Inventing the Future

Inventing the Future: Communities in the Information Society was a short book produced by Partnerships for Tomorrow for the annual conference of the National Association for Voluntary Organisations in February 1996, with support from BT Community Partnership. Partnerships for Tomorrow activities led to development of UK Communities Online and Partnerships Online

Some of the issues raised in these articles are addressed in the Draft Prospectus for Online Communities. and in later articles in the publication How you can use IT in the community.


An article by Dave Greenop mentioned here and published in the booklet by permission of the British Journal of Telecommunications Engineering, is not currently online.

Summary - Glimpses of the future

The articles in this book, contributed by authors from a range of backgrounds, provide some glimpses of the impact new technologies like the Internet may have on our society and local communities - for better or worse.

They highlight enormous gaps between the rhetoric of political debate and commercial hype, and the reality for individuals and small organisations who don't yet have the skills or the equipment to join the promised Information Society, and may never acquire them.

This prospect presents a particular challenge for the voluntary sector, traditionally concerned with the tensions created by social change.

Voluntary bodies, from national charities to local groups, may be able to use the new technology to amplify their voice and perform their day to day tasks more effectively. Experience gained from trying will give them a convincing role in arguing the pros and cons of new developments.

If they are unwilling to try, or unable to gain this experience through lack of equipment, training and support, they will not have a voice. The development of new technologies will be dominated by commercial expediency and political opportunism.

That perhaps, is the strongest message from this collection of articles.

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A partnership of industry and users

Not available online

BT futurist David Greenop argues for debate and partnership between those who will build the new information infrastructure and those who will use it.

He writes in an article for the British Telecommunications Engineering Journal: 'The widespread availability of digital technology is currently blurring the boundaries between the traditionally separate industries of computing, information content production and telecommunications.

'These changes have the potential to shake the foundations of today's society, affecting the way we lead our lives, the work we undertake, the means by which wealth is generated, and our systems of government.'

He argues: 'The users of tomorrow should not be regarded as just consumers of mass-produced information products. They will be equal partners who participation will decide the success or failure of this information vision.

'Their participation and enthusiastic support is needed to counterbalance the excesses of commercial enterprise. Without this participation and support, the information age vision could become an electronic nightmare.'

He concludes: 'Above all else in bringing about the information society is the necessity of partnership between the builders of the information infrastructure and the representatives of society.'

'The challenges and the opportunities of new technologies must be made apparent to all members of society and its institutions, and a healthy debate must be encouraged.'

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The dangers of alarmism

The social implications of information technology, by Graham May

A leading futures academic, Graham May, acknowledges the potential problems, yet warns against alarmism.

He writes: `Some have even suggested that if we had known beforehand the problems that the car has created we would not have developed it. But then we would have been without its obvious benefits too.

`Society's relationship with its technology is a complex one of interacting influences. Blaming the Internet for pornography is like blaming Guttenberg for `top-shelf' magazines, and to ignore much of literature including Shakespeare and Chaucer.

`It is much easier to argue against the use of IT because it is not yet universal than to argue for it because it might become so. Perhaps the best argument is that we, as a society, cannot afford to allow only the powerful to have the ability to use it.'

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New technology and the voluntary sector

by David Wilcox

New technology and the voluntary sector,

The use of information technology by the voluntary sector has changed rapidly in recent years. Most voluntary organisations with paid staff now use computers. Some are using electronic mail to communicate internally and externally, and publishing globally using World Wide Web. A few are involved in telematics projects to promote the use of electronic networking locally or regionally.

Ten years ago a minority used fax. Now its use is almost universal. Are electronic mail, bulletin board systems, and the World Wide Web simply additional communication tools, or will they lead to significant shifts in the way voluntary organisations operate?

This article - and the one on
Community Networks - explains some of the basics of networking, and touches on policy issues for the voluntary sector raised more fully by other authors.

Mixed messages from the US

Voluntary bodies in North America - or non-profits as they are usually known - have more experience of what the technology can offer, and have started to join the debate. Opinions are divided on where the balance of benefit lies.

The Benton Foundation is broadly optimistic about the potential. They report: `The Information Age could be a golden era for the non-profit sector. New information and communication technologies are creating enormous opportunities for non profits to increase their efficiency, improve the quality of services they provide, and influence policy-makers.

