or another. However until relatively recently their effectiveness and development was constrained by barriers such as physical location, making communication very difficult, not just between different communities, but even within the same community. Occasionally people would be influenced by foreigners who travelled between communities, trading goods and services and conveying information not available to the permanent members of the community.
Nowadays ever greater numbers of people are able to travel between communities, sharing knowledge, trading, learning about other cultures or simply exploring the world around them. However this trend cannot be extrapolated ad infinitum because it is totally unsustainable, not only because of the environmental destruction that it brings, but also because it actually encourages the breakdown of communities and can never be equally shared across the population.
The new challenge is to establish dynamic and sustainable local communities within a global network of communities. Each community must be free to preserve and enhance its individual character and culture, while simultaneously teaching and learning via the free exchange of information and knowledge with other communities across the globe. Globalisation must be the servant of the local community and not its master, driven in a bottom-up manner rather than the top-down approach of the multi-national corporation, with its inherent cultural standardisation.
This is where evolving Internet and Intranet technology ought to help us. We now have an opportunity to create electronic community networks in which every citizen can be an equal partner, able to communicate with anyone else and exchange information freely. However, the network must benefit, and be accessible to, every member of the community, which means that they must incorporate key features such as:
Flexible community telecentres: We need to establish multi-purpose community telecentres by developing existing facilities such as shops, cafes, libraries and business units, where both leisure and work activities can be performed by individuals and groups who do not have access to, or prefer not to, use their own facilities.
User-oriented network access software: We need a user-friendly, individually-tailorable, set of front pages into the network, allowing users to supply or obtain information in the manner most appropriate to their requirements. Examples include a list of frequently asked questions, information about local goods and services, and indexing by subject matter rather than information provider. A successful community network will be able to learn from its users and develop personalised solutions to their requirements.
However this raises questions about the ownership and management of the different components of the network, and hence the need for perhaps the most important issue to be resolved:
An open and democratic regulatory framework: It is essential that all community members have an equal voice in the development and use of the community network. For this reason we need to agree a democratic regulatory and legal framework to control the ownership and management of each aspect of the network, not just hardware (terminals, servers, gateways, routers and links), but also software (browsers, search engines, applications and databases) and management processes and systems. It is inevitable that some of these components will have to be publicly or co-operatively owned and managed, so the sooner a draft framework is established the better.
As long as everyone - individual, corporate, NGO and government - who is involved in the development of community networks, adopts a flexible and open approach to the future, we have an ideal opportunity to develop the modern-day equivalent of the old community network. Not only will this permit the free exchange of essential community information, but it could also act as a key enabler for renewing local democracy and tackling major social and environmental issues.
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