The Evergreen State College / The Public Sphere Project
Not only can cities make you sick, there are many ways that cities can actually help make people healthy.
Jennifer Wolch, dean of the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley, gave a presentation at the University of Washington called Lively Cities on March 1, 2010.
We should adopt the approaches that we know have value and continue to develop, test, and disseminate new ones.
Research for Action
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Not only can cities make you sick, there are many ways that cities can actually help make people healthy. We should adopt the approaches that we know have value and continue to develop, test, and disseminate new ones.
Information about introductory graphic:
"Broadway Dance Steps" by Jack Mackie; photograph by Joey Veltkamp
Corporations may flaunt legal or ethical guidelines by, for example, ignoring safety considerations on the job, harassing employees, or dumping toxic chemicals. Governments also engage in a multitude of transgressions from the minor to the truly horrific. Many of these misdeeds are kept secret, cloistered within a strict organizational "code of silence." "Whistle blowing" is an American expression for exposing problems within an organization from within that organization. The act of whistle blowing is essential to correcting problems in society, yet the whistle blowers are often punished severely for their actions. Society benefits from — but does not adequately protect — the whistle blower.
This pattern can be used by anybody who finds themselves in possession of knowledge that is being kept secret when it should be made public. People who aren't in this position — journalists and "ordinary citizens," for example — can also use this pattern to support the people who are in this position.
Whistle blowers are often heroes of the modern world who undergo a mighty — and sometimes ultimate — sacrifice for the good of the rest of society. Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) wrote a thoughtful and informative book which contains useful advice on how whistle blowers can "blow the whistle" on wrongdoing — without becoming martyrs in the process.
Powerful (and not-so-powerful) institutions and organizations may engage in a variety of unethical or illegal activities to further their own goals — at least as perceived by the perpetrators of the activities. These acts are kept hidden from those on the outside until such time as they are uncovered by somebody on the outside or exposed by somebody on the inside. The pressures on an "insider" to keep quiet about the transgression are immense. Although society as a whole benefits from the new revelations, the whistle-blower is likely to be seen as a traitor to his or her community and punished heartily for his or her efforts; He or she could be shunned at work, fired, "black-balled" (denied employment in general in the future) , or, even, physically harmed. Of course, even after it's revealed to the world, the damaging evidence can be ignored by the media or spun into irrelevance by the institution and its allies.
In a section called "Blowing the Whistle Wisely", Devine discusses "basic survival strategies" which are listed below.
Before taking any irreversible steps, talk to your family or close friends about your decision to blow the whistle.
Develop a plan so that your employer is reacting to you, instead of vice-versa.
Be alert and discretely attempt to learn of any other people who are upset about the wrongdoing.
Before formally breaking ranks, consider whether there is any reasonable way to work within the system by going to the first level of authority.
Maintain good relations with administrative and support staff.
Before and after you blow the whistle, it is very important to protect yourself by keeping a careful record of events as they unfold.
Identify and copy all necessary supporting records before drawing any attention to your concerns.
Research and identify potential allies such as elected officials, journalists or activists who have proven their sincerity and can help expose the wrongdoing.
Either invest the funds for a legal opinion from a competent lawyer, or talk to a non-profit watchdog organization about the risks and obstacles facing you.
Always be on guard not to embellish your charges.
Engage in whistleblowing initiatives on your own time and with your own resources, not your employer's.
Don't wear your cynicism on your sleeve when working with authorities.
Whistle blowing arises within government institutions as well as commercial concerns and, as a matter of fact, has some degree of legal protection — at least in some countries. One of the most important examples of government abuse include corruption, violation of human rights (by allowing torture, for example) or by hiding decisions, such as a decision to start a war while publicly asserting that peace is being sought. Some connect the concept of protecting whistle blowers with free speech rights secured by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution. Beyond a rights context, government transparency is necessary for a healthy democracy, in that accurate and timely information is vital for informed policy-making.
This pattern connotes the use of a whistle, as in the whistle of a police officer, to signal for help. Others have likened it to a train whistle, that sounds a warning upon approach to an intersection. In sports, the referee blows the whistle to stop game play.
The "whistle blowing" concept needs to be legitimized in different contexts, some of which are extremely hostile to the idea. In some cases it will be important to come up with new expressions in other languages to talk about the concept! In addition, the very term "whistle blower" does not translate well into other languages, such as Russian. It has been suggested that "truth-teller" may work better in that language than whistle-blower.
Support whistle blowing and whistle blowers. This is often done through support networks and by laws and media.
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Corporations may flaunt the law or ethical guidelines by harassing employees, ignoring safety considerations, or dumping toxics. Governments of course are also guilty of various crimes. Whistle Blowers expose problems by making hidden incidents or documents public. Although society benefits from Whistle Blowing, whistle-blowers are often punished for their efforts. There are many ways, however, to prevent whistle blowers from becoming martyrs.
Commercial interests in the form of large multi-national corporations strive to fulfill only the most profitable needs or wants. In many cases, the highest or easiest profit aims at wants that may not ultimately be in the interests of the targetted consumers (let alone the workers or the environment). For instance, many food companies focus on high fat, high sugar, high salt products that humans find tasty based on an evolutionary history in which these substances were difficult to find. For people in the developed world, however, having access to such foods is unhealthy. Furthermore, the way these foods are produced, transported and marketed involves unaccounted for costs to humanity. This is just one example. In general, corporations are not only motivated, but legally required to maximize profits, not meet actual human needs.
Furthermore, the economies of scale lead large companies to focus efforts on those wants that are best met by mass-produced goods and services. There are a huge range of very specific needs that much smaller groups or individuals have which do not provide suffficient inducement for large companies to provide.
Thus, the corporately created world both fails to meet many human needs and even when it does produce value, it tends to focus on wants rather than needs and do so in a way that has many undesirable side-effects.
In a variety of arenas, including publishing scholarly work, the development of educational materials, and the development of useful, robust software, an "open source" process has shown itself to be very effective. There are a variety of reasons why such a process is now timely. First, there are a large number of people globally with access to the Internet. This allows global communities with common interests to work together without the necessity of physical travel (which can be expensive in time and money). Second, there are worked examples of people from many fields volunteering their efforts to create value for the common good of their community. These examples serve, in turn, as models for other communities. Third, there are a critical mass of people with time and knowledge to add value to such collective efforts. Fourth, although it has been common in the past for those in power to use their power to keep their power, in modern times, a series of social and legal processes have been put in place to consolidate power into structures that are no longer effectively regulated by countervaling forces such as local governments or community pressure. The first three factors make the use of Open Source feasible and the last makes it manditory. In addition, Open Source has the capacity to personalize and customize value to much smaller groups than is feasible for large companies. Thus, by offering Open Source materials, people may collectively fulfull a greater proportion of human needs and wants. This is currently referred to as "the long tail." There are a very large number of people wanting a few common things and a very small number of people each wanting something different. Open Source is much better positioned to fulfill those different things wanted by only a relatively few.
