Technology & Community Work - Who's Driving Who?
21 October 2002 at 1:10 pm
Today many Not for Profits are asking just what can they do with the new information and communication technology (ICT)? According to a leading US researcher this is the wrong question. The right question is “what technology do they need to accomplish our goals?”
That’s the opinion of Randy Stoecker who is a leading exponent of collaborative research and action in the development of ICT projects from the University of Toledo, Ohio.
Stoecker was in Australia recently to take part in a conference organised by the Centre for Community Networking Research to look at the big questions surrounding ICT – its impact, potentiality and its shortcomings.
As one of the keynote speakers, Stoecker said community organisations should not allow themselves to be limited by what the corporations tell them the technology can and cannot do.
He said particularly for those of us working in the community sector, the technology often seems like a distraction because the work is not about technologically-mediated interactions, but fundamentally about face to face relationships.
Stoecker says we worry that all this communication and information technology is getting between us and the people we try to serve. We complain about the growing daily wave of e-mail filling our in-boxes, distracting us from our real work. We swear when the computer crashes yet again, just in the middle of trying to enter information into our client database. We waste countless hours searching, sometimes in vein, for information on the Internet that will supposedly improve our practice.
He said the real work is rebuilding the social fabric of society, empowering disenfranchised community members, restoring neighbourhood and family relationships. It is difficult to see why we should be wasting so much time with the technology.
Stoecker concludes that we are treating the technology as the driver rather than the engine. We let the technology, and the corporations who sell it to us, tell us what we should do with it. We need to understand, however, that we are the driver.
He points out that at the same time, the technology offers possibilities that haven’t existed before. These aren’t just technological possibilities, but cultural possibilities as well. When we take responsibility as the driver of the technology, different possibilities emerge. Rather than a distraction, the technology becomes a toolbox.
He said organisations still need to invest time in learning how to use the tools in the toolbox, but now we approach the technology with a need and find or modify tools to fill the need.
He said that by being linked to a community of people doing similar work, with similar information needs, it’s not hard to find out what the best software is and how to use it.
There are ultimately, three basic steps to linking community information technology and community work.
1. Find others who are doing what you do and share information. To the extent it is convenient, use the Internet – e-mail, forums, list-servers.
2. Find a sympathetic academic who is also a good listener and can take direction from the community. Get them going on a project that will help you assess your information needs and resources.
3. When you discover your collective information needs and resources, work on filling the gaps. You can involve community volunteers, empowering them in the process, and free software.
According to Stoecker there is joy as well as labour in reducing alienation from technology. Learning technology in a creative way, beginning with what you want and then figuring out how to make the technology give you what you want, and then engaging others in the same de-alienation process, builds relationships and self-confidence!
Larry Stillman from the Centre for Community Networking Research at Monash University says discussion during the remainder of the Conference became focussed around 4 key areas relevant to the development
of a better understanding of community networking, including research.
1. Funding & Policy
2. Viability and Sustainability
3. Capacity Building – particularly social capacity
4. Technical Infrastructure
Each of these interacts with 4 ‘groups’ — Individuals, community,
organisations, and government.
Stillman says it was it was agreed that a number of basic initiatives could be undertaken to advance discussion, dialogue, communication with community agencies and government, and action, to promote and present a collective voice :
1) Establishment of a reference group and possibly working groups
2) The establishment of a ‘listserv’ (to be set up by NOIE – Peter
3) The continuing need for face to face interaction.
If you would like an electronic copy of Randy Stoecker’s address to the Conference just send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.