NetactivismParticipation


Participation, inclusion, exclusion and netactivism:

How the Internet invents new forms of democratic activity.

by Trevor Locke

Community Networks are developing in the UK, just as they have developed in North America and other parts of Europe. They represent an important departure in the provision of community access to information, telecommunications and IT resources.

Community Networks are described as being people-oriented and place-focussed. In the criteria set by the co-ordinating body UK Communities Online, such networks are characterised by some or all of these features:

  • They offer a diverse range of information – not just ‘official’ material.

  • They seek to involve all sectors of the community in their production and consumption.

  • The offer and encourage some level of interaction, from e-mail feed back through to full-scale conferencing.

Such networks can be run by a local charity or association, a regeneration agency, a private individual or by multiple partners. They often provide training and support to users, free public access through a wide range of venues (such as libraries or community centres) [http://www.communities.org.uk].

It is true that communities of interest can and do exist on the Internet as well as naturally in society. UK Communities Online has oriented itself to geographically bounded communities, even though it recognises that communities of interest will co-exist with these networks. Hence, it regards electronic networks as arising from pre-existing social and economic relationships and are part of the development and regeneration of geographical areas and their communities.

Debbie Ellen has formulated a Charter for Community Internets in which she sets out a number of principles or values that characterise community networks. One of these principles is that of inclusion:

commitment to the principle of social inclusion in the ‘information society’ for all (learn from each other networks that have found ways of providing access to the less well educated elderly people afraid of or uncomfortable with the technology, people on low incomes who cannot afford the hardware..) [Ellen, 1997 http://www.comunities.org.uk%5D

A principle often enshrined by these networks is freedom of access. In order to maximise inclusion, the networks are established in such as way as to allow the users to gain access to them at someone else’s expense. Gaining access to the network is about gaining access to the opportunities that flow from it. Freedom of speech is another widely espoused principle associated with the way the networks are set up and operated.

The networks seek to involve all sectors of the community, allow businesses to stand side by side with charities, the arts, recreation clubs and voluntary social services. It is frequently the users who develop the information that is placed on the network. Network developers, as a matter of principle, enable and encourage local groups and individual users to provide information, news and material for the networks. It is felt to be consistent with the general principles of community development that users should feel a sense of ownership for the networks in which they are involved.

Debbie Ellen sees the outcomes of the networks as including

  • improvement of local democracy, through enhancing access to information and improved communication;

  • improving communications between individuals and groups;

  • improving opportunities for work and business;

  • improving input to local planning and development;

  • strengthening self help initiatives;

  • supporting local organisations such as LETS schemes, credit unions, food co-operatives, volunteering or home working [ibid].

David Miller of Sheffield University has considered community information networks (CINs) which serve the needs of users in a specific geographical area. David pointed out that early electronic information systems tended to be based either on video-text or on networked PCs. These were often under the control of some centralised authority with decisions about content, where points of access should be placed and other key characteristics being made by network managers rather than by the users. He argues that the Internet has allowed users to take control of the content and form of the information which they provide.

David distinguishes three types of network (1) those that are initiated and controlled by the local authority, (2) those initiated and developed by the private sector and (3) those initiated and developed by user populations. There are a great many local information systems on the Internet; an index of web sites maintained by the London Borough of Brent includes 262 entries, the same number as the list maintained by the private sector company Tagish (figures taken in August 1997 – new sites are appearing each week). There are many sites in the UK that provide information about local areas and which are maintained by private sector companies, such as local newspapers.

Even though bounded by a geographical area, these are not community networks because they provide only information about a local area. Community Networks are by their nature interactive, multi-functional, user driven and are a function of some broader regime of community development or regeneration. Whilst information provision might well be a key function of many web sites, it is the involvement of local people that determines that an initiative falls into the remit addressed by this article.

The network can be either a specially engineered intranet or one that is provided through the medium of the Internet. Sometimes, the network involves both of these, with gateways allowing access between the two in a controlled manner. Whilst some networks allow completely free access, some require users to register and thereafter logon to the network even if they do not have to pay a registration fee. Sometimes, there are areas on a network that are confined to local users and screened off from unfettered public access.

