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Summer Conference 2002

Photo
Left to right: Mark Surman, Mark Baumgartner, Doug Hull and John O'Leary

SUNDAY MORNING
Session Seven – Internet Intercourse: Where Do You Live?
Speakers
MARK BAUMGARTNER, B.Sc., BPHE, Medical Student, UWO Class of 2003; Founder, progressivethought.com (bio)
DOUG HULL, Senior Director, Public Access/Learning Networks (bio)
JOHN O’LEARY, President, Frontier College (bio)
Moderator

MARK SURMAN, President, The Commons Group (bio)

Synopsis by Tanzeel Merchant

Introduction

Mark spoke about online communities in a virtual and physical world; a passionate subject for him. He spoke of the need to help people tap into the powerful network of the internet, to help non profits, individuals and organizations harness technology. The Website rabble.ca, political commentary forum that he worked on, is something that he is very proud of. "That’s what I do", he said. Mark loves cities, he lives in one, but he lives mostly in a virtual world.

Mark’s role as moderator, in his words, "is to set up the discussion on the online community" he talked about ‘utopia’ first, the promised land of technology, remember the euphoria about technology. Media, government and business were very excited about technology. Time magazine’s ’95 cover was gung ho over technology, magic cell phones that would turn water into wine, robot athletes etc., a fetishism and excitement about the magical transformative power of technology. Wired magazine said then: "the internet is only beaten by the discovery of fire". Mark puts it as "This was big, big, shit!"

But we didn’t get the utopia; instead we got stock market crashes and cost overruns on software projects. What was the hype about? There was something real. We were just looking in the wrong places. One of the first wrong places was the "now". "Society underestimated the long term benefits and over estimated the short term benefits;" Mark says. If one were to go back, it was the same thing with electricity; people once felt that it would eliminate the need for politics. The other place we look incorrectly is to look to the hardware. "As problem solvers, we’re a nation of hardware freaks… we have to go beyond that."

Mark feels that if we just roll out the wires, i.e. enable, the world will be a better place. What drove that utopian energy still exists: can we tap into it? It is about people power. The internet is as the city is, about connections between people, about human interaction. It draws us and encourages us to put the same energy back. Social relationships make the internet special, we should think not of now, but instead of the next few centuries and what we will do with it. Social relationships make the journey both valuable and interesting.

"What are we talking about when we say online communities?" Mark asks.

‘Discussion’. ‘babble’, rabble.ca’s discussion board, the amazing thing is that it gives a home to people who are isolated. "Being a kid, local punk rock and peace activist, I didn’t have a lot of peers. If I had this, my life would be very different." These for a can be a launching pad for real world social relationships, to find friends who give one somewhere to go with one’s passion. There are positive stories amongst the bad things as well. Online communities are also about playing, about massively multiplayer games like ultima online, dungeons and dragons, games that are trying to create social relationships, alliances etc. Hundreds of thousands of kids play this together and live out fantasies. "They’re actually there writing their own stories… the narratives are no Shakespeare, but the stories are being written for themselves." An interesting transformation.

‘Sharing’ fits into the idea of an online community, the global ‘hot flash’ is ingrained in the geek culture of the internet. Mark brings up the example of the SAP DD community, which gives away their database on open source. It is a way for people to leverage the expertise of others. People find that kind of sharing incredibly helpful.

Another key piece is ‘trust’, something that is incredibly important to the functioning of our physical community. Ebay, an online auction and trading site has a problem of how to create trust in virtual space and has developed very good systems making it almost like shopping on the main street.

Certainly knowledge and the sharing of it and knowing together are key. Opencola, a collaborative filtering base allows you to tap into the mind of your peers to see what is relevant, e.g. to find out what people who went to the Couchiching conference are reading.

The last idea is about ‘engaging’; about community engagement and organizing. Political movement spawned on the internet have vast potential, given the social energy on the internet. People are still experimenting with it.

Marks question to the panel was; "how is this related to cities?" He listed a few points.

First- on inclusion, economic, geographic, cultural, the how the internet relates to that. The second- on engagement and exploring it a little bit more. What people see as apathy isn’t necessarily so, but honest dialogue and the feeling that you’re being listened to does bring people in. Third- on innovation: we need to innovate to do things differently, not just how we sell but how we work with each other. To find out how to get the best and to pick technology that is appropriate as we move on.