Perhaps the most articulate introduction to the general concept of open source is the introduction to Eric von Hippel's Democratizing Innovation:
"When I say that innovation is being democratized, I mean that users of products and services -- both firms and individual consumers -- are increasingly able to innovate for themselves. User-centered innovation processes offer great advantages over the manufacturer-centric innovation development systems that have been the mainstay of commerce for hundres of years. Users that innovate can develop exactly what they want, rather than relying on manufacturers to act as their (often very imperfact) agents. Moreover, individual users do not have to develop everything they need on their own: they can benefit from innovations developed and freely shared by others. The trend toward democractization of innovation applies to information products such as software and also to physical products. As a quick illustration of the latter, consider the development of high-performance windsurfing techniques and equipment in Hawaii by an informal user group."
Probably the most notable and widespread success story of "open source" is the development of open source software. The "source code" of any computer program is the complete set of instructions that the computer follows to provide its functions. There are two competing philosophies that determine the rules regarding the distribution of software "source code."
The basic business orientation dictates that, above all, the source code should be kept private and that only people who are allowed to make changes to it -- either to add functionality or fix bugs -- are the people who are authorized by the company that owns it. Although there are several variants, the "free software" or "open source" model if more-or-less the opposite of the corporation model in nearly all respects. Anybody can obtain the source code without cost. Anybody can make changes to the source code. And anybody can distribute the code without restriction to anybody.
Besides its desirable price (nothing!), the open source model offers many advantages over the closed, corporate model. One is that many eyes can identify and fix many bugs. Software flaws such as bugs or security holes are more readily found and exposed. (This is the reason why fair voting advocates are generally in favor of open source voting software.) Another reason is that the open source model promotes innovation by allowing anybody to implement new functionality. Although many of the modifications may be unwanted, some may provide a foundation for desirable features. Although the open source approach has its own disadvantages (as do all approaches), it offers surprisingly stiff competition against deep-pocketed corporate behemoths. Linux, for example, is more robust, less buggy and on a faster release cycle than well-funded corporately engineered operating systems.
Although computer programmers have been at the forefront of this intellectual revolution, computer programs are certainly not the only complex artifacts that could be designed, built, maintained and improved through an open-source collective effort.
One obvious artifact to think about moving into open source development is the development of vaccines and other medicines. And in this arena, medicines that could reduce suffering caused by the worldwide HIV-AIDS epidemic come to mind readily. Of course, in so-called "primitive" societies, knowledge of how to find, prepare and use medicinal plants was a precious gift handed down from generation to generation.
With oil prices skyrocketing, open source automobile developers could work together on developing automobiles with super high mileage and other environmentally friendly features. Already (NY Times August 2005) hobbyists are modifying Priuses and other hybrid vehicles to pump up the mileage.
Because corporations are driven primarily to maximize profits, they tend to focus efforts on the very popular and tend to ignore small niche interests. For example, the open source music movement now allows individuals to create music collaboratively and globally. Probably the most popular of these, adding 200 users per week is MacJams. (See links below for general home page and to see what an individual's entry looks like). Albums can be built and distributed on a one-off basis without the high up-front costs of using a recording studio.
Similar avenues exists for poetry, stories, photographs, video and artwork. Examples may be seen at lulu.com, Xlibris, and publishamerica.
Use the mechanism of Open Source to meet needs that are not well-met by large institutions and corporations as well as areas where the social and environmental costs of market-driven competition outweighs the value provided.
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High profits for corporations can mean low benefits for consumers, workers, and the environment. In many areas, including scholarly publishing and the development of educational materials and software, an "open source" process can be an effective alternative. Open Source Everything can be used to meet needs where the social and environmental costs of market-driven competition outweighs the benefits.
People rely on search engines to find the information they need on the web. The motivation, however, of the groups providing search engines is securing profits for their owners; other motives necessarily and inevitably take a back seat. The negative implications of relying solely on commercial search engines, though vast, are generally not recognized. If the enormous gatekeeping potential of commercial search engines is not balanced with open and accountable public approaches, the ability to find non-commercial information including that which doesn't appeal to broad audiences or is critical of governments and other powerful institutions could conceivably disappear. The privatization of the means to access information could also lead to a situation where advertisements and other "sponsored" information could crowd out non-commercial information.
People in their daily lives need, search for — and find — a tremendous amount of information. Increasingly, they are looking for this information in cyberspace. While Internet technology has opened up an unbelievably vast amount of information and opportunities for communication for millions of people worldwide, the very fact that we are relying on technology which is out of our control is cause for concern — if not alarm. Although the application of this pattern is relevant to any system that people use to find information, our immediate attention is drawn to the Interne which is poised to become increasingly dominant in the years ahead.
Access to information can be made easier; barriers to obtaining the information that people need can, at least in theory, be anticipated and circumvented. But, like the chain whose ultimate strength is determined by its weakest link, access to information can be thwarted at many levels. Although non-public (commercial and otherwise) providers of information and communication services can be "good citizens" who prioritize the needs of their users, the temptation to become less civil may prove irresistible if and when the "market" suggests that uncivic behavior would result in higher revenue. In circumstances such as those, they may decide to relax their current high standards accordingly. Big web portals are, for example, becoming increasingly cooperative with the Chinese government, presumably because of the huge market which potentially exists there. One approach to addressing this problem, an open source / public domain classification system similar to that used in the public libraries in the U.S. and other places coupled with open source, community owned and operated search engines, is simultaneously defensive and forward looking. Defensive, because it could serve as a hedge against information deprivation and commodification. Forward looking, because this approach could help usher in an exciting new wave of experimentation in the era of access to information. As the development of the Internet itself has demonstrated, the "open source" nature can help motivate and spur usage in terms of the complementary tasks of classifying information and retrieving it easily. Existing classification approaches like the Dewey Decimal System also have limitations (Anglo-centrism, for example) and approaches like Dewey are not strictly speaking in the public domain (although Dewey is readily licensable). Nevertheless the Dewey system might serve as at least a partial model. Schemes that are well-known, such as the Dewey Decimal system allow everybody to communicate more quickly and with less cost. It is the open protocol nature of the Internet that has allowed and promoted easy and inexpensive ways to not only get connected, but to develop new applications that relied on the underlying, no license fee, protocols. Computing and the potentially ubiquitous availability of online environments provide intriguing possibilities that older approaches didn't need or anticipate. The Dewey Decimal system, for example, tacitly assumes a physical arrangement of books — the code assigned by the librarian or technicians using the system declares both the book's classification and the location it will occupy in the library. Although having a single value is not without advantages, an online environment opens the door for multiple tags for a single web page — or for finer-grained elements (a paragraph, for example, on a web page or the results of a database query) or, broader-grained collections of elements. A federated collection of link servers (Poltrock and Schuler, 1995) could assist in this. As far as search engines are concerned, civil society can hardly be expected to compete with Google's deep pockets and its acres of server farms. Yet, it may be possible to distribute expertise, knowledge, and computational capacity in such a way that a competitive "People's Google" ("Poogle?) becomes conceivable. The idea of a single organization within civil society that can even remotely approach Google's phenomenal computing resources is of course absurd. But so in general is the idea of civil