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Making the Case for Technology Within the Community




Nov 27, 2000


Tony Wilhelm

Mario and Greg,

Thanks for sharing your draft report on the digital divide, a report that I found to be both a forceful rallying document and a useful guide replete with tangible next steps for policymakers to consider in forging social progress through technology. I have specific comments below. My general reactions are positive, and this report clearly takes the national conversation around the digital divide to another plateau, providing a sound rationale for investing in community infrastructure as the only serious antidote to overcome chronic poverty and underdevelopment. Your ideas for sparking catalytic change are very concrete and nonpartisan; thus they are feasible from a political point of view. In terms of more concrete suggestions:

1. The idea of a digital divide **movement** is exaggerated in the paper. I don't think there is a movement -- which implies coherence and coordination -- and I think your report is actually the sort of rallying cry that could galvanize a movement. What we have currently are ad hoc, uncoordinated commitments on the part of companies and foundations, without any integration or synergy (Digital Divide Network and government action notwithstanding) within or across sectors.

2. Your six challenges outlined at the beginning of the document do not seem to follow a logical ordering. I would actually start from the premise (currently #2) that community infrastructure is THE channel to reach underserved communities. You should make an affirmative statement that communities have assets that must be tapped and nurtured and that low-income communities can be sources of innovation, given the right convergence of circumstances -- witness Plugged In in East Palo Alto or the Puente Learning Center in East Los Angeles. I would put what is now premise 1 near the bottom, since technology investment only makes sense (according to your own argument) in the context of community development. 2. Premise #2 needs to be rewritten, since currently it reads as a contradiction. You need to be clearer about what is "community infrastructure" versus "traditional means of climbing out of poverty," since these two groupings seem to overlap. Perhaps you make too much of this difference. For example, you cite schools as institutions that are frail and community centers as part of the new community infrastructure; yet the report is rich with examples of how schools and teachers need to be reinforced, with technology serving as a catalyst to improve education and teacher training. Do we really believe that community infrastructures short of strong families and reinvested public schools can solve the capacity deficit separating haves from have-nots?

3. There is no bullet (premise) and little consideration given in the report to CONTENT. We know that communities will need to develop and deliver content that meets the diverse needs of individuals and groups and be producers as well as consumers of media in order to take charge of their own revitalization. In Upper Manhattan, for example, a group called Harlem Live, has recruited youth from the surrounding community to take active role in developing content about their community -- reporting on police brutality, interviewing senior members of the community, and creating multimedia productions -- that would otherwise be the purview of one size fits all commercial media. A community, in order to be healthy, needs an image of itself that is self-described. This is fundamental in my estimation to community development.

4. Much of the middle section of the report (pp. 4 through the top of 7) starts from the premise that lessons from the corporate sector are easily transferable to the nonprofit sector. I think there is little empirical support for this position and few examples with respect to information technology where lessons from the commercial sector can be easily grafted on to the noncommercial sector. The example of the life engineer on page 6 highlights the disconnect between what motivates someone working for a nonprofit -- to meet social needs -- versus Cisco engineers whose job it is to innovate and develop new technologies. The example of professional development of teachers, for example, is also telling, since many teachers who have been trained to use technology effectively are difficult to retain, since they can earn considerably more in the private sector. Thus what is missing is a thoughtful exploration of how to retain talented people in the nonprofit and public sectors. What incentives are there to motivate people to stay?

5. The report probably overstates the case that access is only the first step or something that has no value in its own right. Access challenges continue to be key public policy issues -- around the future of the E-rate, the status of universal service to subsidize telephone connectivity, and whether broadband will be deployed equitably so as not to exclude entire communities from its benefits. I would think a more constructive approach would be that access is a necessary pillar but it is not sufficient. This argument also jibes with your concern for sustainable approaches to technology access, ones that consider the full life-cycle cost of technology. In effect, we have not paid enough attention to access, something that should be like electricity: cheap, ubiquitous and practically invisible.

6. Your choice of the term "quantum change" may not be the best way to describe what might occur in communities, since quantum change implies revolutionary, break-the-mold change that is more the stuff of science fiction than what actually takes place in the nonprofit world or the public sector. I think experimentation and innovation will always be a messy enterprise and communities will muddle through until they get it right -- hopefully inspired by an early adopter who will lessen opportunity costs for investment.

7. I do think too much is made of **persuading** low-income communities that technology is relevant to their lives. All of the research I have seen, including research I have conducted, finds that experience with and exposure to technology easily hurdles attitudinal barriers. Among seniors, for example, who are online, they find it to be incredibly empowering and valuable to meeting many needs. They also happen to be the group with the greatest resistance to getting online, reasoning that there is nothing online that is relevant to them. The point is that we should be encouraging widespread dissemination of these tools in communities alongside the sort of human and institutional capacity building that are core components of your action agenda.

8. Your ideas for catalytic change are excellent and quite feasible. The notion of the TechCorps, however, will be difficult, since the people whom you describe just do not exist, people experienced in health, education, etc., and who happen to also be skilled at applying technology to problem solving within these domains. These people are in great demand; hence the problem PowerUp had in finding Vista volunteers. How would you incent talented go-getters to pursue this line of service work?

Hope these ideas are helpful. I know Larry and I look forward to working with you, where appropriate, to get these messages out, since your values clearly align with the values of the Benton Foundation.


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