Mark ended his presentation paraphrasing Christine May’s words from an earlier discussion; "the real challenge is to make politics as exciting as shopping and protesting, and I would add to that as online gaming… to make a world that we all want to create."

[Applause]

John O’Leary, President, Frontier College

John chose to address the issue in the role of a teacher, "I’m going to speak to the themes of inclusion and engagement". He challenged everyone present to consider in his or her life and within the city they came from, to connect with people in their communities who are excluded from the ideas of knowledge, curiosity and experience. Frontier College, a project he is working on uses McLuhan’s ‘city of the classroom’. "We didn’t understand it then… we’re learning constantly at home and the community and how technology and the internet, how we can mobilize their creativity and ingenuity to break down barriers at the enrichment program at Frontier". His program taps into the ‘geeks’ and ‘nerds’ of the internet and trains them to be mentors and tutors to the less advantaged.

John’s first visit to Couchiching was as a High School student in 1976. He believes in its great tradition that knowledge and education can and must be available to all citizens and not just an elite few. He helped found frontiercollege .ca, in 89 at Queens University. John talked of a movement founded well over a hundred years ago whereby students at university and in high schools worked voluntarily in many fields to eliminate the imbalance in education and poverty. Today, John feels we face contemporary frontiers, whether in Toronto, Dublin or New York. Young brilliant districts, minutes away from people living in poverty and isolation, his project brings those two solitudes together. Many people in the new economy deal with innovation, community, teaching, that is what education is about. Why don’t we bring those things together, give them space, talented people, people who live in a world of ideas and knowledge and problem solving and let them work constructively. But there is a digital divide that first needs to be addressed, a poverty wall, books, computers etc out of the grasp of poor children. John teaches ‘geeks’ to teach a 13-year-old girl how to learn, it is called mentoring. The learning is student centered, the children themselves want to learn, it is again about community.

Mentoring contributes to the goal of education and achieving it. They now have 4 sites in place and are connecting people who do not normally meet, building meaningful relationship over time. The breaking down and connecting are tremendous encouragement in the families for school success. How does it connect to the internet? The kids are attracted to these places and people and this learning, a lot of social interaction goes on. Kids going twice a week for after school enrichment and mentoring don’t need the basics but they need the extra enrichment and the higher order mentoring and learning. "I’m not a great fan of contemporary life, but I love these environments… all this we don’t understand, but children love it" says John. This how the community can use the wonderful space of our cities can connect and network. There are too few instances and we want to develop it across the world. John Concludes, "People don’t need us to feel sorry for them or worry. They want to be included, to sit down, to engage them, teach them and learn with them."

Doug Hull, Senior Director, Public Access/ Learning Networks

Doug runs a project called ‘Canary’ that connects and networks the nation, through its schools, local institutions and communities. The theme of ‘globalization’, to him, is a very important issue troubling large parts of the world’s cities about how they can compete. Canadian cities have to figure out how they will help position Canadian communities, give them strategic choices and resources. He faces the dilemma on whether the state’s priorities are major cities and that they should concentrate on them while running the danger of draining resources from people on the other side of divides. Is this a more equitable society?

An equitable society, says Doug, is imperative. Infrastructure, of any kind, at a large level breaks down; he feels we need to back cities up with adequate support. Barrie ‘s problems are different from Missisiagua’s as they are from Vancouver’s, so why would mega cities need smaller entities like towns to be with them. Small communities, even remote regions bring advantages and benefits, they represent very important skills. They’re part of the market place that Doug says we need to capture to go after bigger ones and develop services that suit the needs here.

Secondly, he feels that we as a nation need skills. We need to reach out and connect the schools, universities and organizations to develop the skills sets we need. Technological illiteracy within large portions of the population disadvantages us.

Application to him is a third point, but only when built in response to challenges, they generate productivity and innovation. "Applications from problems" is how he puts it.

How do we then learn literacy, develop mentoring techniques and face local and global challenges?

There is another very important reason according to Doug to answer this "why?" Canada, like other nations, is in the global race to sustain its standard of living. Additionally, leaving large parts of the country out of this ‘progress’ is not politically sustainable over the long-term. Who then does qualify for attention, considering that only Toronto ranks in the top lists of global cities. What happens then to smaller towns like Simcoe? This is a very slippery slope.

