New Community Networks: Wired for Change
SEDLetter Reviews New Community Networks: Wired for Change. Douglas Schuler. ACMPress. 528 pages. Indexed. $26.85 paper.
"Communities are the right scale for many human endeavors," writes DouglasSchuler in the preface of New Community Networks: Wired for Change. Schuler'scommunity is not the classical "and static" community, but a "new type ofcommunity that combines aspects of old and new." And to take advantage of theirhybrid vigor, Schuler asserts that such communities must develop an importantcommunity resource - community computer networks.
As a matter of fact, community networks supported by computer bulletin boardsystems (BBSs) or the Internet are springing up around the country and around the globe. Communities are using computer telecommunications capabilities to supportdialogue, interaction, accountability, education, entertainment, communityservices, and government and to promote economic development, informationdissemination, and cultural activities. These factors make New Community Networkstimely. And since Schuler looks at communities and the issues of communitydevelopment and not at technology for technology's sake, his book will remain avaluable source of ideas well beyond the next networking innovation orbreakthrough in broadband services.
Schuler is concerned about education, health care, government, culture, economicequity, and - especially - democracy. Many of his ideas address educators'concerns such as cooperative group learning, life-long learning, systemic reform,critical thinking, school-linked services, engaged learning, learningcommunities, and an entire spectrum of equity issues. Schuler envisions communitynetworks that support an "educational system [designed] to help every individualdevelop intellectual independence and a sense of empowerment"; he states that"any community network that is intended to support the community must helpaddress the crisis in equity and access in education."
Schuler brings impressive credentials to his topic. A software engineer, Schulerhas worked on the social issues of computing for nearly 15 years. Current chairof Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, he helped found the SeattleCommunity Network. He is credited by Apple librarian Steve Cisler with writing"the definitive article on community networks."
Schuler's book is not armchair reading. The author is concerned about the stateof post-Cold War society. He argues that the so-called peace dividend hasevaporated and that democracy, which he views as a key tool for publicdeliberation and decision-making, is "increasingly misunderstood, underused,irrelevant, and blunt."
But Schuler is a self-proclaimed "meliorist," a person who believes that societyhas an innate tendency toward improvement and that this tendency may be furtheredthrough conscious human effort. He describes communities as "the heart, the soul,the nervous system, and the lifeblood of human society" and stresses they are the"right scale" for many human endeavors. Although Schuler senses that a certainmalaise and lack of identity - a certain existential nausea - have sweptour society, he feels that communities and technology just may offer theprescription for a cure.
To this end, Schuler examines six core societal values: conviviality and culture;education; strong democracy; health and human services; economic equity,opportunity, and sustainability; and information and communication. Heillustrates these concepts with in-depth analyses of functioning communitycomputer networks and discusses the implications that technology and communitynetworking have for the future. An especially useful chapter deconstructs thestages in the life-cycle of a community network. Finally, Schuler includes anextensive set of additional resources culled from print and electronic media.
Community Networking and Education
Schuler is clearly hostile to institutionalized education, which he describes as"intellectually stultifying" and "like a prison sentence." As an alternative headvocates individualized education where respect for the student is a given; anapproach to the three Rs that includes listening, speaking, and new media-basedforms of communication; critical-thinking skills; and a process that supports"exploration and development of new syntheses, paradigms, and perspectives."Computer networks, Schuler points out, are especially suited for this type oflearning because information and resources can be freely disseminated over adistance to selected or diffuse groups of people. Equally important are thegrowing and powerful new technologies that support a broad spectrum ofcollaborative activities.
Lest this seem pat, Schuler provides pragmatic examples that support hisproposals. He describes how networks can provide homework help, resources forrural schools, forums to engage students while they hone communications andcritical-thinking skills, and other relevant, engaging educational environments.The reader learns about some great educationally constructivist Internetresources such as the Science Learning Network and the Academy One program.
Schuler feels that the community must support education and that education mustsupport the community. And he concludes that "we can go further in the directionof establishing an educational system that is responsive to people's needs: auniversity that is universal - education for everyone, everywhere."
And What of the Future?
Schuler asserts that "technology should serve culture and society - not theother way around!" And he envisions people using computer networks in ways thatsupport culture and society.
Today, computer networks such as the Internet are creating a powerful synergyamong globally linked individuals who are empowered by computers. On the horizonare further technological advances: inexpensive bandwidth that will providericher, more powerful virtual worlds; hardware that will have built-inintelligent agents and powerful, economical multimedia capabilities; and softwarethat will deliver information that updates itself and knows how to be found bythose who need it.
These enormous leaps in bandwidth, imaging, and computer intelligence willprovide better, more accurate virtual representations of the real world. Theywill introduce tremendous sophistication to virtual communities while making themmore appealing to larger numbers of people than they are now. Technology willoffer even more exciting ways to reinvigorate our communities - and this willmake Schuler's ideas for community networks more relevant, more important, andmore easily achieved than they are today.
- The Science Learning Network
Constructivist Internet resources for educators
- Academy One
Interactive resources and activities for K - 12 students and educators
[May 14, 1997: Link no longer valid. -webmaster]
- The Morino Institute
Advocates of community empowerment through electronic networks.
Has a Web site for Schuler's book at
- The Community Network Movement
- Schuler's groundbreaking paper Community Networks: Building a NewParticipatory Medium
Purchasing information for New Community Networks
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