PART I

ORIENTING OURSELVES TO THE FUTURE: THREE VITAL PERSPECTIVES

As the MacArthur Foundation and other civic-minded philanthropies grapple with the challenges ahead, there are three vital perspectives that should inform our thinking: the need for a sovereign citizen vision for the new media; the transforming effects of distributed information networks; and the need for a telecommunications architecture that fosters community, democracy and culture. These three viewpoints can help focus our thinking on the most critical priorities.


A. The Need for a Sovereign Citizen Vision

When assessing the performance of public-interest telecom advocates, there is much to laud, criticize and improve. But it seems to me that the overriding problem is the lack of a coherent, positive vision that can help mobilize and unify diverse nonprofit players and organize their discourse into a more coherent framework. Currently, the public-interest vision is largely fragmented, muddled or reactive. It tends to be issue-specific, and not part of a larger political philosophy or self-organizing, expanding movement. This problem derives in large part from the deficiencies of progressive politics, and it may be too much to ask a hardy band of telecom-survivors to reinvent that. Yet this intellectual deficit remains a serious impediment. We don't have a vision that is at once analytically coherent, empirically informed and marketable.

The corporate world, on the other hand, has developed an intellectually respectable, highly marketable consumerist and entertainment-oriented vision of the new media -- a vision that dovetails nicely with that of computer libertarians who regard the Internet as the last 20th Century outpost of individual freedom. Drawing upon writers like George Gilder, Alvin Toffler, Nicholas Negroponte and Esther Dyson, Wired magazine has given these visions a sheen of intellectual depth and cultural hipness. And Newt Gingrich has given it a political currency and respect.

No one in the public interest community has come close to developing a public interest correlate of similar panache. The Electronic Frontier Foundation got off to a great start with its crusade for an "open platform" telecommunications architecture, an idea that was both easy to understand and sophisticated. It offered a fresh, forward-looking vision, not a rhetorical retread. Less elegantly, Vice President Gore built upon this groundwork in his January 1994 UCLA speech, which outlined six basic principles for the National Information Infrastructure (NII). The Aspen Institute's "Toward an Information Bill of Rights & Responsibilities," edited by Charles M. Firestone and Jorge Reina Schement, is another substantive if abstract statement of telecom ideals.

But a social vision cannot simply be declared. It must be socially enacted over time and given a political embodiment. This requires an infrastructure of supporting institutions, treatises, technology projects and leadership. The burden of this memorandum is to outline what that hypothetical infrastructure must include. As explored in Part II, I believe there are four interrelated challenges that must be aggressively and simultaneously pursued: to develop a more muscular policy advocacy apparatus; to build a broader, more organized constituency that can express its own independent vision; to use the technologies to expand the organizational capacities of nonprofits; and to foster a greater intellectual and strategic depth. None of these goals can be pursued effectively in isolation from the others. Indeed, it is the failure of these different realms to inter-connect that has limited their success.

I begin with "sovereign vision" to emphasize the need for a counterpoint to industry-influenced or politician-led outlooks. We need to ascertain what citizens, nonprofits, schools, artists of all sorts, and other non-commercial parties want and need independent of the commercial dreams and political calculations of others (which is not to say that the citizen vision should be oblivious of market or political forces). Industry and politicians have their own interests, which may or may not coincide with citizen and consumer interests. For example, now that Microsoft is donating software to public libraries as part of a test-bed project, it is possible that libraries will accept a less bracing agenda for themselves in the new media environment. Educators and the disabled community, too, may modify their aspirations as a result of the Baby Bells' "free" wiring of schools and the industry-funded Alliance for Public Technology's "gifts" to disabled organizations.

My point is not to disparage such collaborations per se. There are times when the narrow commercial motives of certain industries coincide with a larger public interest. But quite often corporate and citizen interests diverge. And if there is not an autonomous citizen/nonprofit capacity to define and advocate these interests, it is likely to be swept aside or never even articulated, as occurred during consideration of the telecom legislation. It is important that the nonprofit sector not prematurely abandon certain goals because of corporate or political pressures that preemptively curb ambitions from the outset.

Therefore, as a first order of business, the nonprofit/civic sector must be able to set forth its own vision and mobilize the support of its own autonomous constituencies. Citizens and nonprofits must first have the opportunity to define their own best interests and develop a coherent strategic vision for actualizing them before collaborating with industries, politicians and others who may have divergent interests and certainly greater polemical resources. If compromises are necessary, they can be negotiated later. But if the nonprofit vision is integrated with a corporate or political agenda from the start, its bargaining power and long-term prospects will be artificially limited. That is one reason why bringing all parties to the table to exchange ideas, compile a corpus of literature and similar value-neutral endeavors do not necessarily advance a citizens' agenda. The prescriptions of Part II are premised upon this first principle of a citizen-sovereign vision.


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