RÉSUMÉ: À une époque où les relations entre les gens, les gouvernements et les utilisateurs de l'information sont en changement, ainsi changent également les modèles traditionnels de communication entre les gouvernements et "le public". Le fait d'examiner comment les relations sociales sont modifiées par les freenets peut nous aider à comprendre comment les modèles de communication qui sont en mutation affectent la relation entre les gouvernants et les gouvernés.
Cabinet Minister Jon Gerrard referred to freenets, in his address to the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) conference, Toronto, February 2, 1994, as one of the important building blocks of the Canadian information highway. This was the first acknowledgement of their role by a senior political leader in Canada. We don't yet know how this awareness will translate into action in public policy. In freenets, I believe that Canada already has a concrete example of how the public will behave in the information society. I think we should be promoting community networks as keys to self-governance, to revitalizing communities and to meeting the public interest in universal network access. But, through my own involvement in the National Capital FreeNet, I have become quite concerned that the Canadian policy agenda regarding information and communications infrastructure is ignoring this opportunity.
In fact we all now do live in an information society, and the Canadian information and communications "infrastructure" is not just technology. It represents the essential fabric that organizes and connects our social and economic institutions. The level of public participation in a variety of recent TV and radio phone-in programmes on the information highway is evidence that Canadians generally are aware of this. But, in a public policy debate that should allow us to understand how our society is changing, social policy issues and very real grass-roots agendas are being ignored. In particular, the words "community" and "citizenship" have been totally submerged by the word "consumer" in the debates framed by Canadian high-tech business. This is entirely in keeping with business purposes, but the same economic vocabulary also dominates government discussions of public policy.
We need to know much more about the social, political and economic consequences of the choices we make in our transition to an information society. But, metaphors that describe the new social interactions of an information society in terms of building "things" misrepresent their purposes. The vocabulary of "constructed" superhighways, electronic "infrastructure" and "reinventing" government evokes images of technology rather than human possibility in people's minds. It seems to me that the language used to articulate the "vision" of a privately constructed electronic superhighway is quite deliberate, quite consciously chosen, and quite wrong. These words obscure the public interest.
I feel privileged to be present at the formation of a new dream in national mythology. Never-the-less, a myth is a myth. An "electronic superhighway" is more of an idea than a physical reality. Whatever "it" is, it isn't "infrastructure." We are not "building" a new national dream of a railroad to the Pacific of the imagination. Presently, there is no capacity within Canada to address the consequences of new forms of social integration occurring in networks. And there is great danger in viewing citizens as mere consumers of electronically delivered products and services. In this case, describing the unfamiliar in familiar terms does not really clarify its significance.
In the name of economic necessity, these expressions depersonalize actions that have profoundly personal consequences. Some of those consequences are exciting, some are appalling. But we are using them to translate the practice of citizenship into the art of shopping. The public needs to take back the language of discourse. An "electronic superhighway" sounds both high-tech engineering and also imaginary. It sounds like a concept we can safely ignore. But this concept, however described, is having a socio-economic impact on physical geography and spatial relationships that far exceeds all the hydro dams, pipelines or roads to resources that we've ever built. Where's the socio-economic impact statement? It's far past time that we knew who benefits and who pays.
Think of cyberspace as public space, not "infrastructure." The gateways into it are the function of information technology, and therefore have a price. But the metaphor of "infrastructure" as used in the U.S. National Information Infrastructure and the Canadian Information and Communications Infrastructure suggests that cyberspace is not a place but a thing that we build. By the use of this metaphor, business is enclosing a public common for private gain. They are occupying the transit lounges and shoreline properties on the oceans of imagination.
Consider the historic "backbones" of Toronto's "infrastructure" development. Its geography has continually changed to reflect its primary economic transportation corridor. In its early days, when transportation was by water, its geography had a shoreline orientation. Then, in the 1850's, it began to reshape itself, oriented toward the railroad. Then, in the twentieth century as we became a car culture, the economics and systems of truck transportation steadily improved. Today Toronto is oriented to Highway 401.
But what are the socio-geographic consequences of an electronic mindway as the nervous system of our connections? If there is a spatial orientation it will be multidimensional, like brain cell organization. In subsistence hunting cultures, people can carry all the tools they need for living with them. Then they can move to where the food is. In a knowledge-based economy, people will carry all the tools they need for thinking and connecting with others with them. Then they can move in cyberspace to where the ideas are. But I don't think any of us has a very clear idea of where they will move in the physical landscape they actually inhabit. My best guess is, don't invest in office buildings.
There are at least twenty-nine community-based freenet committees in existence in Canada. A national association of Canadian community networks, called Telecommunities Canada, is currently organizing. By the time Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver join Ottawa, seven million Canadians will have access to a freenet.