As Cisler as argued, in an early study of community networks:

Just as electrical systems began to transform urban and small town America a century ago, community computer networks will do so in the 1990’s. The present situation is that few people are aware of the concept of community computing networks, any more than people understood much at all about electricity in 1890. Most of the attention has been paid to national research networks such as the Internet and the commercial consumer services such as Compuserve, GEnie, Prodigy or business services such as MCIMail or Dialcom. On a local level thousands of electronic bulletin boards have been started by dedicated individual hobbyists, small business people, non-profits, corporations, federal agencies, other governments and educational institutions. What is striking about many of these ventures is that each group is relatively unaware of the activities by the other groups. Database providers such as Dialog and Mead Data stay out of the messaging business except for narrow uses; business mail systems are just beginning to make links to bulletin board networks, and the BBS networks are just learning about the Internet. [Community Computer Networks: Building Electronic Greenbelts, Copyright by Steve Cisler, 6/20/93, Apple Library, US]

Community Networks and Political Participation

Community Networks are creating additional platforms for political participation. The network provides a medium through which public and politicians can communicate, exchange information, consult, debate and gauge each other’s opinions on the issues that confront them. It is a medium which replicates the more traditional face to face interactions and exchanges as well as sometimes creating its own unique versions of political interaction.

It does this to the extent that users bring their issues to the network, seek to influence decision-makers who are online, are willing to use its various platforms for debate or are open to being polled on-line. The Internet – with its email and web sites – is too often just an electronic replication of the printed media. Unlike the printed media, the Internet is fully interactive, speeding up the exchange of views and information from say 24 hours to real time (synchronous) communications through chat, video or audio.

Community Networks have grown around the world. Having been created first in North America and flourishing in Europe, they are now firmly established in the UK. As a reflection of their entry to the UK, Communities Online (COL) has been created to co-ordinate, resource and service the needs of this field. COL has an extensive web site of information about community networking [http://www.communities.org.uk].

It aims to bring groups together, to inform the field and to encourage new Community Networks to come into being. Having secured funding it now has a full time Director (David Wilcox) [as at 1997/98] COL provides a list of about 40 Community Networks in the UK and Eire. One of the largest Community Networks in the UK is Hantsweb which has over a quarter of a million pages of information and a county-wide network that provides both a public media of communication and an Internet intranet for the County Council.

Access and inclusion

We know that only a minority of people have access to computers let alone on-line computing. We also know that access to the Internet is rapidly increasing. It was reported that the number of PCs accessing the Internet in the US increased from 15 million in early 1996 to 31 million in the following 12 months. Most Internet access is made from home PCs, although access from work based PCs is growing, increasing by more than 200 per cent since last year [ISOC Forum, 25.7.97, Vo1.3. No.7.]

Whilst it is true that there has been an exponential rate in the growth of the Internet, as measured by the amount of traffic and the volume of web pages, and a considerable increase in the number of people who access it on a regular basis, it is still by no means a mass media. It is limited to social, educational and economic elites.

The issue of access to technology, of inclusion in access and exclusion from it, is an important issue for politicians and educators alike. A recent report bears witness to this. The report (on ensuring social inclusion in the Information Society) was backed by IBM and strongly endorsed community networking as the way forward.

The Net Result, report of the UK National Working Party on Social Inclusion (INSINC), recommended two linked models to ensure social inclusion – local IT community resource centres and community networks. Between them these initiatives provide well-organised information, access, training, and scope for electronic discussion forums. They enable citizens and community groups to become active participants rather than passive receivers of information. The report was launched on June 24 1997 at the headquarters of IBM UK in London. IBM supported the work of the independent working party, together with the Community Development Foundation.

So what role do these local networks play in distributing the opportunities and benefits of new technology? The aim of community networks is to bring the opportunities offered by ICTs and the benefits they confer to people who would not normally be able to gain access. They are oriented to people who are economically excluded from the personal ownership of such technology, to those who would otherwise be excluded from seeking information and from engaging in public communications.

Community networks have a political implications, not least because they enhance and empower access to information. Already local and central government politicians (and local authority officers) have realised the potential of the Internet for communicating with the public and offering them information. It is estimated (in 1997) that over half of all local authorities have some presence on the world wide web.

