August 15-18, 1997 Halifax, Nova Scotia
August 15-18, 1997 Halifax, Nova Scotia
Garth Graham COMMUNITY, VIRTUAL COMMUNITY AND COMMUNITY NETWORKS: THE TELECOMMUNITIES CANADA POSITION ON "PUBLIC LANES," UNIVERSAL ACCESS AND ELECTRONIC PUBLIC SPACE. Universal Access Workshop, Information Policy Research Program, FIS, U of T, Toronto, Feb 6-8, 1997. Right from the beginning of Telecommunities Canada, in August 1994, the members of the Board have encountered difficulties in communicating both the significance of a community access movement and the role of Telecommunities Canada in support of it. Community networks are grassroots organizations. Their continuing growth depends on sustaining self-organized local initiatives. Right from the beginning, community networks were concerned, correctly, to retain the local autonomy that defines their essence and makes them both useful and ultimately sustainable. As a consequence, Telecommunities Canada is an association of associations. It does not 'represent" the collective interests of members, it expresses them. It does not act "for" community nets, it provides a means for them to connect in joint action. The member associations of TC have consistently expressed the need for a national capacity, not to provide centralized services "to" community networks, but to share experiences and resources "among" community networks. In other words, Telecommunities Canada's primary role is to find the means of rendering local learning into a common knowledge base that is generally accessible to anyone who might want to use it. It can only do this by mirroring at the national level what many community nets are already doing very well at the local level. This is not something that is "built" or engineered. It just "grows" itself. In spite of strenuous efforts, we remain concerned about the possibility of a National Universal Access Strategy continuing to undervalue the critical experience that Canada is gaining from its growing grassroots community access movement. Community Networks are profoundly aware that the way in which the National Universal Access Strategy gets defined will directly affect to climate for their future success and development. Consequently, Telecommunities Canada's position begins by emphasizing how electronic community networks augment the means available to communities to participate in (or "control") the socio-economic and political restructuring that affects them. Community networks assist communities in retaining their autonomy to self determine their own interests, issues and boundaries. In effect, they are a powerful means for a community to know, to express, and to negotiate something significant about the fundamental development (and political) question of who benefits and who pays. There are three components to our model of community networks: 1. The community is the network, not the technology 2. The community's social interactions are becoming virtual. Electronic networks virtualize social process as certainly in the social sector as they do in the organizational restructuring of governments and corporations. 3. A community's survival depends on controlling the means to capture the experience of virtualization and turn it into practice. Unless there's a community network in place at the local level, the community lacks the means of capturing what's going on and applying it to its own interests That's the true role and purpose of community networks. They help the community apply what it is learning about the transition to ever greater degrees of virtualized social interaction . They help the community defend the electronic public space that is essential to defining its own identity, the virtualized zone of social interaction within which it can self- define its own boundary. They allow for the process of virtualization to enhance civic engagement. (For a full exploration of the consequences of this model, see; Garth Graham, The electronic highway and the future of our communities, BC in 2001 Conference, Royal Roads University, Victoria, BC, October 25, 1996, on the Telecommunities Canada homepage at: www.tc.ca/bc2001.txt There are four major concerns that should preoccupy a community network association and thus define the local electronic public space that it sustains: 1. COMMUNITY - because the intersection of virtual community and geographical community requires a new approach to community development 2. COMMONS - because a community network's primary responsibility is the defense of universal access to electronic public space as a commons 3. CONTENT - because the content of the electronic public space that the community network provides through computer mediated communications is not a commodity. It's behaviour. It's a dynamic process of informing through dialogue, and it's the chief means of learning netiquette (the rules of social interaction and citizenship in cyberspace) 4. CARRIER - because there are many possible routes in and out of a community network, but the community networking association is responsible for moderating the experience of being there. (Extracted from Graham, Garth, 1996 "What Community Networks Are All About" - complete text available at www.tc.ca/allabout.html: The visible dimensions of the present Canadian federal strategy for universal access clearly begin and end with reliance on markets. Thus, the only imagined federal role becomes the identification of and response to market failure. "Public lanes" are an extension of the concept of "Information Highways," a concept that defines communications as the technical transportation of bits. But "getting there" is only half the problem of coping with transitional change. Relying on the mere provision of private and public electronic goods and services as a solution may be simple, clear and quantifiable. But it is far too narrow to be of ultimate use. The other half is "being there." Thus our insistence on adding an additional spatial metaphor to the policy debate, the concept of electronic public space. The underlying transportation metaphor implied by the