Tom Grundner, founder of the community networks movement and head of the U.S. National Public Telecomputing Network, recently summarized the goals of freenets. He said, "A FreeNet is not something that you do for the community; it is something the community does for itself. I do not believe America's progress into the Information Age will be measured by the number of people we can make dependent upon the Internet. I believe that, if we enter this age with equity at all, it will be because of people, building local systems, to meet local needs. That's you, building Free-Nets, in cities and towns all over the country. That is how we will enter this new age with equity!"
Our understanding that community computer networks must somehow be primarily "information" systems is also blocking an awareness of their true social potential. Of course people do go to freenets to "retrieve information." But the essence of freenets is interactive computer mediated communications, not information provision. It's definitely not a passive broadcast medium. It has a connectivity that makes it unique. But this sense of connection that we feel also makes it difficult to describe freenets to those with no hands-on experience of telecomputing networks. In fact, while demonstrating freenet online is always exciting, talking about it to the unconverted is a sure recipe for glazed eyeballs. If we are to accelerate progress in bringing communities online, somehow we have to find better words to express its qualitative difference from traditional communications media.
David Sutherland, President of National Capital FreeNet, has verbally outlined its objectives. He summarized these as, "If you like the information highway, let people use it." Here is what he said:
All of this is to say that the payoff for navigating the networks is more in the learning that occurs, than it is in the informing. Learning is particular to the individual, and it comes from risking your ideas in conversations with others. There is an National Capital FreeNet draft document for information providers that implies the best contact person to connect an organization to the community via freenet is probably in the "communications staff." Frankly I doubt that there is a best person. John Coates, conference manager for The Well, has referred to the role of "cyberspace innkeeper." When organizations really do become learning organizations perhaps there will be appropriate connectors. But I don't think most organizations are ready for cyberspace innkeepers yet. Organizations expect communicators to get messages out. They don't expect them to meddle to any significant degree in channelling incoming messages and in the sort of internal learning that will change the purpose of the organization. Maybe they should.
"The essential elements of what became the Net were created by people who believed in, wanted and therefore invented ways of using computers to amplify human thinking and communications. And many of them wanted to provide it to as many people as possible, at the lowest possible cost. Driven by the excitement of creating their own special subculture below the crust of the mass-media mainstream, they worked with what was at hand. Again and again, the most important parts of the Net piggybacked on technologies that were created for very different purposes."4 "As big government and big business line up to argue about which information infrastructure would be better for citizens, it is the right of the citizens to remind elected policy makers that these technologies were created by people who believed that the power of computer technology can and should be made available to the entire population, not just to a priesthood. The future of the Net cannot be intelligently designed without paying attention to the intentions of those who originated it."5The act of putting software into the public domain makes the technology self-propagating and prevents anybody from trying to establish exclusive ownership of the tools. It is the active participation of thousands upon thousands of communities in designing and maintaining their own spaces on the Net that will sustain its rich potential for shared experience, and its characteristics as the defining institution of an information society. The magic of the Internet is a product of its organic and uncontrollable growth. The initiative to use computer mediated communications to build communities, and to integrate smoothly with the Net as it evolves, should be readily and cheaply available to anyone who wants to try.
But the CANARIE project, an intermediate upgrade of the conduits for Canada's Information and Communications Infrastructure, recently refused a proposal to rewrite the FreePort software, the platform sustaining freenets, because it wasn't "commercial."
Universal access includes the freedom to communicate. Interactivity, or computer mediated communications (CMC) is about human connections. It's about talking. It serves a society that is egalitarian and decentralized. It serves individuals and communities, not mass audiences.
We've got the bizarre notion that access to information is somehow about access to a bunch of value neutral facts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Let's take the example of a teacher who has just got access to the Internet via SchoolNet. She's fought with the Board and principal for a phone jack in the classroom. She thought that the big problem was connecting, but now she knows that over 1000 schools have done that already. It's late at night, and she's out surfing the Internet, and suddenly she realizes that the Internet is not what she thought.
It's not a universe of facts. There's too much raw human imagination there, too much beliefs, opinions, perversions, darkness, cynicism and bright shining passions to think about it in terms of passive facts. Anyone can and does imagine and express anything to anyone anywhere. And then she thinks of those thirty kids in her crowded class. Without parental authority, she's going to give them this window into every recess of the human mind! Suddenly, they too can know anything they want to know, imagine any possibility, but also find someone somewhere that wants to talk about it. And she knows that the institution she represents is consciously designed to channel and control children's thinking. She knows it's present purpose is to socialize them in the direction of acceptable social behaviour.
Now here, through the interface, is the entire panoply of possible human behaviour. Here are ideas that, in the old social order, we'd never in our wildest flights of fancy imagine were possible. Some so dark they plunge you into despair. Some so exciting they change the direction of your life....WHAT IS SHE GOING TO DO? Teachers call this the "content" problem, and they are terrified.