society "taming" the most powerful and entrenched forces and institutions. The problem here, though chiefly technological, is very similar to the one that civil society faces every day: How can a large number of people sharing similar (though not identical visions) work together voluntarily without central authority (or centralized support), undertake a project and succeed with large, complex undertakings. The "answer" though diffuse, incomplete and sub-optimal is for the "workload" — including identifying, discussing and analyzing problems to devising responses to the problems — to be divvied up — as "intelligently" as possible — so people, doing only "pieces" of the whole job can be successful in their collective enterprise. This strategy is much easier to define and implement in the technological realm. One very successful example of this is the SETI@home project that employs the "idle" cycles of user's computers all over the world to analyze radio telescope data in a search for extraterrestrial intelligence. If, for example, one million computers working together on the people's search project, could devote some amount of processing power and storage to the project, the concept might suddenly become more feasible. Although it would be possible for every participating computer to run the same software, breaking up the tasks and distributing them across a large number of computers (thus allowing us to "divide and conquer") is likely to provide the most suitable architecture for a People's Search Engine. For one thing this allows dynamic re-apportioning of tasks: Changing the type of specialization that a computer is doing to make the overall approach more effective. At the beginning of "Poogle's" life, for example, half of the computers might be devoted to finding (or "spidering") and indexing websites while the other half might work on identifying which web sites meet the users' search criteria and presenting a list of pertinent results to the user. After a week or so, it may become clear that the first task (identifying and indexing sites) may require less attention overall while the second task (handling user search requests) desperately needs more processing power. In this situation, some of the computers working on the first task could be re-assigned to the second task. Of course this situation might become reversed the following week and another adjustment would be necessary. In a similar way, the contents of indexes could be shifted from computer to computer to make more effective use of available disk space more efficiently while providing enough redundancy to ensure that the entire system works efficiently even though individual computers are being shut down or coming online all the time and without advance notice. The People's Search Engine (PSE) would make all of its ordering / searching algorithms public. Google's page-ranking algorithm is fairly widely known, yet Google has adjusted it over the years to prevent it from being "gamed" in various ways by people who hope to increase the visibility of their web pages by "tricking" the algorithm to gain a higher page rank than the Google gods would bestow. Ideally the PSE would offer a variety of search approaches of arbitrary complexity to users. Thus people could use an existing, institutionalized classification scheme like the Dewey Decimal System or a personalized, socially-tagged "folksonomy" approach, a popularity approach a la Google, a social link approach like Amazon ("People who searched for X also searched for Y") or searches based on (and/or constrained by) "meta-information" about the pages, such as author, domain, publisher, or date last edited.
The development of "open source," public domain approaches to information access is essential for equity and progress among the people of the world. The possibility of credible competition will serve as a reminder to for-profit concerns that access to information is a sacred human right. It would also help to maintain and extend the patterns of innovation that open protocols have made possible. Among other things, researchers and members of civil society need to work on classification systems for Internet resources. It is imperative that civil society focuses attention on open source approaches to searching, archiving and other information access needs. For many reasons, this will help in the evolving process of opening up the world of information to people everywhere.
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If the gatekeeping of commercial search engines is not balanced with open and accountable public approaches, the ability to find non-commercial information or that which is critical of governments and other powerful institutions could disappear. Open source, public search engines using open classification systems could solve this problem. This could open a new wave of experimentation and remind us that access to information is a sacred human right.
Although information and communication are often conceived as abstract, intangible and immaterial, the systems that maintain them are, of necessity, constructed with solid things such as paper, lead, concrete, rubber, glass, mercury, cadmium and silicon which are fabricated into the delivery trucks, wires, library buildings, computers, chips and CDs. The manufacture (and ultimate retirement) of all of these things is often accompanied with environmental damage, as the 23 "Superfund" sites in Silicon Valley will attest, In 2005, 63 million computers in the U.S. were replaced with newer models. Up to 80% of the waste is then sent to developing countries where it often contributes to environmental and health hazards. Additionally, energy is consumed — often in immense quantities — throughout every stage in the life-cycle of a product. As devices are made with shorter and shorter life-spans and the uses of ICS increases worldwide, this problem will become more critical unless something is done.
Vast numbers of people are affected by the increasing "informatization" of the world. This includes people who are fortunate enough to capitalize on the new technology and those who are unfortunate enough to live with the refuse. This pattern can be used by people who have some control over the situation, including those who are in a position to develop laws and policies, producers who can lessen the effects of their products entering the waste-stream, and local communities who can develop policies and programs for responsible treatment of discarded technology. Community activists, health professionals, local governments, and neighborhood organizations will need to organize and work together in this effort. Other possible participants include computer geeks, social activists, environmental activists and those wanting to learn more about computers and new technology.
The use of information and communication systems is expanding enormously in countries like the US as well as in countries like China and India. This is causing immense demands on their infrastructure and on the environment. Computer technology has grown increasingly more sophisticated in a very short period of time. During that same time, the costs have dropped in relative and absolute terms, thus resulting in a massive number of obsolete computers and other technology much of which has been dumped somewhere where toxins like lead, cadmium and mercury can leach into the soil and water.
In addition to the new intellectual and social spaces that the new technology helps provide, we need to think about the impact that information and communication systems are having on the environment. Although we associate physical spaces like libraries and auditoriums with energy and resource use, the creation, storage, and distribution of information requires energy and resource use as well. Some of this use doesn't square with conventional wisdom. Computer use, for example was supposed to lower the consumption of paper because everybody would simply read the computer screen. The amount of travel was also going to decline because business could be conducted electronically, thus substituting communication for transportation. The electronics industry was also celebrated as an environmentally friendly industry yet there are 19 "superfund" sites associated with high-tech industries slated for environmental remediation in Santa Clara county, home to more of these sites that any other county in the U.S. IBM and Fairchild Electronics were disposing their waste products in underground tanks which subsequently leaked trichloroethane, trichloroethylene, Freon and other solvents into the drinking water of 65,000 people. There also seems to be an unhealthy link between the waste producers and the people who must deal with it, specifically prison inmates who work with inadequate protection and no health insurance working in for profit prisons.
Why pick on information and communication systems? After all, other sectors use energy and cause pollution. One reason is that "electronic waste is the fastest growing part of the waster system," according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Another reason is that it's important for people to realize that information and communication technology is not a utopian, magical answer to all problems. Obviously we need to consider the entire life-cycle of all products — including those related to information and communication. (While this task is not trivial, thinking about the "second order" effects while extremely important, is even more difficult to do meaningfully. The effects of the automobile on all aspects of life, including attitudes on sex, as well as the effects of the size of the weapons industry in the U.S. on foreign policy are both intriguing examples of unforeseen side-effects.) Understanding the entire "cradle-to-grave" (and beyond! as in the case of toxins that can reach out from the grave to poison air and water) is critical, but what should be done with the information? It may be easiest to require that every manufactured or imported product is covered under an ecologically-sound "Take-it-Back" (SVTC, 2005) policy that requires the manufacturer or importer to pay for recovery or safe sequestering of hazardous materials.
