Freenets And The Politics Of Community In Electronic Networks

The enclosed article by Garth Graham appears in the first issue of a new on-line journal entitled "Government Information in Canada/Information Gouvernementale au Canada" edited by Andrew Hubbertz of the University of Saskatchewan. The article should be of interest to everyone concerned with computer networking and its place in the community. For the entire issue, aim your Web client at
Resent-Date: Wed, 17 Aug 1994 18:10:14 -0700
Date: Wed, 17 Aug 1994 18:10:12 -0700
From: Phil Agre 
Subject: Freenets and the Politics of Community in Electronic Networks
X-Mailing-List:  archive/latest/369
Precedence: list



ABSTRACT: In an age when the relationships among people, governments
and the uses of information are changing, so also change the traditional
patterns of communication between governments and the "public." 
Examining how social relationships are altered by FreeNets can contribute
to our understanding how changing patterns of communication affect the
relationship between governors and the governed.



        3. WHAT IS A FREENET?







The transition to an Information Society is not about technology.  It's
about social change.  In making that point, I sound as if I'm about to
present a radical social manifesto.  But that's not my intention.  I'm
reporting on how the Information Society looks and feels based on the
experiences emerging from electronic community networks.  I'm really
just another traveller coming back from Cyberspace.  I have some
experience of the birth and growth of one type of community network,
FreeNets.  This essay is a reflection on what we can learn from them about
how life will actually be lived in the communities of cyberspace.  I'm
trained in the politics of neighbourhoods, and I've always found that the
neighbours understood the consequences of development better than City

Cabinet Minister Jon Gerrard referred to FreeNets, in his address to the
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

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 basic
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 grassroots 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 super highway 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


When the public decides to define its own frames of reference, the concept
of community should be moved to the top of the agenda.  Of course,
electronic communities have no more physical reality than electronic
highways.  We can anticipate the ways that virtual communities are
changing our experience of the real world.  But to discuss how we will
inhabit both virtual communities and the physical communities, I too have
to resort to spatial metaphors.

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 US 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 occupying the transit
lounges and shoreline properties for 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 20th 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.

3.                WHAT IS A FREENET?

In the Ottawa Citizen, January 25/94, there was an article with the title,
HOMES TO ELECTRONIC NETWORK BY NEXT YEAR." The article states this is,
the FIRST test-run on Canada' electronic superhighway, which will cost
$750 million over the next decade.  I'd suggest that this Videotron Group
project is not really the first test-run. National Capital Freenet was, and
it isn't going to cost $750 million per decade.  It's going to cost $4 million
per decade.  Information technology managers call NCF an "application," but
the people who are in them see community networks as a social movement. 
We think that support for community networks has the biggest social and
political payoff of any strategy for transition to the Information Society.

There are at least 29 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, 7 million Canadians will have access
to a FreeNet.

Tom Grundner, founder of the community networks movement and head of
the US  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
LOCAL 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 Free-Nets to "retrieve
information".  But the essence of Free-Nets 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
Free-Nets to those with no hands-on experience of telecomputing
networks.  In fact, while demonstrating FreeNet on-line 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
on-line, 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:

1. Use connections to make community work better.

2. Provide for contact and dialogue among organizations that provide

3. Educate people in the community about the utility of
telecommunications services.

4. Educate kids, not just in "computer" skills but in access skills.

5. Educate for universal computer literacy so that Canada doesn't fall

6 Act as a model for future systems nation wide.

FreeNets have become comfortable with using a "Public Library of the 21st
century" analogy to explain their purpose.  But again a familiar metaphor
contains conceptual problems.  The library is about externalized
community memory. It's a repository of selected knowledge, organized for
retrieval.  Its organizers rarely enter into direct mediation of the value of
those stored memories when they are retrieved for use.  A network is
about conversations, and there is really very little distinction between
those who provide information and those who use it.  Everybody talks all
the time.  Everybody sends and receives.  The joy of the medium
comes when you want to really listen.  With digitalized dialogue you can go
off-line and think about your reply.

All of this is to say that the pay-off 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 NCF 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 channeling incoming
messages and in the sort of internal learning that will change the purpose
of the organization.  Maybe they should.


For those of you committed to action in the service of FreeNets, Howard
Rheingold's "The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic
Frontier, " (Addison Wesley, 1993), is a must-read.  He finds a consistent
pattern in the development of Net tools such as electronic mail, packet
switching, TCP/IP, BBS's, Usenet, internet relay chat, and MUDs.  That
pattern is spelled out in the following two quotes:

        "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, a
        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." p67.

        "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." p70.

The 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 it's 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 re-write 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 30 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 on-line 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.