Doug used the example of Jordan with a population the size of Toronto and an annual income of $12,000 per capita. "They have ‘noting’, and yet they have to sustain… they want to develop knowledge based products. IT allows them to tap the education strength and transfer it into global business." His group’s work has been to show them what they can do if they take the collaborative and cooperative route of inclusion, engagement and innovation- they can leapfrog the digital divide. In their effort to be in the top 10 in IT in the next few years, Jordan is implementing a massive broadband network to be completed by end 2004 to give all equitable access. "One you connect people, they’ll be penetrating other markets."

Doug concludes with advice on searching out things we need to learn, to prepare ourselves, be skeptical and look at how we can win and make it work for us. "When you solve the problem, how do you take that solution and do it across all communities and situations across the country."

Mark Baumgartner, Founder, progressivethought.com

Mark begins his presentation with the words "The internet and technology are mother’s milk to me". In asking what he is doing at Couchiching, he feels that the organization is looking to be more representative of youth demographic and that we’re coming to realize is that there is less and less to separate each other. "We all want to matter, have our existences validated… be on the skateboard, school board and snowboard" he says.

His presentation is in three parts: first a two-minute primer on marrying cities, globalization and the internet, then an exploration of realities and the possibilities and dangers behind these assumption and the third part is ‘the next key step’. "The internet will be what it can only if we leave it in the free spirit and environment in which it was born and conceived" he says. "In globalization we are all poles of power and the intricacies born off it are what are exciting about globalization. Cities fascinate me, but I have no desire to live there… the internet allows me to connect to friends that sustain me and I can still see stars at night".

The internet, according to Mark, is a vehicle perpetuating globalization. Cities must now compete with virtual communities and global populations. "You became your parents", he states, "this is the way we learn now… information is like electricity, plug in and go."

What do we then do with all of this and with all these opportunities, why do we not vote anymore? Mark feels that kids are bored of the old ways of effecting change and that a majority of youth will find their own outlets for expression and start taking actions as individuals. Last year Danielle a friend of Marks, worked with him to set up a vehicle for discussion to commemorate December 6 massacre in Montreal. Medical students from across the country came together to talk about this online, a truly global community. Email efforts furthered the international ban on land mines campaign. This for Mark is the new arena. He admits to spending most of the time on his PC. According to mark, Silicon Valley, the heartland of the new age, is one of the ugliest places in the world. United Way chapters there shut down for lack of funds. Mark confesses, "The danger in doing our own thing is that we get the sense that this is enough."

Mark speaks about the disillusionment of the new generation in the infancy of the internet "That tangible focused energy from a room of passionate people- it is missing. Disaffected and disillusioned, we crave leadership." He feels that just as the rights and patents of corporations are protected on the internet, the rights of the individuals, i.e. the information on them that is in the public domain like insurance records, credit data, our own records should be as well while admitting that a way can always be found to break the rules. Mark compares the ‘information pipelines’ to what roads and rails were to the previous generation. "Grant us ownership of a problem. We’ll tackle it with undreamt of energy", he says in a clear message to the older generation, "teach us to teach and then humble yourself to learn from us."

Mark then sprung a surprise on the group, "I registered a name- my challenge to you is to make it yours, policypulse.org". The website will be based on dynamic feedback over the internet, giving us the ability to organize information that accumulates in ways that are useful to those needing it attaching significance to the data while doing so. "You create your questions," he says, "post them and they become available online as a series of focused discussions highlighted for people to respond to." Mark quoted from a posting that in his opinion captured the spirit of the discussion. It addresses the monopoly and domination that corporate globalization enjoyed, treating ethics and morality as commodities. Social globalization on the internet on the other hand, characterized by software like Linux, the growing collection of shareware (free to use) and the act of sharing would optimize human experience in a global environment.

He closes with a quote; "We’ve realized the first part, the availability of information, the second is to make it a realistic mirror that reflects our lives. Once the state of our interaction is online, we can use computers to better analyze it, understand how we can fit in and how we can work together."

Selected Questions

Question 1: With so much of commerce and transaction moving into the virtual, how do we make sure virtual businesses carry their fair share of the load municipally (in taxes)?

Answer:

Mark B. if you tax it, it will either die or move somewhere else.

Doug: large number of people are paying other taxes and adding value to the tax base. Nortel and JDS added immensely to Ottawa’s base. The Federal Government hopes that knowledge based economy adds value to the nation has a whole.