Free Geek was started in Portland, Oregon in 2000 by members of the open source software community to bring resources to bear on the problems of e-waste and the digital divide by helping "the needy get nerdy." The Free Geek approach combines participatory education and environmentalism. Free Geek addresses the problem of discarded computers and other electronic e-waste can be diminished by reusing and recycling. Free Geek uses volunteer labor to give new life to discarded technology. Volunteers are eligible to receive a computer after finishing a tour of service which educates the volunteer about computers and about the environmental impacts of ICT. The city government in Portland, as part of their effort to reduce e-waste helps support the project. A broad range of people are working together to cross the economic and social divides by working towards a common goal. The Free Geek concept has quickly spread to other areas including Washington, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
The Free Geek approach is not the only way to address the problem of lacking a community recycling program. There are many similar projects throughout the country that may or may not use open source software. But Free Geek is worth mentioning here for many reasons. First, Free Geek was developed by civil society; second, Free Geek is a partnership between several sectors and thus helps bring all sectors of the local community into a common struggle; and, third, Free Geek is an innovative approach that deftly addresses a multitude of issues within a common set of principles, assumptions and actions.
Starting and running a Free Geek or similar program requires a variety of skills and activities. The pattern can only be implemented by a group of people. To start that group one would post meeting announcements and invite members from local Linux users groups, college students and others. Since the overall environment for this approach will vary from community to community it's important to find out what's happening in your community and who's involved. The success of the project is likely to depend on how well you understand your community and can work with people in the community. Beyond that, there are many "nuts and bolts" issues including finding space and funding and developing programs. Associating with Free Geek is probably a good idea because of its network of dedicated people, useful documents and software for running an community recycling project.
The environmental problems associated with information and communication technology are severe and no mutually agreed-upon long-term, sustainable solution has been identified. People are developing a variety of creative and thoughtful responses to the problems of ICT-related pollution but more are needed. Information and communication technology can probably be part of the solution — but part of this involves stopping be part of the problem.
As a necessary part of stewardship and responsibility, it's essential to come to terms with the environmental impact of information and communication systems and devise suitable strategies towards minimizing their negative effects. Some combination of policy, consumer education, habits of consumption, social and technological innovation and recycling will probably be necessary for this take place effectively.
Although information and communication may seem abstract and immaterial, the systems that support them are built with solid things whose manufacture and disposal is often accompanied with environmental damage. We must acknowledge the environmental impact of these systems and devise strategies towards minimizing their negative effects. One group, Free Geek, uses volunteer labor to give new life to discarded technology by reusing and recycling.
Natural or manmade disasters reveal the fragile nature of our social infrastructures, including our most advanced technologies, and require us to draw upon our own essential resourcefulness. Given the destruction or significant compromising of basic civic infrastructureselectrical power, water and sewage, natural gas, roadways and communications systemsindividual and local capacities as well as external supports at every level must be prepared and effectively implemented to ensure personal and collective survival and wellbeing.
Disasters require the attention of every level of society, from individuals, families, and neighborhoods to city, state, and national agencies as well as international organizations. The content and flow of information is critical at every stage, from policy development to preparation, search and rescue, recovery and the reconstruction of vital infrastructures. Therefore, to some extent, everyone may be called upon to participate in various the aspects of this pattern, not only in the area of immediate impact but in the formal development of policies, procedures and systems as well as informal, voluntary emergency responses that help to extend the safety net for those directly affected.
In the space of one year, 2005, the world witnessed three major natural disasters: the Southeast Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in the Southeast United States, and the Pakistani earthquake, and all were reminders as to how quickly even the most basic and essential structures can literally be swept away in a matter for moments. A spotlight was also cast on pre-existing environmental conditions, policy decisions, inadequate preparation, and either dysfunctional or non-existing communication systems that either led to or intensified the extent of damage and loss of life. This pattern encompasses three different periods that focus upon emergency situations: (1) the pre-existing conditions and preparations prior to the occurrence of any disaster, (2) the actual disaster and immediate response, and (3) the longer term recovery and reconstruction of physical and social infrastructures. While all levels of society are involved, the particular focus of this pattern is on the initiative and actions of civil society. In the period prior to any disaster, the focus is on advocacy for effective policies, including the remediation of social and environmental conditions that might prevent or at least moderate the damage of a disaster and the establishment of evacuation, response preparations, and the storage of food and medical supplies as well as the setting up of emergency communications networks and facilities. For example, Seattle Disaster Aid & Response Teams (SDART) calls for neighborhoods to be prepared to be self-sufficient for at least three days by organizing teams that draw upon local resources and skills. The program trains neighborhood teams and sponsors functional drills to rehearse roles and responsibilities.. In terms of advocating for improved communications systems and facilities, the World Dialogue on Regulation for Network Economies has compiled a special dossier on the role of regulators and policymakers in ensuring that adequate emergency communications are available. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, the delivery of food, shelter and medical care can be hours, days, even weeks away. Tasks that must be handled by the stricken residents, as outlined and assigned to teams under the SDART model, include damage assessment, first aid, safety & security, light search & rescue, and providing sheltering & special needs. Communications responsibilities include monitoring emergency radio broadcasts, keeping neighbors informed of relevant information, relaying information about damage via amateur radio operators, satellite radio, cell phones, signs, or whatever means are available. In the longer period of reconstruction following a disaster, when additional external resources can be brought into play, it is vitally important to ensure close coordination. The very young and very old, as well as the poor face the greatest risk, in the short and long-term aftermath of catastrophe, often related to the worsening of already existing conditions of poor health and nutrition and inadequate housing. UNICEF studies of groups hit by warfare and famine show it is critical to provide the correct mix and balance of relief services and providing not only food but public health assistance to prevent massive outbreaks of infectious diseases. Civil society is capable of organizing large-scale efforts in the wake of disasters as demonstrated by the Katrina PeopleFinder Project and the Southeast Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog SEA-EAT blog associated with the East Asian tsunami. Other projects to assist in the reestablishment of communications systems include the Center for Neighborhood Technologys (CNT) Wireless Community Network project and supportive efforts by the Champaigne-Urbana Community Wireless Networks for both developed and developing nations. One of the most common approaches for alleviating at least part of the challenge of communications around emergency situations is the idea of open, non-proprietary protocols, the "secret ingredient" behind the Internet's phenomenal success. The Common Alerting Protocol is one such data interchange protocol and the Partnership for Public Warming (2006) is working on a wide variety of efforts to resolve national standards, protocols and priorities. Even areas far distant from the disaster must also be prepared to handle a mass displacement of populations, possibly for extended periods of time.
Therefore, individuals, public agencies, environmental advocates, and international relief organizations needs to continually reassess their level of preparedness and coordination in response to humanitarian emergencies. This means thinking and planning for the short-, medium- and long-term as well as continuing to address persistent issues of poverty and debilitating economic conditions. Information and communication technologies can play important roles in this area — but in order for the technologies to be useful, the people in areas where emergencies do or might occur and people outside of those areas must both assume leadership for genuine progress to be made.
