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When do ordinary people get a look in?

This presentation was given by David Wilcox at Sussex Community Internet Forum September 30 1996. The title of the Forum was: The Internet: When do ordinary people get a look in?

This presentation

Other presentations and Forum workshop reports\

An appropriate title

It is a great pleasure, and appropriate, to be introducing the seminar under this title - when do ordinary people get a look in - because it is the result of work by ordinary people.\ \ Eighteen months ago Clive Baldock of the Health Care Trust, Colin Miller of Hove community development team, Elaine Jewell of Brighton Library and I met.\ \ I was inspired by a trip to a US conference of community networkers - The Ties that Bind. Since then Mark Walker at PACT, Gill Muncey of Common Purpose, Peter Day of Brighton University, Sally McMahon from the library and others have carried the ideas forward with our volunteer co-ordinator Peter Mason.\ \ Nationally I have worked with others to help create Communities Online which has funding from BT and the Department of Trade and Industry.\ \ Three questions lie behind the main title

  1. Does the Internet matter?
  2. If so, do ordinary people need to get a look in? Can't we just leave it to the experts?
  3. If ordinary people do need a look in, how is that best achieved?

I'll give you my conclusions in advance: it is important, we can't leave it to the experts, and the way to gain involvement is local.

Does the Internet matter?

I think there are three views:


The impact of new technology will be something like a combination of the internal combustion engine on town and countryside, TV on our leisure, and the black death on our health - mentally at least. It will destroy the national state, destroy many jobs, and glue our children to the screen downloading porn. This view was ably presented by Ian Angell, LSE Professor in last week's Independent and on BBC2 on Saturday in the programme on globalisation.

Techno empowerment.

For the first time anyone can be an international publisher. The kid is the back bedroom is as powerful as the grey suits. The Internet can be used to rebuild our communities by democratising communication and provides great opportunities for entrepreneurs. See Victor Keegan in today's Guardian.

Techno weary.

The Internet is over hyped - rather like CB radio. If you do use it regularly you will soon fall back to basic email. Top people in the industry use meetings, phone and pieces of paper. See Clifford Stoll in Silicon Snake Oil for this view.

Which is right?

I offer some pointers in judging between these three views:

  • Lots of smart money in the computer industry is going towards the Net - see the trade paper Computing where the proportion of Net related articles is extraordinarily high. There is kit to be sold.
  • Big media message-carriers and message-producers are getting together - BT and Rupert Murdoch are joining forces. There is content to be sold.
  • At the other end of the scale environmentalists and community activists are using the Net to organise. It gives small people leverage.
  • The Internet - and its successors - will soon be consumer services in the home. Set top boxes will be available for a few hundred pounds. It is coming to our home.
  • Every Single Regeneration Budget application has to have an IT component to it. So it is official.
  • Local authorities and independent partnerships throughout the country are creating local community information and communication systems.

·…. so something is afoot

Do ordinary people need a look in?

Can't we leave it to the experts?

  • Even if it is important do we need to know the car mechanics - under the bonnet?
  • There are policy concerns are around pornography, security, integrity of information - but can't we leave this to techies and select committees to sort out?
  • What's wrong if we do get more home shopping, banking?

The case for ordinary people and their representatives

  • Do we trust the experts? Look at the history of roads, high rise housing and historic buildings. These don't give us confidence in 'experts'.
  • The people in charge of the super highway are not public servants, they are employed by international corporations in desperate battles for survival and profitability. Their criteria must be market share, return on investment - their methods cutting costs, which means jobs. They are on the side of their consumers and shareholders, but not of all citizens. Quite right - that's their role - but we need other roles too.
  • It is OK if you are connected, but what about the rest?
  • Politicians won't have much influence unless there is widespread support. The default route is commercial. We will build the infrastructure by behaving as consumers not citizens. We wouldn't be happy if the only interests represented at road enquiries were car drivers and the road transport and construction industry.
  • There aren't even any public enquiries for the information superhighway.

How do we give ordinary people a look in?

Some of it is happening

  • Locally Brighton, Hove and Sussex have a wide range of initiatives - many started by ordinary people like Simon Turner of Virtual Bright and Hove, Jonny Shipp of Cybar, Jane Finnis of Lighthouse. Mark Walker will tell us more in his presentation.
  • Nationally the Government will be launching an 'IT for All' campaign in December. It would be easy to put that down to pre-election gimmickry - but I believe there is genuine concern about both increasing international competitiveness by improving skills and social cohesion. The DTI leaflet warns of the dangers of haves and have nots.
  • I am involved with developing Communities Online and an International Association for Community Networking.

But this isn't enough - it is a new set of elites

  • It costs over £1000 to buy the necessary equipment.
  • It costs £15 a month plus phone bills to use
  • It still isn't that easy to use.
  • Most of the effort is going towards publishing - not helping citizens talk to each other
  • Few of the people with the power and the money to help will do so - because they don't understand, and they do not see the point. If they do see the point, it may be threatening.
  • Local media generally don't carry positive stories because they are concerned about competition.

We need

  • More public access points
  • New infrastructure
  • Community servers as well as official ones on the new network
  • A programme of training and support
  • Ways of relating the virtual world to the real work - better ways of understanding how electronic networking can help human networking

Why local is important

There are several reasons for focusing on the local, which come down to the same thing - that electronic communications are not enough:

  • Local may become economically and socially more important as we globalise. We will need the communication pipes of the future, and the competence to use them, as much as we have needed good transport infrastructure. I expect Colin Millar and Doug Williams from BT Labs will say more about that.
  • In order to make sense of things people need to meet. In order to plan this meeting we used email, but we had to meet a lot too. The energy from this event may be carried forward on mailing lists and the Web, but we had to see each other.
  • If we spend more time in front of screens, friends, family and local quality of life may well become more important.

If we want ordinary people to have a look in, we have to start where ordinary people are - and that means with the real world schools, businesses, clubs, societies, families and friends in Brighton, Hove and Sussex.

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