word "highway" profoundly circumscribes what can be imagined about how anyone might design electronic public space as a commons. This means that much of what is essential about our understanding of transition to a knowledge society is left out of the socio-economic and political policy dialogue. It's good government that matters, not just cheap government. And the idea of community is the best route to understanding what good government is. Stating these values is not about nostalgia or looking backward. It's about specifying how electronic social networks should *FEEL* . In Canada, the values and principles that structure community include: * Inclusiveness * The assumption of neighbourliness..."We're here, all around the table, talking, and it would only be polite to ask and to listen." * Set against a vast landscape, but surrounded by familiar voices * An unhurried and courteous curiousity * A pragmatism that is the very opposite of the momentous, or self-important, or ideological * Choice about place and self-reliance. "Here is wonderful. This is a good place. I want to make my stand here. I want to stay here and thrive." (Adapted from David Macfarlane, "Gzowski's last stand," Macleans, November 18, 1996.) The top levels of decision making and governance in Canada do not really seem to perceive the crisis of social change on its own terms. Perhaps they find it difficult to let go of what once might have worked? But, in the middle of Canadian society and its institutions, there are committed groups of social change agents who do perceive the crisis in terms of adapting to its future unintended consequences. The members of the grassroots community networking movement are examples of this. These groups act, applying what they know about the Internet and open distributed systems as social systems, in community development and institutional restructuring. We believe that, on its own, a purely market approach destroys civic engagement. It does not connect citizens, it isolates citizens as consumers. When Telecommunities Canada talks about the purposes of electronic community networking, we avoid talking about universal access to "services." To define community networks in terms of services, instead of their social role, is a slow kiss of death. When you assume that the impact of access to the Net can be thought about as merely a problem of access to services, you begin to commodify community. You obscure substantial issues of the public good. In fact, private delivery of community services will usually appear more sustainable than public delivery if problems of social change are defined only in terms of the economics of service access. The purely economic approach isolates people by separating them into service providers and their clients, the very opposite of the sort of converging social connection that occurs in electronic networks. There is very little payoff for communities to participate in policy dialogue when the outcome is so predetermined. It seems far better to just "do it," to organize community networks as fast as possible. Because electronic networks mediate social networks (the determinants of basic human identity) in new and different ways, their impacts on peace, order and good government are multidimensional, not just economic. The chief value of a network lies in the complexity of its connections. The more a network connects the more it can connect, and the greater its value to its participants. When networked individuals freely give out information (that is to say they utilize any form of electronically networked expression), they collectively get lots in return. The more they share what they know, the more they can know. New ideas emerge more from unexpected places than they do from corporate organizations. And new ideas are coin of the realm in a political economy of knowledge. We believe that, without conscious efforts to sustain the autonomy of communities in the face of the virtualization of the social networks that are their constituent parts, the potential of a knowledge society cannot be realized. The viable "spaces" for individuals in community to self-define and grow, and therefore to innovate, cannot occur. Healthy virtual communities lead to higher levels of inclusive social integration, to greater social capital in complex social networks, to greater capacities to know, and therefore to higher levels of innovation. Successful community networks are in fact quite conscious of this role. It makes sense to understand and disseminate the experiences of growing a locally controlled community network. It provides the community with a pragmatic and accessible prototype of the experience of social change that confronts the community in its transition to a knowledge society. Ultimately then, access is about connecting and giving, not receiving. It's about the means we have available to each of us to express our ideas and to learn from the consequences of that expression. "Now we make our networks and our networks make us." (William J. Mitchell, City of bits: space, place and the infobahn, MIT Press, 1995, 49). The Internet is an extension of our minds into a shared thinkspace. The organization of a community network is the extension of the idea of community into that shared thinkspace. If a community does not bring the parts of its experience of social and institutional change together in a community network then it cannot do this. Telecommunities Canada emphasizes community-centred approaches that recognize the second level of access, the social participation level, are absent from federal information highway policy discussions. Why wait for someone else's vision? In particular, why wait for vision in a crisis when none appears forthcoming? Plugging a unix box into community development processes not only generates learning from the bottom up, it shares that learning at the same time as it generates it. The people at the community level who create community networks are extending a responsible vision of the future of peace, order and good government into cyberspace.