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Disasters require the attention of every level of society, including individuals, families, and neighborhoods as well as city, state, national, and international agencies and organizations. The content of Emergency Communication Systems and the dynamic and flexible flow of information through them are critical at every stage, including policy development, preparation, search and rescue, recovery, and reconstruction of vital infrastructures.
Poor people in the developing world and elsewhere have high infant mortality rates and deaths from diseases that are preventable or readily treatable (as well as a host of social ills, such as wife beating). Moreover , lack of information coupled with inflexible or outmoded social traditions and superstition can perpetuate cycles of needless suffering for people of all economic sectors. Unfortunately the need for accurate health information is often addressed by ineffective public service announcements that seem preachy or uninteresting or otherwise fail to reach the entire audience or particular nexus of people who must be involved in important decisions.
People all over the world face important life decisions with inadequate information that is often accompanied with overwhelming social pressure to behave in certain ways. Policy makers, media producers and community activists are faced with the challenge of presenting that information to the people who need it, in a form that is accessible and acceptable.
The concept of Soap Operas for Social Change, developed by Mexican television producer Miguel Sabido, deftly weaves health and other socially responsible information into traditional soap operas to raise consciousness without compromising the compelling everyday drama that the genre exemplifies. Although this type of soap opera (called Telenovelas in Latin America) is not in the majority, there are examples of its use throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
In 1967, the Peruvian telenovela Simplemente Maria that chronicles twenty years in the life of a maid working through the travails of the day as a single mother preparing for a career as a fashion designer was launched. It was this show apparently that opened up the possibility of social messages intertwined with popular culture. According to Hanna Rosin whose New Yorker article, Life Lessons helped inform this pattern, Perus working-class women identified deeply with Maria; they saw her story less as a Cinderella fantasy then as a future that was possible for them, too. Thousands of maids wrote to the station to say that they were going back to school.
The hero or heroine of a "Sabido soap" is a transitional character in the drama, a "fallible character who struggles to behave decently" (Rosin, 2006). In fact, the most important aspect of the telenovela is the barrage of giros (twists of fate), trials and tribulations, that continually tests the protagonists perseverance. In China, the program Bai Xing, or Ordinary People in English, features Luye, an unmarried rural Chinese girl who has a baby and moves to the city. This perfectly ordinary story is filled with the the real-life drama that people routinely face but is rarely portrayed. In recent episodes Luye discovers that two of her acquaintances have AIDS, a subject that is generally not found on Chinese television.
The non-governmental organizations Population Communications International and Population Media Center has been involved in socially responsible soap operas for many years. The focus is on usually related to population issues although this frequently involves health, sustainable development and environmental issues as well. Both are involved in the development of television and radio shows as well as work in other media, media leadership issues, and communication strategy and theory as well. The PMC web site explains that, "The advantage of using long-running, entertainment serial dramas include their huge audience appeal and the emotional bonds that are formed between the audience members and characters, which can lead to strongly positive influences of the characters on attitudes and behaviors by audience members." Sabido has developed a methodology that was informed by the integration of several key communication theories.
Ideally the social messages in the soap operas and telenovelas are presented in the form of choices that can be consciously made not injunctions or instructions which must be obeyed. The best of these soap operas are probably more like this although the protagonist ultimately will make a choice and that choice is likely to be the one favored by the producers of the program. For many reasons, everybody who is involved in formulating a response to a given situation would be party to the dilemma played out on the television screen and weigh all the relevant factors individually and collectively. In Nepal, for example, the mother-in-law and husband are key players in decisions involving childbirth and must therefore be part of any approach to offer new choices for life decisions. Because soap operas in developing countries are shown in prime time (rather than during the day as, for example, in the U.S.) and are, therefore, seen by people across the spectrum of the population and because a high percentage of the viewers, are illiterate or are otherwise unable to gain access to relevant information, Socially Responsible Soap Operas make ideal vehicles for the propagation of useful information on such topics as family planning, domestic violence, nutrition, home management and emergency preparedness.
Socially Responsible Soap Operas are clearly subject to challenges from many sources. In Burma, for example, the radio show Thaby e gone Ywa (Eugenia Tree Village) was broadcast illegally over shortwave radio because Burmas military dictatorship declared the program illegal. In the examples discussed above the creators of the programs are aware of the dangers of using the media for propaganda. As William Ryerson, president of PMC, explains, "Unlike brainwashing, PMCs approach is to show a range of optionsto broaden rather than to narrow the perspective of the viewing audience with regard to the choices available to them. For each of the options, the programs show realistic consequences."
On the other hand, the desire to fiddle with the content of popular shows could prove irresistible to overzealous governments that were intent in spreading their messages. Put in this context the practice of inserting message into soaps seems positively Orwellian. Yet commercial message are increasingly commonplace and product placements in Hollywood films, television shows, and, even books, while the society at least seems unfazed. Recently in the U.S. a spot in a book for teenager girls was sold to the highest bidder, a glossy lips makeup manufacturer. Also, of course, subtle and not-so-subtle messages thoroughly permeate much of the mass media, some of which is explicitly designed (for mass appeal, government appeasement, or as an expression of personal ideology) while others are unconsciously added to the mix, the atmosphere of commercialization is seemingly too ubiquitous to be resisted.
Although many of the people who are likely to get involved in this pattern are policy-makers or media producers, other people can help promote this idea by entering into a dialogue with people who are better positioned to make changes. Although strong challenges exist, this pattern has rich potential as a tool for positive social change.
Information about family planning and other important life decisions can be integrated into soap operas in ways that strengthen the dramatic impact of the show while leading to beneficial social effects at the same time.
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People all over the world face important life decisions with inadequate information and social pressure to behave in certain ways. Policy makers, media producers and community activists must present that information in forms that are accessible and acceptable. Soap Operas with Civic Messages weaves health and other socially responsible information into soap operas without compromising the compelling everyday drama that the genre exemplifies.
In the modern Information and Communication Age, people no longer have time to think. Creative thinking is a human activity essential for self-realization, and for providing sustainable solutions to the myriad problems of our ever more complex global society. Three main factors prevent Thinking Communities from developing: lack of suitable locations for "semi-solitary" deep thought, lack of affordable communications infrastructure for such communities to develop, and too many social, professional and financial constraints preventing people from breaking out regularly for a sufficient period of time.
This pattern supports creative individuals and small groups with a pressing need for finding the time and concentration to work on a major project, but who lack access to locations, and are inhibited by many personal constraints. The pattern helps them to connect with individuals and organizations interested in providing affordable thinking facilities, and then to design and build their Thinking Communities. These communities allow their members to concentrate deeply, while also to meet peers who are working on their own projects. This semi-solitary mix of deep thought and social interaction should significantly increase individual and societal creative thinking capacity.