In Birmingham, the ASSIST project allowed people to discuss Council policy issues, provide a channel of consultation between public and elected members. It enabled people to gather opinion and and to engage in debate in ways that were entirely new. Some Councils have experimented with their financial planning procedures by making Council Tax and spending plan information available on the Internet. Financial information is ideally suited to Internet communication: there is a lot of it, it is almost entirely documentary and textual, it constantly changes and it benefits from graphical presentation.

From the provider side, community networks are seen as enabling citizens to participate more fully in the formal structures of the national and local state. Paying officers to spend time answering public enquiries is expensive – a very resource hungry service. The more that information can be made available on a self service basis, the more cost-effective it becomes. Expensive resources like staff are better deployed on generating new information, implementing policies and evaluating them rather than answering the telephone to tell Joe Public the same thing for the hundredth time.

One of the most frequently asked questions on the Edinburgh Public Information system was reported to have been “where can I get a refuse sack?” Answering that question has probably cost the local authority hundreds of thousands of pounds in staff time. Placing that information on the Internet and on pubic access terminals released valuable resources to deal with other environmental issues.

Access and inclusion will be aided by both the provision of technology and by the intelligent deployment of that technology in the service of the public. Too often information is set out in a dull, uninviting and unimaginative way. Information producers seems to think they can get away with lifeless presentations of text on computers that would never be allowed on more visual media. Fortunately that is beginning to change. Information is becoming more multimedia, more animated, fun to use, and engaging – making it more likely that the user will come back and use the technology again. Paper based media are available to information providers. They have word processors and photocopies and thus the means of production are under their control on a DIY basis. The web however is a technically elite medium requiring specialised resources in its creation and specialised knowledge and skills to deploy those resources. In this regard it is easy for professionals and technicians to gain a powerful hold on the Internet. Fortunately, there is no shortage of people who want to liberate skills and resources for the benefit of the community.

Netactivism

In the US the Rand Corporation completed a massive and seminal study called “Universal access to e-mail: feasibility and societal implications”. The study considered the feasibility of making e-mail as commonplace as the telephone. In the concluding chapter of the report, the authors considered the policy conclusions and made a series of recommendations.

The authors argued:

We find that use of electronic mail is valuable for individuals, for communities, for the practice and spread of democracy, and for the general development of a viable national information infrastructure. Consequently, the nation should support universal access to e-mail through appropriate public and private policies.

and a little latter they observed:

Individuals’ accessibility to e-mail is hampered by increasing income, education, and racial gaps in the availability of computers and access to network services. Some policy remedies appear to be required. These include creative ways to make terminals cheaper; to have them recycled; to provide access in libraries, community centres, and other public venues; and to provide e-mail ‘vouchers’ or support other forms of cross-subsidies.

Their evidence suggested that email played a central role in the promotion and use of electronic networks. Evidence from the town of Blackburg in the US, where Internet access was said to have reached some 60 percent of the residents, suggested that the most popular function to be provided was e-mail. Residents use of email far outstripped that of surfing the World Wide Web.

The next step up from the e-mail is the bulletin board, newsgroup and list-server. For a few months last year I subscribed to the US list-server, Civic Values, provided by the Institute for the Study of Civic Values. It was a very lively and active list, dropping more postings into my mail box each day than I could easily cope with. It was during my subscription to this list that I became aware of the concept of netactivism, primarily through the work of Ed Schwartz, a leading proponent of the application of the Internet to political activism.

Ed’s book Netactivism: How citizens use the Internet was published in 1997. The book described how:

Electronic networks offer new channels for action from the neighborhood to the national level. Now you can quickly find out what the government really does and organize around a cause or around a community using mailing lists, online debates, and websites.

The flyer for the book astutely observed that

this book is not a paean to the Internet. It deals also with the real world outside the Internet. Schwartz takes a hard look at what contemporary political movements need, whether they be about neighborhood empowerment, ecology, children, or electing candidates to public office. The Internet is not an end in itself, but a tool to wield in the constant job of organizing people. This book discusses the roles of mailing lists, Web sites, and community networks, and their relationship to traditional outlets for activism [ibid]

In would concur with these arguments and believe that the Internet is not an end in itself, it is a medium that is used and moulded like all of other media to suit the ends of the users. It does not depersonalise users; people “en-personalise” the Internet.