The recent National Capital FreeNet online annual general meeting (a risky demonstration of faith in electronic democracy) actually had a teachers' motion on the table to allow for group memberships. It was defeated. The intention of the motion was to mediate access in order to sustain the group nature of classrooms. This intention evoked a defensive response from the open access spirit of individual responsibility inherent in freenets. But the problem of balancing individual expression and social integration that the teachers' motion identifies is real and will continue to assert itself.
Does a sustained online discussion build a community? It sure feels like it. A community that communicates only by text still has lots of social structure. As outlined below, social actions at the levels of metatext, surface text and subtext are all different, and they therefore mediate the shape of outcomes in different ways. Every concern or alarm in the discussion, every thread, has its expression in nested shells of significance:
For example, the word "newbie," describes those new to the Internet. In small town meetings, speakers often state, "I've been here ten years and I say..." The next speaker will begin with, "I've been here twenty years..." These are value statements. They qualify the expressed opinion as authoritative. Posting the word "newbie" implies an assumption by the poster of agreement on the inclusive value of experience in defining a community structure of insiders and outsiders. The poster expects the newbie to acculturate to the norms and values of the discussion before saying the right words in the right way. But, on the Internet, the open season on authority figures is longer than the one for newbies.
Does computer mediated communications qualify the process of acculturation in any way? It does allow for a wider latitude in social experiment because the culture of a network community evolves rapidly and is more readily subject to manipulation. The persona, the face we prepare to meet the faces that we meet, is not the only dimension of social presence that is optional. To some degree, so is the emergent social structure of any online discussion. The values that set the limits of inclusion and exclusion become explicit in the three levels of the text. Everyone there has chosen to participate. But now, because they can see what happens as a consequence of their participation, they also have more choice over how the structure of discussion evolves. Choices, perhaps unconsciously, are made about the shape of the group. In other words, even how it feels, its physicality, is, to a certain degree, self-selected. One model of how computer mediated communications structures community might look is as follows:
PROCESS AXIS sustaining inclusiveness via attention to emotional needs | | maintains self-identified | diffuses or questions community affiliation | the validity of continuing | community affiliation CONTEXT AXIS | local ________________________|_____________________ global issues | issues | causes community | larger context defines oriented action | or dissolves community | | sustaining inclusiveness by actions related to tasks
"Local" means both geographic neighbourhoods and virtual communities of interest. The context continuum of local to global issues is concerned with questions of defining and maintaining the boundaries of a related set of concepts. Some issues are within the context of the conceptual set and are therefore local. Some issues transcend the conceptual set, and therefore establish the context that situates the local set. The process continuum measures whether time is spent on maintaining social dynamics or performing tasks. The point where the two axes intersect is an attractor, or equilibrium point around which the dynamics of the discussion oscillate. If there's no equilibrium then the discussion threads diminish and community starts to dissolve.
Of course this model describes any informal discussion. How does locating it in cyberspace make a difference? Computer mediated conversations are self-referential. There's the discussion itself. Then there's the embedded model of the discussion that emerges as it unfolds. We all see what's going on. The dynamic nature of the structure of a self-organizing community becomes explicit. It is shared as common knowledge as it occurs. As Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores said, "networks of recurrent conversations are the core of organization."6 The difference between hosting an online discussion and hosting a cocktail party with intense conversation is that the level of feedback in the online discussion is substantially more available for analysis before response. Also everyone supplies their own beer.
The active voice is the Internet voice. It would say, "The community uses the technology." The passive voice is the voice of traditional system design. It would say, "The technology is delivered (by someone who owns it) to the community as end-user."In the dialogue among communities and central government that the Net now makes possible, the power must come from the community. In an information society, we can no longer say that government is "delivered" to the people. Assuming "delivery" as the basis of a relation of governors and governed misses a fundamental difference between network culture and the assumptions that underlie our present organizations. Whatever the theory of democratic government, our present reality is that "the government" and "the people" are separate. In networked information systems, these distinctions between senders and receivers of information, between providers and users of services, begin to disappear. It is perfectly reasonable to expect that computer mediated communications can integrate service deliverers and service receivers so that the power to govern a system of services and the responsibility for the system's performance can shift to the system's beneficiaries.
In a conversation, you always expect a reply. And if you honor the other party to the conversation, if you honor the OTHERNESS of the other party, you understand that you must not expect always to receive a reply that you foresee or a reply that you will like. A conversation is immitigably two-sided and always to some degree mysterious; it requires faith. Wendell Berry. What Are People For? Essays7But we've begun to merge conversation and information into the same milieu, without a clear idea of what that means or how the relation of conversation and information might be enhanced. What is the meaning of face-to-face via the interface? How does medium and message interact to alter the fundamental rules of the "conversation"? In fact, if we restate the problem of access as a problem of integrating information and conversation, this takes us beyond confrontation between experienced CMC users and beginners, or between technoids and social activists. It gives us a different design specification to stimulate the thinking of the community network builders. In fact, I see this as a critical problem for the information society, not just community networks. It's just that, in community networks, we bump into it faster.