Thinking, resulting in new knowledge, is an essential human activity. Most related community research has focused on knowledge management and knowledge construction communities, often in an organizational or educational setting. For example, a typical corporate knowledge management community acts as a custodian for a Knowledge Domain, nurturing the sharing and creation of practices and knowledge that is key to the achievement of both company and personal objectives (Von Krogh et al., 2001). Similarly, an educational knowledge building community is a group of learners committed to advancing the group's knowledge of some shared problem through collaboration knowledge (Chai and Khine, 2006). However, when shifting from such an institutional to a more individual-oriented type of knowledge community, not much is known. In such a community, not organizational goals but individual thinking requirements, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses predominate. The resulting communities have much more of an emergent nature, and can be realized in a wide variety of forms. Thinking Communities, even more so than other communities, cannot be fully designed in every detail. Instead, developers should provide the right conditions and just enough guidance for such communities to get started, then let them evolve (Preece, 2000). A Thinking Community pattern can help outline such conditions and guidelines, while leaving each community enough freedom to develop its own unique values, norms, structures, and processes.
Thinking Communities require the right physical locations for individuals to reflect deeply by themselves, while also being able to interact on their thoughts with peers. They need an electronic communications infrastructure to organize and coordinate their community and communicate between locations. Social, professional, and financial constraints need to be minimized.
With location, communication, and personal constraints satisfied, Thinking Communities should start to be established and grow. A great variety of communities, ranging from loosely connected, semi-solitary individuals to large groups intensely focusing on solving a joint problem, will develop. Thinking Communities could thus become catalysts of creative thinking processes urgently needed to deal with some of the many pressing problems facing our globalizing world.
Thinking Communities can manifest themselves in numerous forms. Each of the dimensions identified in the pattern can have many possible values. The pattern acts as an analytical lens to help identify successful combinations of values, and possibly new types of Thinking Communities. To give some idea of the breadth and depth of Thinking Communities, here are some of many possible examples:
- A researcher is totally overworked, overwhelmed by the continuous stress of teaching, the publication rat race, and projects. She decides to recharge by taking a two month sabbatical after a conference she attended on the other side of the world. Since semester is over, she can plan it in between two academic years. She looks up the country she is visiting in the ReCharge researchers community web site, and discovers a scenic location close to the conference site, in the middle of a National Park. They offer long-term accommodation, for low monthly rent rates. They also have Internet connections, provide meals, and have a common room where she can meet fellow researchers. After two months of deep thinking and discussions with colleagues who provide fresh angles on her research, since they are not in her field, she goes back home. She is full of fundamental, new ideas that will sustain her in the stressful years to come.
- Many people are inspired by the ways of living and thinking of indigenous peoples. However, it is often hard to establish relationships with such communities. A First Nation, however, hosts a simple hostel with a limited number of rooms on its domain, allowing thinkers to work on their projects, while inviting them for a selected set of meetings and activities with the local community. This offers visitors a low-intensity, non-intrusive opportunity to get a realistic sense of the values, problems, and strengths of these communities, much beyond the understanding provided by the usual, shallow touristic visit to a reservation arts center. Simultaneously, it offers these local communities an alternative source of income and access to a world of ideas and contacts provided by visitors sincerely interested in building bridges between cultures.
- Two countries go to war. Enlightened individuals from both sides want to discuss their differences in order to stop the madness, but discussions on an open electronic forum dedicated to the conflict inevitably derail into emotional rants and diatribes. Meetings in either country obviously do not work for political and security reasons. Forum members from another country, which has managed to successfully negotiate a peace agreement between its feuding factions in the recent past, invite a number of the most reasonable discussants to come to a resort in their country. A private foundation, sponsoring the discussion forum, pays most of the travel expenses. In the resort, the discussants gather in a number of group sessions, but also get ample opportunity to break out, go for walks, and have one-on-one discussions. Their meetings are structured by electronic meeting room software. Although in the short time frame available they cannot reach agreement on a Roadmap to Peace, they do agree on the most important issues to be worked out. In a closed electronic forum, supported by the same software, they continue their discussions upon return to their respective countries. The bonding and face to face meetings in a peaceful environment have created the conditions to start building a Thinking Community across political borders.
A finely meshed, worldwide network needs to be created of affordable locations where people can concentrate and work on their individual creative projects, while simultaneously being able to meet up with peers working on their own acts of creation. The Web will provide the communications infrastructure to develop the concepts of Thinking Communities and match supply and demand of Thinking Locations. Social, professional, and financial constraints need to be addressed by developing concrete guidelines and solution patterns.
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Creative thinking is essential for self-realization and for finding sustainable solutions to the problems of our complex global society. A worldwide network of Thinking Communities needs to be created that links affordable locations where people can concentrate and work on individual — as well as collective — creative projects. These would allow members to concentrate deeply, while allowing them to meet peers who are working on other projects.
Across the globe new information and communication technologies (ICT) are increasingly perceived as elements essential to citizenship in contemporary society. However, numerous preconditions must be met before a person can make use of the applications and systems that represent the network society. Sometimes understood as contributing to the phenomenon known as the digital divide, these preconditions include, at the very least, an income level that facilitates payment for the equipment, its maintenance and operation; skills to use ICT, the availability of electricity; an awareness of ICT might matter and confidence in oneself and in the possibility of an improvement in one's condition. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people on planet earth, these preconditions are not being met nor are they likely to be in the near future!
Telecenter projects can exist at various levels from the small local community, for example, to the neighborhood or grassroots organization in a village, to the entirety of a large country, or even at the international level. Telecenters are, on the one hand, rooted in particular circumstances and, on the other hand, a product of dynamic realities. Because no two communities are alike (different environments, cultures, norms, values, etc.) the idea that recipes, "best practices", models or the like can be found and mechanically replicated across communities is foolish. Nevertheless a clear understanding of basic concepts and principles might be a useful guide for individual and collective reflection, as once again telecenters emerge as significant network society phenomena.
This pattern might be useful for individuals and grass root organizations for whom the use of appropriate ICT might strengthen their efforts toward overcoming the limitations of existing social conditions. It might also be useful for local or central government agencies intending to undertake positive action, with the help of purposeful and appropriate uses of ICT, in favor of social progress.
In order to overcome the limitations listed above, the idea that public facilities might be established within communities is now fairly commonplace around the world (Menou 2003). Modern public access points to ICT are often referred to as "telecenters" even though their origins, ownership, purposes and modes of operation are so diverse that the development of a typology of public access points might be justifed, so that the commonalities and differences might be understood (Menou & Stoll 2003b).