`These applications of technology ... help organizations increase their own efficiency and effectiveness, improve the quality of services that non-profit groups deliver, and give non commercial interests greater influence in policy debates.'

Terry Grunwald, director of a project working with low wealth communities in North Carolina, offers a caution and a challenge to UK organisations: `There is no way that voluntary organisations (I will call them NPOs) will participate in the policy debate unless they experience tangible results that make them feel they have a stake in telecommunications.

`The Internet is only theoretically a "leveller" ... NPOs will need incentives to participate: online information designed to meet their specific needs and a support framework to handhold them through the process. These are key. Who in England is willing to provide these incentives?'

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A challenge for librarians

Social inclusion in the information society, by Kevin Harris

Kevin Harris of the Community Development Foundation is one of the most experienced people in this field in the voluntary sector. He argues for changes in the way that traditional information managers and power holders operate, and support for those they claim to benefit:

`The rhetoric of community involvement is now widely accepted but the practice appears still to baffle many authorities. Sometimes this becomes apparent from attitudes towards `community information'.

`Library services which invest in community information often do so very much in a top-down manner, collecting and making available in their own terms information about agencies known to them; and yet there is enormous potential for community organisations to self-publish online once they have access to the systems. Enabling such agencies to contribute should be an essential part of an authority's information strategy.

`Information capability comprises more than just access to information (which is the element upon which the library and information professions have become fixated): it also comprises information awareness; and the skills to exploit information once it has been acquired. The information society is unlikely to be socially inclusive in any meaningful sense if the development of information capability is not addressed.'

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The reality of community

Virtual community in real reality, by Greg Smith

Greg Smith, who works with the Community Involvement Unit in Newham, examines claims that the Internet can create new communities, and finds them wanting. He writes: `Whatever benefits may be found in the information society, revival of "community" is not one of them. At least not community as the traditional nostalgic, and incontrovertibly good product of our imaginations.

`The rapid changes brought about by information technology present a crisis which is both a challenge and an opportunity in the inter-related worlds of community work and politics. Fundamentally the information society and postmodernism are about privatisation, individualism, fragmentation, and a culture without history that recognises no values or truth beyond money.

`In contrast religion, community work and politics is about building a common life, about integrating people into a body, about collaboration and concern between neighbours and about enduring values of justice and truth.'

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Conclusion - First steps

This publication was compiled in the first instance to brief participants at the annual conference of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. BT Community Partnership supported its production. The commitment of these two bodies is a first step towards the partnership advocated by David Greenop.

What else would help address the issues raised in these articles? Here are some suggestions, drawn from the articles and the programme being developed by Partnerships for Tomorrow.

The past year has seen a sudden burst of activity and innovation in this field in the UK - yet it struck me in compiling this book that many of the new initiatives do not know of each other, nor of the trail-blazing efforts of pioneers like GreenNet and Poptel. And despite the international nature of the Internet, we in the UK know little of what is happening in North America.

So an obvious step is to bring key interests together: at seminars and conferences, and using email, bulletin board systems, telephone and video conferencing. We should publish the results on paper. No one medium is enough for discussion and dissemination - we still need the traditional strengths of face to face contact and print.

In order to use the new media, participants will need help - whether they are community activists, concerned citizens or chief executives. (I suspect many of those making the most noise leave even simple email to their secretaries). Programmes of training and support are essential, plus a `how to' guide which starts with the prosaic needs of individuals and groups rather than the relentlessly expanding potential of the machines and the ever fatter cables which connect them.

From those exchanges of ideas and experience, and a greater capacity to handle machines and digital information, we will be in a better position to experiment, building on the hard-won successes and failures of pioneers in the field. We need to design these experiments so that they have the potential to provide clear `real world' benefits for the organisations involved, and use the technology to greatest advantage.

Plans for the Community Regeneration Network, for example, are an attempt to use new technology to tackle some of our most pressing global and local concerns.

The main aim of this book is to promote discussion and enable those developing new projects to meet each other in the real or virtual world - so please get in touch with us or the other organisations mentioned. I hope we can produce an update shortly

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Prepared by David Wilcox August 22 1998