Technicity Times
    Issue 1 • November 2002


The Other Side of the Divide
You got it! Now What?

by Barry C. Tavlin

Do you remember what you were doing when you first "got it"? Do you remember where you were when you first started to understand that the Internet and the new technologies have the potential to radically change the way we do things?

I remember when I first got it. It was a little over 10 years ago, on August 20, 1991. It was the day after Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank and denounced the coup that was then underway in the Soviet Union. And that morning the text of Yeltsin's speech was there in my inbox, on a primitive e-mail account I had with a service called Peace-net. Someone had recorded the speech, gone to their apartment in Moscow to transcribe it, dialed up to an Internet provider in Norway and, from there, snuck the speech out through various networks. The next morning I had it in my inbox.

Today we take this sort of thing for granted — someone will send an e-mail about a newsworthy event, and within hours it will be forwarded around the world. But back then it was unheard of. We've come a long way.

Do you remember what did it for you? Was it the ability to communicate instantly and cheaply with people all over the world? Was it the remarkable effect that assistive technology has in empowering people with disabilities? Or the way senior citizens now surf the Web; or the way children are growing up with so much technical literacy? Or maybe it was how you can find out information about anything in a matter of seconds.

Perhaps it was how people in remote corners of the world now can have access to the full range of the world's knowledge and can more easily participate in world affairs. Or maybe it was seeing what you can do with handheld wireless devices or the possibilities that tomorrow may bring.

Whatever did it for you, there's no denying that a major transformation is underway.

By now you're probably thinking: "Sure, that all sounded good about five years ago — before the dot-com meltdown, the consolidation of the major telecommunications companies and the blatant swindling by so many of the executives in these companies. Now the bubble has burst." And you'd be right. Sure, the new technologies have a great potential for communication, education, creative expression, community building and democracy. But they also have great potential for greedy opportunists, for corporate monopolists and communications conglomerates, for scammers and spammers, for hate mongers, etc. And we've seen numerous examples of all of it!

So now what? Should we just forget the potential of new technologies now, and turn the field over to the telecommunications giants? No way! There are still great possibilities in the new technologies, and that is being proven every day in communities here in Los Angeles and around the world. Instead, I'd ask you to consider how we can help influence the direction of the technology so that it can be of even greater benefit. How is all this technology being used to address the needs of the community? How will it be used in the future? How should it be used in the future?

What are people doing today to eliminate the "digital divide" between the digitally enabled and everyone else? What can be done, and what are people doing, to provide access for all and to go beyond it to use technology to develop communities and better empower people in all aspects of community life?

Some people have compared the Internet, Web, and broadband technologies to the printing press in terms of the impact that they will have on our society. I tend to agree. Imagine life before the printing press. Now imagine your own life before the Internet and Web. Now imagine life after it's been around for a while longer: the new connections between friends, family and community; the improvements for education and communication; the potential for assistive technology; the engine for community development; the ability to inform and organize people through online manifestos and real-time communication; the channels for creativity, play and self-expression.

You've got something powerful there at your fingertips. How are you going to use it?

Barry Tavlin consults on Internet technology and strategy.