Telecentres first emerged in Scandinavia and the UK during the 1980s and early 1990 and were known as telecottages, telehus, teleservice centers and electronic village Halls (Day, 1996 a&b) while the first "Community Computer Center" in the US was established in 1981 in the basement of a housing project in Harlem (New York City) (Schuler, 1996). Intended to provide public access to computing technology, these initiatives were either run as community development projects, commercial ventures or a bit of both (Day, 2001; Day & Harris, 1997). In the so-called "developing countries" one might distinguish 3 main avenues that the development of telecenters took. Most publicized is "pilot projects" initiated by international development agencies such as UNESCO, World Bank, IDRC, USAID, etc., which resulted in the implantation of isolated facilities with limited involvment of the communities at the beginning, e.g. Timbuctu in Mali, Kothmale in Sri Lanka. Another line is government programs pretending to overcome the "digital divide" by the implantation of a large number of telecenters in "undepriviledged" communities (e.g. @Argentina) with the same drawbacks of a top down approach, no networking plus bureaucratic constraints. A third line combines individual initiatives by grass root NGOs in particular locales and a franchising model developed by the Red Cientifica Peruana in Peru, known as "Cabinas Publicas Internet" which entertained ambiguities between community service and small business development.
Today the variety of public ICT access points (or PIAPs) and the nature of their roles is more wide-ranging and can be distinguished according to:
- their origin, ranging from ad hoc initiative of an individual to national and international programs;
- their purpose, ranging from profit of business owners - e.g. cyber or internet cafés - to free support to community development endeavors - e.g. true community telecenters;
- their ownership, ranging from individual small entrepreneurs to community groups, local and central government entities;
- the community participation in their governance, ranging from nil to full control;
- the mix of ICT available, ranging from only one, e.g. public phone booths, to all (e.g. phone, fax, internet, radio, web TV, etc.);
- the variety of services offered ranging from independant use of ICT to a wide mix of economic, social, educational and cultural activities;
- whether they stand alone or are part of a more or less extensive network
True community telecenters are part of the efforts undertaken by community members to build community and improve community conditions; they utilise ICT as a means, among others, that facilitate the attainment of these objectives (Menou & Stoll, 2003a). The centers are designed and managed with full participation of the community (Roessner 2005). Non- community telecenters are only concerned with providing access to ICT at an affordable cost to people who are deprived from it, whether temporarily or permanently. For the remainder of this pattern we focus exclusively on community telecenters.
Community telecenters typically get started via two main avenues:
1) They are the brain child of interested individuals or grass root community groups who champion their development and implementation through various community strategies and actions; or
2) They form part of a top down (usually government or international agency) program purporting to bridge the "digital divide".
Telecenters face a variety of problems and challenges that can be categorized as either social, political, economic, or technical.
In the social realm the key issues are:
- the relevance of the telecenter and ICT use as a means to support the various development efforts undertaken by the community
- the appropriateness of its role, the social interaction it permits and the information it makes available, especially with regard to cultural and gender biases
- the availability of people with required skills to operate and manage the telecenter and provide training and support to the users
- the level of information and computer literacy in the community and the availability of intermediaries to offset their deficiency
- the availability and accessibility of local information.
In the political realm, key issues are:
- the degree of ownership that the community might have from the inception, or progressively reach;
- the level and continuity of community involvement in the management of the telecenter
- the support of, or conversely conflict with, local and national authorities and pressure groups
- the relationship with national programs in the area of universalization of telecommunications services and digital inclusion, and the ability of the telecenters to preserve their identity and autonomy though participating as appropriate in such programs;
- the attitude of telecommunication companies vis a vis competition, universalization and digital inclusion efforts.
In the economic realm, key issues are:
- funding for initial investments
- securing regular income streams that can can support the operation of the telecenter
- securing resources for the maintenance and renewal of the equipment
- offering employment conditions that are attractive enough for retaining the permanent staff
In the technological realm, key issues are:
- reliability and cost of power supply
- reliability and cost of telecommunications
- reliability and cost of access to the international internet backbones
- ability to implement a distributed network
- capability of operating FOSS applications
- capability of deploying media integration, in particular radio
In many countries central governments have funding programs to encourage the development of "telecenters". Significant financial backing from international organizations is also commonplace and support is also often available from local governements.
Telecenter associations have been set up and are seeking to establish their influence at the local level as well as forming broader groups at regional and international levels. These structures are powerful instruments for sharing knowledge and experiences, helping each other and consolidating the movement Menou, Delgadillo Poepsel & Stoll 2004). Such grass root organizations should not be confused with a number of top down portals and support schemes that pretend to represent telecenters and disseminate second hand knowledge for sake of specific political and commercial interests
Mirroring events from the 1980s & 90s when computers were parachuted into communities as part of top down development programmes, the current crop of telecentres face similar challenges of social, financial and technological sustainability. At that time telecottages and electronic village halls (EVHs) were very much flavor of the month among government and funding agencies (Day, 2001; Day & Harris, 1997). However, they were viewed as short-term project that were expected to achieve sustainability with no support or training. Some transformed themselves into small commercial ventures but most closed eventually leaving behind them a great deal of frustration and dissillusionment in the community.
Very few lessons from that period appear to have be learnt. In the UK, the UK Online Centre programme, some 10 years or so after the initial telecottages and EVHs closed, many of the UK Online centres have closed or are closing after massive amounts of public funds had been pumped into them. Across the globe, the present tranche of telecenters seem to be following a very similar pattern of contradictory trends. On the one hand they are recognized by governments and international agencies as key instruments for achieving digital inclusion. Thus a proliferation of funding programs to support their establishment has been witnessed in recent years. On the other hand the support currently being displayed has no long-term policy substance behind it and may not resist the medium term hazards of development endeavors. The pressure toward securing financial sustainability in the short-term - usually 3 to 4 years - may indeed push many telecenters to close or attempt to reinvent themselves as business enterprises wherever this is feasible despite the fact that by definition they serve a population which does not have a level of income sufficient for paying for non essential goods and services. Similar attempts in the UK and Scandinavia have historically proved fruitless and we hold out little hope for the future of most telecenters without significant changes being made to policy and funding strategies.
In the same way that public library services facilitated increased participation in society for the socially excluded through universal access to knowledge, so too can telecenters have a similar socially beneficial effect on citizenship in the network society by increasing access to and participation in information (content) creation, communication exchanges and knowledge sharing. However, history shows that treating community telecenters as short-term projects rather than part of the social infrastructure results in the long-term failure of these initiatives with community disillusionment and increased social exclusion ensuing. For telecenters to be effective instruments in bridging the digital divide and promoting social inclusion consideration of their policy, economic, technological and social sustainability is required.
We posit that a policy framework is required which establishes community telecenters as component parts of basic infrastructure supporting community life. Such policies should develop mechanisms that guarantee that appropriate levels of funding will be maintained to ensure long-term operations. In the network society, telecenters should be as much apart of our social infrastructures as public libraries, education, police services, etc. It is simply inappropriate to expect telecenters to function as instruments of social inclusion in the digital age by adopting business models from the commercial world. Similarly, the composition of the funding model that many telecenters are forced to live by is flawed. Relatively large sums of capital funding that support the purchase of equipment is made available but little or no long-term funding is obtainable for revenue functions such as equipment and network maintenance and renewal, on-going training, or the advocacy and awareness raising work that keeps telecenters at the hub of community activities and needs. Even in some of the most well intentioned cases a form of myopia exists, where ICT is concerned. Approaches that would not be accepted in other aspects of social life appear to the norm where technology is concerned. Simply throwing computers into local communities does not in itself address community need. If technology is to be both appropriate and effective it must form constituent parts of the toolbox that communities have for dealing with issues and problems. Telecenters must be grounded in the fabric of community life if they are to be socially sustainable.
