CTNet conference: Roy Harper

Rob Harper <rharper@gcfn.org>
June 21, 1999
To CTCNet members

Hello all,

I wanted to toss out a few ideas that popped up on the way back from the conference yesterday. First of all, I wanted to give a big thank you to everyone who made it happen, from the CTCNet staff to everyone who attended. It was my first CTCNet Conference, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I particularly appreciated the opportunity to meet and talk to some of the community networking folks.

My conclusions from those talks, and others, were twofold.

1. networks and centers have the same basic goals: on the one hand, both are interested in improving the economic well-being of their communities through supporting local small businesses, and/or by increasing the earning power of the local workforce via IT training. On the other hand, both networks and centers are also concerned with community itself: providing a space, on-line and/or off, for community members to connect with each other, increase civic engagement, and maybe even (gasp!) facilitate political participation. Some networks and centers tend to focus on one set of these goals rather than another, but the differences in goals between networks, generically, and centers, generically, seem relatively insignificant. The ends are the same; the means are different.

2. Networks need centers and centers need networks. Centers need networks because the costs of computer home-ownership are plummeting, and it is probable, and desireable, that PC ownership rates will start rising more quickly, even in low-income communities. Rather than coming in during the hours that centers are open, families will be able to write school reports, etc. any time. It may well become more useful for people to get some of the services now available in centers over a modem line from their homes. And centers may be able to facilitate this by providing low-end financing for families to pay off a $250 CPU over a year or so.

At the same time, community networks will still need centers to provide training for new computer users, and to provide a much needed human touch. Centers could also save on the costs of peripherals such as printers by providing printing services, for example. (Of course, in many cases community networks already have training and/or access centers, and some centers are starting to build networks. But many are not, and I think each model can benefit from drawing on the tools of the other).

The idea is that we need to mind the risk of becoming too invested in a particular model to the degree that we fail to recognize when it is no longer adequate to meet the goal. In a nutshell, let's be careful about distinguishing means and ends.

Which leads to my other point, regarding the notion of a CTC movement. At the conference, one of the most commonly repeated ideas was "the people come first, the technology is just a tool to help the people". I think it's equally important to keep in mind that the community technology center is just a tool to help people. And it is a tool that is important at a particular time in history when the rate of technological change (read: the change of the tools used to help people) outpaces any period we've ever known.

In other words, CTCs as we know them today may have as much meaning to us in ten years as gopher sites do now: they were a useful tool at a particular historical moment, but have been replaced by something better that we couldn't have imagined then.

This is not to diminish the importance of CTCs and CTCNet, because they will lay the groundwork, hopefully, for the bigger and better innovation of the future. But a CTC Movement? Again, I think the model may be taking precedence over the goal. Let's say, rather, that CTCs and CTCNet are part of a larger movement to counteract the political and economic disenfranchisement, and the social fragmentation, of low-income communities. They are a tool to that end.

This is important because CTCs can only succeed to the extent that they work in conjunction with other social services: schools, libraries, non-IT-job training/readiness programs, literacy programs, etc. If there is to be a national agenda, it seems to me that it should be in conjunction with these natural allies. For example, it is hard to see community technology centers making a great difference in an area where schools are chronically underfunded and a large portion of the workforce is functionally illiterate.

This is not to say that advocacy efforts on behalf of programs like the DoEd CTC grants and TIIAP are misplaced. It is to say that if the debate is over whether technology access funding should take precedence over other needed services in low-income communities, then everyone loses. Perhaps CTCNet (or CTCs interested in political advocacy) should look into ways to collaborate with other networks to attempt to shift the debate away from who gets the crumbs dropping off the national social service cutting board, and back towards ideas like civil rights and economic justice. This is obviously long-term, hard to get to stuff, but when we look seriously at our goals, as opposed to the means that are currently useful, it seems like a needed change of focus.

Thanks to all for a great conference, and I hope the conversation continues.

Rob Harper