Question 1 cont.: in the micro sense what you say is difficult to accept even if in the macro scale it makes sense:

Mark B: certain portions of economic activity will move elsewhere, where does it start shifting?

Question 1 cont.: should cities then be taxing things like telephone lines to replace what they lost in brick and mortar?

Mark S: you get a prize for asking good questions.

Question 2: In spite of all that I’ve heard, I’m afraid we’ll get so overwhelmed by the mass of technology and taken up, reminds me of the days of ham radios and all they could tell each other was the power of their transmitters. My son teaches computers, trying to get his kids to be critical thinkers, he finds he is running a hard road; they’re so taken up with all that is out there, to keep up with it… I get 17,000 references on the net when I search; how in earth with this fantastic growth in technology, growing exponentially, how can we develop a critical mind?

Answer:

Mark S: people have to get beyond that to get useful, it has happened on the internet, you can find a lot of great stuff when you develop the skills. Tools have changed and tools now exist that that can help us do that. An online community is such a tool to build on each other’s references and trust base. When I look at the culture of the internet and open source culture, "man are those people critical thinkers". Miles ahead and ever faster, people can pull quality out of that system, even though there is a lot of crap.

John: In any new environment you need a guide… we all need guides. We often use that metaphor. Come to a city for the first time and you face the same situation. I as a mentor or guide can show you and help you navigate that environment. The people who understand that environment can be excellent guides. The mentoring-guiding relationship is one way to solve that dilemma.

Doug: This is a valid concern; you should rest assured that progress is being made. The education system is very concerned about students being exposed to this info. They have to be shown that not all that information is valid. One has to compare that with when I went to school. It was the knowledge the teacher had, I never had the opportunity to criticize, could I develop critical thinking? Today kids spend five minutes on the internet and go back and challenge the teacher.

Mark B: google replaced yahoo by adding value to the search system, referencing connections and giving them value to make the search more relevant and meaningful.

Question 3: on email… I am one of those people who get several hundred emails a day. As a survival technique, I switch my PC off. It lets me get away and think. Real connectivity to what is around me is what allows me to think. Geeks are disconnected to reality. I fear a whole new evolution is taking place of people connected in a very artificial connectivity.

Mark S: I go to the café to do that; a hippie, fair trade café. Prioritization is needed. People who use it well feel very accessible.

Mark B: It is a huge learning curve. Once you explore and get your fill, you’re ready to move on.

John: This too is the frontier of the city, with geeks in their lofts and a shelter for homeless ten minutes away. Often the best impact is the social engagement, what matters is the content and ideas, the technology is there. His being curious about the world is what matters (on Dalton, his mentee).

Doug: Everyone has his or her own coping mechanism. The internet world hasn’t provided us with tools with which we can determine what we want to see and less time wasted. Context management is crucial here, being able to build your own context that filters out what is not relevant to you.

Question 4: Technology is a tool, it is not a takeover.

Mark B: What is scary is the amount of competition it is putting us up against, it is their (countries further behind on the developing scale) ticket to get to the top. Libraries are adapting, they’re not being replaced, and they are essential to develop critical thinking. It is forcing us to keep on changing and adapting.

Question 5: Firstly, there is a requirement that you’re filling with your online groups on a variety of subjects. The second part of the question is that you (John) were turned away from Queens, why should a student so keen for knowledge be turned away? We should not be segmenting people intellectually and the internet should be a vehicle for universal access to education.

John: On making knowledge available and accessible to all students, there is resistance to this idea. We should take ideas to people in every part of Canada. Some feel that education is being trivialized by making it so easy to obtain. If everyone can have a BA, what’s my degree at University of Toronto worth?

Doug: If you can open up access, you can teach so much more of the world without investment in bricks and mortar. The Universities are also competing in the global marketplace. The issue of access is very important, whether Canadians do it or not though we are very equipped to do so.

Mark B: We face an issue of overcoming our own snobbery and looking down at others. Globalization provides us the space for the spread of knowledge to happen.

Question 6: The internet has the potential to be the rebirth of citizenship and debate. It is exhausting how much people criticize each other over the net. In the generational digital divide, there is a perception out there of young people being apathetic. What is the responsibility of ‘my’ generation to reassure that we do have some sense of engagement and responsibility. What should we be doing to close that gap?