Cityview: Silicon Allies

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Traditionally, the principle targets of discrimination were gender, race, class and religious belief. But now there is another social construct that can potentially lead to discrimination–one’s ability or inability to access and usefully process information. Globalization and technological change are reshaping the economic realities faced by communities throughout the world. In fact, in the immediate future, those communities whose residents understand how to use on-line resources will have far, far greater opportunities than those whose residents do not.

But what are mostly disenfranchised communities like Harlem, where I live, doing to insure that they can compete in the new information age? Right now, not much.

By modest estimates, Harlem has over 500,000 residents, 2,500 small business and 1,000 nonprofit organizations. Still, after counting all the scattered computing resources in my community, I found there are fewer than 100 networked personal computers available to the general public for training. To make matters worse, the vast majority of those computing facilities require users to be enrolled in an educational institution or specific social service program. More advanced facilities that are supposedly open to the general public are little more than showcases that offer insufficient hours or lack the training staff to assist even a small population.

A universally acknowledged hurdle to computer access is cost: households and businesses of modest means simply cannot afford it. What we need are community computer network centers supported by the private and public sectors, where residents can conduct civic and social activities, learn and sharpen their technical skills and, most importantly, discuss and develop projects and programs that foster community growth.

Building these new computer network centers, however, means more than just putting computers in community-based organizations or existing neighborhood centers. It means developing focused, working partnerships between social service agencies, advocacy groups, schools, universities, religious institutions, small businesses, local governments and corporations with ties to the community. In this dawning age of technology, it is important for communities to understand this powerful and sophisticated tool and its impact on organizing. To begin this process, everyone–individuals, leaders, and groups–must invest time, thought and resources into developing models for applying technology to the existing community infrastructure.

I participated in one such short-term partnership–the Technology Education and Awareness Conference for Harlem (TEACHarlem)–which was organized by City College, the Barnard-Columbia Center for Urban Policy, Community Technology Centers’ Network, the Harlem Partnership Center, NYPIRG and the NYNEX Technology Education Center. The purpose of this two-day conference was to figure out how we could empower our community by strategically combining our social and business networks with our local technological resources. The conference featured hands-on workshops, demonstrations of community-wide applications of technology and tips on how to obtain resources. It also included a group discussion about community issues which relate directly to technology.

For the organizers, the conference was only a first step. To follow up, we plan to create a directory of computer support resources in Harlem. Many times, the skills, technology and funding are right in the community, but simply have not been tapped. The time is now for communities to seriously investigate the development of community-funded, controlled and maintained computer network centers–places for all neighborhood residents and organizations, but especially for youth, seniors and displaced workers.

Word processing and number-crunching merely scratch the surface of what today’s networked personal computers can do. This week, I used my three-year-old computer to read texts, get up-to-the-minute news, answer and screen phone calls, pay bills, send e-mail, video conference with new friends in Africa and Europe, watch a few videotapes and listen to CDs and archived radio broadcasts. Using this same $1,500 computer, I also produce documents which integrate text, pictures, sound and video. And anything I produce on my computer can be made accessible to more than 50 million other people’s homes and offices worldwide via Internet homepages. Many people assume one must be a “techie” to coax a computer to perform all of these functions, but in reality, these are very simple things, and anyone with the right training can do them.

In the end, this relatively new medium is more than just a vehicle for consumer entertainment and commerce. Beginning to understand this technology’s power and complexity is crucial for communities devastated by budget cuts to public services. Using computer networks as cost-effective and powerful tools for organizing and communicating, communities can strengthen links between art, business, educational, religious, health and housing organizations. With functional community computer network centers, Harlem could achieve countless quality-of-life improvements. After all, today’s network computer is not merely a calculating typewriter with a television screen; it is a new and powerful tool for social change.

Vernon Ballard is the director of computer operations for the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) and the co-manager of the City College Multimedia Learning Center.

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