Community networks provide conduits for individuals, social groups, and government services in a community to interconnect with each other in a new way. The service they provide is access to interactive, computer mediated communications channels. Community networks do not and must not "represent" anybody. They are neither elected, nor appointed, nor employed to act with authority on behalf of any agency or person. Community networks provide a powerful medium for the structuring of dialogue in the service of whatever ends their members define for themselves. It is essential that, in both perception and reality, community networks are broadly based and member driven. If this isn't a medium that can sustain direct participation, what is?
What works best in computer mediated communications is the absence of power based relationships. It is mutual interdependence that defines community, not hierarchy. Participation is a matter of individual choice. The levels of participation in a successful online dialogue are very much related to an expectation that participation will result in a shared experience. We should build our local and national structure on our emerging understanding of the medium's advantages. We should not rely on previously owned assumptions of what "organization" requires to make it work.
True access to the electronic mindways will depend, not so much on technological awareness, but on learning behaviours that are appropriate to the presentation of the self in an everyday life that is electronically mediated. In the political economy of knowledge, the only scarce resource is attention. When everybody sends as well as receives, a critical decision each person makes is about audience. When everyone broadcasts, consciousness of the theatre required for the public presentation of self intensifies.
"The crucial test of the [telecommunities] movement will be in whether or not this new combination of forces will be able to overcome the present technostructures of domination. The movement may do so by giving a new lease on life to the representative and corporate institutions of democracy as well as by creating some new institutions for direct democratic expression."Whatever the socio-economic purpose of community networks is, it is not primarily to deliver "community" as a consumer of network products and services. CANARIE does not show any commitment to "give public access to the information superhighway," because, so far, it has very little comprehension of what a "knowledge based society" or true public access represents. We must not sell community networks on the basis of their potential to train consumers of network based products and thereby increase demand for commercially supplied network services. How will we ever comprehend the differences between an information-based economy and a market-based economy, if one of the vital instruments of change, community networks, is perverted into an instrument of the declining paradigm?
From the experience of freenets, there are four assumptions about the public interest in the information society that I find important, but very difficult to communicate. An awareness of their significance doesn't really occur until you've wandered into cyberspace. That is to say, they are reports from the other side. They represent important choices for everyone, but choices that are more apparent to those who have already made a conscious transition to an information society. These truths about cyberspace I hold to be self-evident:
I'm not in freenet to gain access to more electronic toys, and in the process give my hard earned money to those who already have more than I do. I'm in it because of the potential to discuss, understand and act on common problems with my real and virtual neighbours.
If our emerging "knowledge society" merely defines everybody as "consumers" of information then we fail. There's much more at stake in cultural survival than the success of markets. Universal access to that new global conversation means universal participation in shaping its content. That's the mission and purpose of community networks. I think we can develop virtual communities that help geographic communities work better. But, if we don't make the idea of community our central purpose in developing the Canadian Information and Communications Infrastructure, we can certainly cause real communities to disappear.
I don't think that we can tell our stories of travelling in cyberspace if we've no solid understanding of the points of departure. Knowing our place in the world is essential to knowing our place in the story. In fact there's a word for local awareness in the field of development. It's called indigenous knowledge. A freenet is a mere gateway. One that did not create a rich texture of universally shared local expertise, would be strip mining the Internet.
I think that we can catch the attention of Canadians with the message of community networking as the self-governance they've been looking for. I think we can promote community networks as significant in terms of the information age; providing computing power to the people and meeting the public interest in universal access to national and international high-speed networks. I even think, given the evidence of demand for National Capital FreeNet's services, there will be support for community networking projects that help create an expanded vision of a vital noncommercial and nongovernmental sector in the new electronic environment.
The federal government has stated three strategic objectives for the information highway: jobs, cultural identity and universal access. I would submit that freenets address these objectives head on. And they do so in a manner that is compatible with the excitement generated by that prototype of information society institutions, the Internet. In freenets, the volunteers that participate in bringing a community online are investing their own time in learning new skills and roles. Freenets intensively collate community knowledge and experience, leading to a bottom-up global sharing of Canadian identity on a neighbourhood by neighbourhood basis. And freenets provide a powerful model of how universal access to the information highway can actually be used. They don't create a society of consumers. They do support citizens in sustaining communities that better meet their needs. Whatever process Canada uses to decide its response to an information society, it must take into account the transformative power of freenets.