Future trends and directions

The emergence in the UK of community networking is in itself a key trend that will influence access to information communications and technology. It is very likely that people will learn to use such facilities just as they have learnt to use the telephone, the broadcast media and computers. What drives users is their agendas, their desires, their anger, values, ambition, lust for power, public spirit, commitment to justice and equality, greed …. all the things that have driven humanity for thousands of years. Technology may have changed since the times of the Greeks and Romans, the Egyptians and the Incas, but the underlying motivation and behaviour of its users has remained remarkably constant.

Some might argue that the essence of new technology will radically alter the way that people think and act, that there are inherent properties within the technology that will bring about qualitative changes in human relationships and in social differentiation. It is argued that the Internet is a great leveller – it depersonalises and allows anyone to do anything irrespective of their race, age, sex or class. I doubt this. In fact my experience suggests that this is decidedly not so. In a classic joke of the Internet, a dog (seated at a computer), remarks to another dog that “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. My role as a Chat Room Host on AOL [in the 80s and 90s] leads me to suspect that whilst the Internet is a cloaking device, in the final analysis the real person always shines through, if only dimly. As people become more fluent with the language of on-line chat, as they master its capacity for social communication, their real selves become revealed. The dog is soused out; his canine properties finally being detected in his mannerisms, style and attitude. You can pass for a human being and fool some of the people some of time but at the end of the day you are still a dog and subject to doggy ways.

Although this might sound trite, it signifies an important principle for electronically mediated human transactions: the more you use the media, the more fluent you become. It’s the same as speaking a language: the more you speak it, think in it, feel with it and live by it, the more difficult it is to detect that it is not your native tongue. No matter what kind of communications media is used, the more it is used the more fluent become its users. Just as language speakers become fluent in the spoken word, so signers become fluent with their medium of communication.

The Internet is still relatively new and there is still a large proportion of people, even in advanced technological societies, who have not been on it. Television however is a technology that is omniscient: can there be even one sighted person in the UK who has not seen television? How many people hardly ever watch it?. Even people who themselves do not own a TV find they end up watching it at the home of a friend or relative. TV has become the technology that has penetrated everyday life and penetrated it the most deeply. Even more than the telephone.

The advent of digital TV will, in my view, have a far more profound impact on everyday life for the majority of the population than the Internet. It is very likely that the Internet will continue to exist alongside the telephone and the wireless but it will be, I suspect, the preserve of the literati; it will attract the devotions of a dedicated following, like citizen band radio still does following the passing of its hey-day. Digital TV however will replace newspapers and the Internet as the main infrastructure for the delivery of information. It will do everything that the exponents of the Internet claim for their own medium but it will do it better.

The Internet is a wonderful thing but the biggest barrier to its success is that you need a computer to get into it. More precisely, the biggest barrier to mass access to the Internet is the keyboard. The keyboard is the artefact of the literary elite, the technically competent and the highly skilled. The mode of communication of the common person is the voice. Even the mouse is not a universally welcome tool amongst the IT-literati. Most people will cope with the remote control of their TV, providing its doesn’t get too complicated. Within a few years, the keyboard will be as obsolete as the inked ribbon is now as we will learn to communicate with technology via our voices. That will open up technology and will be the most important development in providing access to technology.

TV has up to now been a largely passive device; digital TV, combined with a feedback loop with every box with put access into every home. There is still something a little exclusive about the telephone. If that feedback can travel through the electricity supply, then that would open up interactive TV to universal enfranchisement. It will be possible to allow the individual to vote via their TV, ask questions and publish their opinions with needing specialised technologies. Interactive, digital TV carries enormous power because it gives everyone equal access to the means by which political persuasion is produced.

Even now, the media channels public opinion polling into the political arena. All opinion polls are however long-winded, manual procedures that must, in practical terms, utilise relatively small samples. TVs on the grid, however, will allow universal opinion polling and voting. A national referendum would be a routine event.

If we come back in ten years time to reconsider the impact of technology on democracy, we will hear little of the Internet: it was just a passing technology, like the vinyl record and the audio cassette. It will occupy the same place in the history of technology as citizens band radio. Its force and content will have been taken over by digital TV. Its interactivity and connectivity will find a much fuller life and vigour in the mass audiences of the TV set. Within about ten years, every household in Europe will have one box which will combine together our present domestic technologies of TV, telephone and computer. The implications of that for politics and democracy are quite profound.

© Trevor Locke 1998