Do networks develop community?  If, as Tip O'Neil said, "All politics is
local," how will we govern in a society where anyone can connect to
anyone else, anywhere on earth.  What dimension of locality will you use to
define your politics?  On the Internet, there are communities of "interest"
that are located in the mix of ideas, conflicts and issues surrounding
specific social concerns.  The people that belong to them feel that virtual
communities of common interests ARE communities.  Net-based discussion
Resent-Date: Wed, 17 Aug 1994 18:10:14 -0700
Date: Wed, 17 Aug 1994 18:10:12 -0700
From: Phil Agre 
Subject: Freenets and the Politics of Community in Electronic Networks
X-Mailing-List:  archive/latest/369
Precedence: list

groups are inherently political arenas where the exercise of politics lies
in being able to shift opinion in the context of the conversation.

Does a sustained on-line 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

       - Everybody is somebody's subsystem.  The metatext is where the
         sysops and moderators plot their exploitations of the locals.

   Surface text
      - Dialogues and diatribes that create factions of opinion, as the
        threads of conversation knit and unravel.  I like the idea of
        topics or issues as "strange attractors" of conversational pattern.

      - Where gossip, the real glue of social control,  operates by e-mail to
         reinforce factions. 

When you go to new places you learn things, especially about yourself. 
When you participate in on-line discussions, you confront strange people in
a strange place, cyberspace.  In effect, you are opting in and out of many
communities, with many different norms and values.  Occupying each of
them requires personal adjustments similar to those experienced  by
immigrants and travellers.  This process of adjustment is called

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.  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 on-line 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 Winograde and Fernando Flores said, "networks of
recurrent conversations are the core of organization." (Understanding
computers and cognition: a new foundation for design. p158.)  The
difference between hosting an on-line discussion and hosting a
cocktail party with intense conversation is that the level of feedback in
the on-line discussion is substantially more available for analysis before
response.  Also everyone supplies their own beer.


It is commonly understood that change in information technology is a
cause and consequence of a convergence in the electronic tools that create
our communications media.  What is not commonly understood is that this
convergence on the technical level is paralleled by a similar convergence
on the social level.  Dichotomies, not convergences, are often the basis of
our current understanding of organizational behaviour.  We objectify and
classify abstract concepts, expecting them to be either one thing or
another.  When we are able to connect anyone's workspace with anyone
else's workspace, suddenly we can associate any idea with any other idea. 
Then all the distinctions we make; between senders and receivers of
messages, between talking in conversation and informing, between the
content of a message and its carrier, between public and private life, all
these conceptual compartments dissolve into each other.

        CMC converges senders and receivers

In Computer mediated communications, the distinction between senders
and receivers is almost meaningless.  The community IS the system, not
its user.  As the Net evolves, the software becomes the primary component
of the communications media that sustains community within it.  A bit of
grammar may help to illustrate this:

        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.

        CMC converges conversation and information

There is one quality we can maintain in community networks that will
contribute to the goal of enhancing local community life.  One sure route to
success lies in always remembering the concept "conversation."

    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? San Francisco,
                          North Point Press, 1990, 209.

But 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.

        CMC converges conduit and content

In regulating telecommunications, a distinction is made between the
carrier of a signal and the content of a signal.  The telephone company is a
utility that allows me to talk but it does not ordinarily interfere with
what I say.  In the same sense, the hardware and software of a community
network is the utility, the conduit, that allows for connections among
people and organizations, whereas the volunteer subcommittees and huge
group of information providers is the catalyst for the content that is
discussed.  Does the separation of carrier and content in the telephone
analogy still hold? Is there a need to ensure a greater separation of
conduit and content than the governing structures of FreeNets have
anticipated?  I think not.

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

        CMC converges public and private identities

When everyone both sends and receives, we will need to sharpen our skills
in constructing personas.  When someone abusively flames someone else in
a global online discussion, they are actually confusing their public and
private selves.  Isolated by the computer screen, they are applying learned
private discourse behaviours in a space that is entirely public.  Since they
are physically at home, they feel at home.  They are not accepting the also
present virtual reality of being on stage before an audience of thousands. 
When someone emails President Clinton directly and he replies, even
though they know about the analytical filters and artificial intelligences
preparing the response, they imagine that they are talking with Clinton's
private self and not a constructed public image.  We know that Prime
Minister Jean Chretien does not do this now, but he will soon.  

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


Majid Tehranian, in his 1990 book, "Technologies of power:
information, machines and democratic prospects," wrote:

        "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

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:

    1. We can develop "community" with information technology.

    2. Networks are more about conversations mediated by computer
       communications than they are about access to information.

    3. To make the networks function as the neurons of social
       connection, it is essential that the technologies be designed to
       place all of the power to connect and to communicate into the
       hands of the individual.

    4. In the view of economics, all that is left of our social role in
       public life is our duty to consume.  In an Information Society,
       there is a very real possibility of regaining the role of citizen.

My own vision of the Information Society includes a positive push toward
social change in the direction of communities that are less
"representative" and more participative, based on individual responsibility.

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

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 as 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 highspeed
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.

        Garth Graham          
    <<< NGL/CANIS (Community Access Network Information Services) >>>
        Box 86, Ashton, Ont., K0A 1B0                613-253-3497

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