By Jennifer Hicks
Harvard University held its 2nd International Internet and Society conference from 5/26 - 5/29/98. Many renowned personages were in attendance including Larry Ellison, Esther Dyson, Louis Gerstner, Nolan Bowie, Larry Irving and others.
The conference had several tracks one could follow - legal issues, policy, education, business, and community. But, running through many of the plenary and concurrent sessions was the issue of barriers. Internet barriers regarding race, ethnicity, gender, and class.
Of course, this theme aroused my interest -- until I began making certain observations.
The majority of the conference panelists and participants were white males, highly educated and far from poor. Notable exceptions to the whiteness were Professors Bowie and Oglethorpe and a few others.
But still, it was mostly white people. White people of the educated power/elite class telling attendees that steps needed to be taken to increase minority access and utilization of the Internet and World Wide Web.
The conference registration fee was $1295.00. Designed to exclude? The conference was held in Harvard's hallowed halls, set amidst manicured lawns and bordered by numerous security personnel to keep out the riff raff.
In essence, then, the conference was about multiculturalism, but not for multiculturalism. Let me explain.
Harvard made a mistake. Those without access to the Internet, those without the information available on the Internet, and those without interest in the dominant culture's way of doing were not invited. So, the conference was mostly white.
And, once again, those who "have" talked about what to do and how to care for those who "have not". There was discussion on how to, if not invite the "have nots" into the inner sanctums of the Internet, at least how to give "them" the tools needed to join.
But, maybe those who aren't here on the Net have no desire to join yet another society dominated primarily by white guys and their technologies.
We must remember this and act on this knowledge.
No matter how enamored we are of the extraordinary opportunities the Internet provides, we need to keep in mind that not all groups are as consumed by this bliss as we are.
There are people for whom information has never been empowering. The struggle for survival takes precedence. There are also people who find that the relatively abstract, hierarchical, and logical cognitive skills required to manipulate Web navigation are totally alien to the intuitive, concrete thinking they may prefer.
We need to connect outside the boundaries of the Internet -- especially if we want to make the Internet a truly multicultural place. Then we can begin to understand knowledge and needs outside our own. Wiring the schools won't help if the schools are no good or are too far away or have a curriculum so convoluted that students lose interest. Rather, we might consider wiring community centers, churches, and neighborhoods where people are.
Which is what Maximiano Goncalves Neto has been doing in Brazil. With the help of others, he's created 180 different labs for street kids. Integral to his success is this:He asks the kids what they want, which is computers and to be left alone to do it themselves. He then asks the toughest, most feared kid of the bunch to become the overseer of and teacher in the lab. Adult help is provided if the kids ask.
Senor Goncalves Neto recognizes the power of the Internet and the very real need for everyone to get involved. But he also recognizes that the methods in which we do this may spell success or failure. And, unless we start with what people need, we will fail.