Community Networking: A Network of Sustainable Communities

An interview by John Horvath

As more and more people continue to use networking technologies, namely the Internet, ideas of community are being brought to the fore. The concept of the "death of distance" has made the Internet community more global in its outlook. Meanwhile, local communities are discovering the mutual benefits that technology can bring to the concept of sustainability.

Douglas Schuler is a network and community activist based in Seattle, Washington (US). He is co-founder of the Seattle Community Network and has written extensively on community networking. The following is an excerpt of an interview from the Internet & Politics conference held in February, 1997, in Munich, Germany.

: Would you say that computer networking could be in some ways the backbone to a sustainable community or is just an aspect among many other aspects?

DOUGLAS SCHULER:: I think that computer networking is just one aspect among many other aspects, although I can't really imagine an empowered, democratic community that didn't have a free (or nearly free) public access community network. Communication is key to almost everything that humans do and we need to shape the new technology in ways that support democratic communication. In my book by the way, I develop six core values that are necessary for all communities (culture and conviviality; education; strong democracy; health and well-being; economic opportunity, equity, and sustainability; information and communication) and different communities may go about addressing these core values in different ways.

In Seattle there is an organization called Sustainable Seattle They started about five years ago and they started with the question, "How do we know whether Seattle is becoming more sustainable or less?" And their answer was, "We need a set of indicators that will give us sustainability snapshots over time." So finding these indicators became the first stage of their project. They sat down, and over a two or three year period came up with a list of indicators of sustainability. They were looking for measures that were symptomatic of the whole region; they first came up with about forty, now they have about a hundred-and-something. There were indicators like the number of wild salmon returning to spawn, participation in the arts, home gardening - all these values - and what they did was put the narratives that described many of their indicators and the data up on Seattle Community Network. To me that was a very natural fit. They were focusing on the Seattle area and we had a network, so rather them then going creating their own, they said, "Oh, this is a community medium," and so they put their information on our system as another way for people to learn about the indicators.

Sustainable Seattle wants to keep pushing the issue of sustainability in Seattle. They've got the indicators; the next step is to build consciousness around the indicators and then actually to effect change. They don't want to just idly watch as their re "Oh, that's what they did in Seattle, we can borrow some of their ideas. We don't have to completely copy what they did, but we don't have to completely re-invent the wheel either because they have some good concepts we can use." So other sustainable communities can be part of a larger network of people swapping information about sustainability.

One thing I found that was vital about Sustainable Seattle was that they came up with their own indicators. They didn't call up the government and say "what are the indicators?"; they didn't call up the university, the geography department, and say "what are the indicators?", because those indicators wouldn't be ones that made sense to them. In a community where, say, a corporation is dumping their chemicals, if the community says "OK, we're going to look at the idea of health in a broad way in our community, and we're going to include these toxins as indicators of community health." When they get the data and publicize it, it becomes obvious to everybody that they're getting screwed. So the idea of doing your own science or doing your own research is a compelling one. When I saw the way the Sustainable Seattle people do it, I thought that's the sort of thing that I want SCN to be able to support. When you are not doing it yourself, you may be waiting for somebody else to do it, and even though they should be doing it they might not be. So community networks can help provide an opportunity for activists acting as lay-scientists to publish important community data that other people or institutions have no interest in gathering or publishing. They can also help community activists to communicate with other people that can help. Say if you are measuring water quality in your local river, you may want to go out and talk to people who are water quality experts or who have done it before. Experts have a role to play but you don't want them in the driver's seat for the whole project.

: Can you see there being a linking up of different interests, as with people talking about alternative currencies (such as Ithaca Hours), which is also a way for reinforcing sustainable communities, and, if so, how would this grow in face of the concept of the global economy? Isn't the concept of sustainable communities the antithesis to that of a global economy, in other worA, a paradox?

DOUGLAS SCHULER:: The first thing to realize is that the world is full of paradoxes and always will be. We are always going to live in a local place but that doesn't mean we won't trade with people in some non-local place. I can't imagine a time when you can produce everything in your own community. I'm comfortable living with paradoxes. People simultaneously exist in thirty or forty communities. You live in your own local community but you have frienA in another, you correspond with other people in cyberspace, you visit others; if you are a librarian you are part of a community of librarians, and if you speak English there is kind of an English community; I'm American although I don't agree with everything Americans do, and I'm definitely a part of the community of Americans.

I get nervous whenever I hear the expression "global economy." The world is becoming more of a corporatized community more than a global one. When people say global today, they are describing one particular form of globalization which is controlled by corporations who have no sort of local allegiance. Their reason for existing is only to make money; it is as if they lived on another planet and earth was just one of their colonies.

That's one of the amazing things about language as a medium of communication. We may think we are precisely communicating but when we go our separate ways we may be both left with our own views because we both interpret the worA in the way it makes sense to us. That's why it's often necessary to go back-and-forth-back-and-forth to see if you actually do agree.

