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|My feelings about New Community Networks can be summed up in the
author blurb on the back cover, which indicates that Schuler wrote what
Apple librarian Steve Cisler called "the definitive article on community
networks." I haven't read the article, but this book did read like a
magazine article with an extended political critique in the middle. I don't
mean to say, however, that readers should blow the book off and hunt down
the magazine article instead. The book contains much valuable practical
information and is as intellectually honest as anything you'll find on the
shelves. I don't agree with most of Schuler's politics, but anyone with an
interest in community networks will find enough value inside to justify
picking up a copy.
If an author has a definite philosophical bias, I prefer he or she make it known to the reader from the start. Author Douglas Schuler makes no bones about his support for community-based governance (a.k.a. strong democracy) and what he refers to as "social change activists", so my initial reaction to New Community Networks was quite favorable. I may not always agree with Schuler's views, but he puts them out in the open from the start. His preface, which summarizes his outlook, provides extremely useful background for interpreting the rest of the text.
As the title hints, New Community Networks looks at community networks, often called "Free-Net's", which allow community members free or very inexpensive access to online resources like electronic mail, discussion rooms (under both live chat and Usenet models), and files available for viewing or downloading. Many community networks offer Internet access, but not all. In the minimalist sense, a "community network" might have some (or no) modem access for computer owners and offer free terminals at public places like malls or government buildings for individuals who can't or don't want to purchase their own computer.
Schuler wants community networks to be as inclusive as possible so individuals from all socioeconomic backgrounds are able to participate in decision making and, more basically, in the community itself. Schuler envisions community networks as providing a "third place", not work and not home, where community members may congregate, socialize, and debate pertinent issues. The author sees a sense of shared concern as an inherent part of a community, so he insists that a community exist within a relatively small geographic space. At the state or national level, he argues, there are too many concerns and voices to allow a rational decision making process where all concerned citizens may have a say.
The upshot of all this is that a community which promotes meaningful interaction transcending ethnic, economic, and philosophical cleavages will be in a better position to reap benefits in all phases of community life, like education, economic opportunity, and health care. The middle few chapters critique how the capitalist economic system addresses (or fails to address) these community needs, with additional attention to the role of mass media in defining the socioeconomic agenda. It's also in this middle section that the book turns from an exploration of community networks per se into a running political critique with short, repetitive sections at the end of each chapter reiterating that strong interaction will allow communities to head off the bad effects of media monopolies, free enterprise health care and so forth.
Schuler closes the book with a series of appendices listing organizations concerned with government accountability, alternative media (Paper Tiger Television is a relatively well-known example), and various forms of advocacy. I found these resources and the aforementioned critiques much more enlightening than the nuts and bolts discussion of establishing and operating a community network in Chapters 8-10, though Schuler's first-hand experiences are certainly of value to anyone looking to build their own community network.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.