A pre-requisite for social sustainability is community engagement. This demands community people getting actively involved in shaping and running telecenters in some way. In all likelihood this will involve learning directly from the experience of community telecenters operating in conditions similar to their own, so social networking skills need to be developed. Social sustainability means identifying what contribution a telecenter might make to community development efforts and involving community groups in designing, implementing and developing the telecenter. Operation and management training for members is essential if telecenters are to prosper. Support and advice in identifying and acquiring appropriate funding sources is a necessity. Finally, local communities can assist themselves in these matters by electing public administrators and lawmakers who genuinely support community technology initiatives and who understand the significance of their role in the community environment.
Verbiage for pattern card:
Across the globe new information and communication technologies (ICT) are increasingly perceived as essential to citizenship. In the same way that public libraries increased participation for the socially excluded through universal access to knowledge, so too can Telecenters that provide free or inexpensive ICT facilities. Remember that numerous preconditions must be met before Telecenters can effectively meet their objectives.
Fifty years ago, there was little doubt that unions had dramatically raised living standards for workers. But while more than one in three American workers belonged to a union in the early 1950s, today scarcely one in ten workers do. As companies move jobs away from unionized workplaces, its no coincidence that fewer workers have health insurance and that pay has stagnated. Non-union workers are only one-fifth as likely to have reliable defined-benefit pensions. In their heyday, American unions became somewhat complacent, confident that they were an accepted part of American life and secure in their ability to bargain middle-class living standards for millions of workers. Many neglected the need to vigorously organize new members or reach out to the public.
New technology has helped businesses consolidate into huge multinationals that swiftly move jobs around the world to where labor costs are the lowest. This has vastly strengthened the power of employers to keep workers from unionizing and getting a fair shake. American workers watch their jobs transfered to Mexico, where workers can be controlled by management-run unions. When Mexican workers organize real unions, they encounter government hostility and threats to move work to China. In this global
Recent surveys show that U.S. workers want to join unions. But employers often prevent this from happening by illegally threatening or firing union activists. More than 23,000 U.S. workers are dismissed or punished each year for exercising their legal rights to form or join a union.
Trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT further weaken worker power. While they strongly protect corporate intellectual property and investment, they open up nations to unfettered competition in terms of jobs and living standards. Even workers in high-tech fields like programming see their wages and job security battered by international outsourcing.
Unions have historically helped workers overcome this competition by uniting them to win across-the-board justice for the majority. In the 1900s they won equal pay and benefits across whole industries like automobiles and steel. The challenge today is to overcome international competition and join hands to win good wages and conditions worldwide.
The challenge is daunting to say the least. The AFL-CIO split in 2005 when several big unions formed a new federation that pledged to organize more vigorously. This division, however, may also dilute the clout of labor to act in concert. Nonetheless, steps being taken today suggest ways we can move toward the vision of global worker justice and unionism, aided by fast, global Internet communications. These steps include:
Build broad support for workers and communities, regardless of location or whether there is a union contract, and apply pressure to encourage government support for workers.
People can join AFL-CIO campaigns to support better laws and worker rights at workingamerica.org. The Jobs for Justice coalition also rallies public support for worker-justice battles. The campaign against Wal-Mart, one of the most powerful economic forces on earth, is proof that the movement can reach beyond its members. Wal-Mart paved the way for retailers to aggressively demand lower costs from producers around the world. The union movement is using the Internet to tap into a broad reservoir of resentment to these tactics, including small businesses and towns devastated by Wal-Mart super-stores, states fed up with covering health costs Wal-Mart should have paid for its own workers, and young people upset with the Wal-Mart-ization of culture and opportunities. Laws are being passed in Chicago and elsewhere to demand that major retailers pay good wages and benefits.
Connect with immigrants and workers across national borders to build permanent support networks and apply global pressure on companies and governments to respect workers.
Given the vast distances and differences in living standards, culture and language, as well as interference from repressive governments, reaching across borders is not easy. To succeed, unions must connect with other social movements and take maximum advantage of technology to communicate quickly and cheaply around the world.
Organize globally against corporate threats to play workers against each other.
The New York-based National Labor Committee exposes the appalling conditions in foreign sweatshops through creative media events that attract support from churches and the public. The Campaign for Labor Rights in the U.S., Britains LabourStart and the U.S.-based UE electrical workers union (which publishes a virtual newsletter on Mexican labor and is allied with a democratic Mexican union) also organize powerful email campaigns to support union struggles around the world, while groups like the Comité Fronterizo de Obreros organize on the ground across borders.
Challenge the commercialization of culture and inspire an ethical framework in which people are called upon to make sacrifices such as not buying products made in sweatshops to press for gains that benefit all.
Students are organizing to support labor rights locally and globally. The first group of Mexican workers to organize at a maquila clothing factory (i.e., a factory producing products for export under conditions favoring multinationals) was at the Korean-owned Mexmode factory in Puebla. A courageous strike by young women workers won a new union in 2001 through key support from the U.S.-based United Students against Sweatshops, which in turn is allied with labor and global anti-sweatshop groups. They quickly mobilized using the Internet.
Share technical ideas, information and organizing experiences with activists and labor supporters worldwide.
Academics have been sharing information globally on labor organizing, as evidenced at the Global Unions conference sponsored by Cornell in 2006. And union supporters from several nations meet biannually at LaborTech conferences to showcase creative uses of modern communications.
Push for trade agreements that protect not just corporate investment but workers rights, with trade penalties for mistreating workers. Insist on democratic input into international trade rules.
Several Latin American governments have rejected the neo-liberal basis of modern trade agreements and the anti-worker conditions imposed by lending institutions. In 2006, a popular French revolt against watering down job protections for young workers won a surprise victory. Recent rounds of trade talks have failed, and Mexican voters turned out en masse for Lopez Obrador, who wants to renegotiate NAFTA.
The labor movement cannot and will not die. Workers are struggling for union rights around the globe -- even against the greatest of odds. And the public is increasingly supportive.
After decades of losing ground, unions and advocates of worker justice are striving to overcome the competition for jobs that pits worker against worker in a global race to the bottom. A vision of global progress, based on humane values, solidarity and local community, can motivate a union movement that transcends borders and involves all workers and allies. The Wal-Mart campaign, the anti-sweatshop movement and international networking are evidence that unions, the public, foreign workers and academics are reaching out in new ways to form support networks to raise standards for all workers. And they are pressuring governments to reject the neo-liberal trade policies that disadvantage workers, and insist on trade rules that require justice for workers.
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As companies move jobs away from unionized workplaces, fewer workers have health insurance and pay has stagnated. New technology has helped businesses create huge multinationals that move jobs to where labor costs are the lowest. Labor Visions, based on humane values, solidarity and local community, can motivate a union movement that transcends borders and involves all workers and their allies.