Some things sound good when you first hear them, like "global village" - it sounA very nice, restful in a way - that's why it's so perfect as a slogan because there is nothing there behind it beyond the fact that it sounA so good. I haven't really given the concept of a "global village" much thought but I'm reluctant to because it seems so vapid. It could mean anything, so it probably means nothing. Regardless of the emptiness of the term, I think exploring the meanings and possibilities and implications of increased communications world-wide is one of the most important jobs we have before us. That is something that will need world-wide contributors and it's something that I hope to be working on with other activists. Is that something that Telepolis would like to help facilitate?"

Community is another one of these worA that has lots and lots of meanings. People are always saying "Give me a precise definition of community." Well, it means everything that it has meant throughout history, because the word has come up throughout history and people have used it in certain ways and they continue to use it in certain ways; and then people use it in new ways, so we inherit all these meanings. If you don't know the person or don't go back-and-forth-back-and-forth you are not going to know what people mean when they use worA like "community."

: Do you think this conference (Internet & Politics) is actually in a way trying to foster democratic projects like the Seattle Community Network or do you think it's more of a corporate mentality trying to reinforce itself?

DOUGLAS SCHULER:: In my opinion the organizers of this conference did try to bring in many voices that were civic, rather than corporate. I think particularly of Herb Schiller or Benjamin Barber who both had rather scathing remarks directed against corporate domination. All the projects that I brought up in my presentation at this conference are local, grassroots Seattle projects, and what I was trying to suggest are two things: One is that the government should get involved in helping to seed civic projects, but the other is that people shouldn't wait for the government, and that they need to begin thinking about how to be more autonomous and independent and empowered. That is why I was talking about linking all these projects together into what I call a tapestry of democratic technology. We want to foster these experiments because the more people that are involved in these projects - like Amsterdam's Digital Stad project, and the projects that people are doing in libraries - the more likely it is that there will be public space in cyberspace, as an alternative to total corporatization. I want to see people gain experience so they have confidence and a better "feel" for what can and should be done. I think that actively building systems is one of the best ways to do this.

It's important for us to be thinking about what we're doing, but I don't want people to be thinking instead of acting. I want people to be not just thinking because I see the struggle for democratic technology as a battle that communities may lose. The battle is going on and it looks like many of our would-be generals are just talking about the nature of the struggle or the theory of strategy or other concepts while the war is being lost.

Whether or not community networks in and of themselves, is going to be in any way a counter to the corporatization of the world remains to be seen. There are a lot of reasons to believe that it won't happen. The momentum behind global corporatization is so great that I don't know what could push it out to the side. My hope is that there are enough people that don't think that corporations should assume complete dominion over everything, and that there's got to be some alternative viewpoints and that the people that have those need to get together, talk, and work together and see about building alternatives.

: Isn't the Internet a passive medium and a potential danger to community activism because people start thinking that it is just enough to surf the web pages rather than go out into the street, make petitions and collect signatures, etc?

DOUGLAS SCHULER:: I've seen activists who should know better do that on several occasions. They sit down and they want to accomplish something and they talk and talk and talk, and then they finally decide they'll make some information available on the web. I do think it is important to generate that information but if you don't go out and take the next step then you've only done part of the job.

: Then does the Internet actually prevent people from actually going out because they think they are being active by writing e-mail and looking at this web site instead of standing out in the rain or the cold?

DOUGLAS SCHULER:: I don't believe that the Internet itself does that. If we say that the Internet does that, we're ascribing tendencies to an inert technology. I think the way that we conceptualize the tool is largely the way that it will be. If we think that it is just a passive thing, then that's what it will be. In the States, video cameras are used for weddings and for your kid's soccer games. It is not used for political purposes, it's hardly used for art, and it's hardly used for independent cinema or video. That's the way we've conceptualized the use of a video camera. That's not to say it can't be used for other purposes but how we think of a tool certainly helps dictate how we use it.

The main reason that I go around talking about SCN and other democratic technology projects is I want the Internet to be used in certain ways. I know that my ideas aren't going to dominate, but I just hope that there is enough appeal and potential in them that some people will say "yes, we're going to start doing that" or "we're doing some of that already" or "you and I should work together". At the most basic level the Internet is just a bunch of channels communicating using a protocol. That means that we can send data, we can send sound, we can send graphic images, and we can send text. But that's all it is. What type of information we send and what and how we choose to deal with it are the critical issues. If all people did is stand out in the rain with signs and they never did any information gathering or theorizing or anything, then we'd be in big trouble, too. There's got to be balance. Activism is not just standing in the rain; sometimes it's really direct action - occupying a building or getting in the way of a truck - but sometimes it's just sending letters, which is purely informational. If you bombard a senator or newspapers if you see your activism as sharing useful information with others, or by exposing corrupt practices via information, information is one of the most potentially powerful tools we can use. It is all part of a spectrum of activism which I hope we can begin to reconceptualize in a more holistic, systematic way.


Community Networking Movement

New Community Networks: Wired for Change. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. 1996.

Reinventing Technology, Rediscovering Community. Critical Explorations of Computing as a Social Practice, Norwood, NJ: Ablex. 1996. [should be "1997"]

Developing Community Networks, Workshop handouts, 1996.

Three Ways to Kill Community Networks, Conference proceedings, Taos, 1996.

Public Space in Cyberspace: The Rise of the New Community Networks (in Hungarian) (Douglas Schuler)