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[techbooks] REVIEW: "High Technology and Low-Income Communities", Donald A.

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  • Rob Slade, doting grandpa of Ryan and Tr
    BKHTALIC.RVW 981108 High Technology and Low-Income Communities , Donald A. Schon/Bish Sanyal/William J. Mitchell (eds.), 1999, 0-262-69199-X, U$25.00 %E
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 20, 1999
      BKHTALIC.RVW 981108

      "High Technology and Low-Income Communities", Donald A. Schon/Bish
      Sanyal/William J. Mitchell (eds.), 1999, 0-262-69199-X, U$25.00
      %E Donald A. Schon
      %E Bish Sanyal
      %E William J. Mitchell
      %C 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, MA 02142-1399
      %D 1999
      %G 0-262-69199-X
      %I MIT Press
      %O U$25.00 800-356-0343 fax: 617-625-6660 www-mitpress.mit.edu
      %P 411 p.
      %T "High Technology and Low-Income Communities"

      In the spring of 1996, MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning
      held a colloquium to look at potential and actual effects of
      information technology on (generally low income) inner city urban
      areas. This was prompted by eagerness to use computer models for
      urban planning, concern on the part of the technology community about
      access inequities, and increased interest in providing technology
      access and training to enhance opportunity for those in low income
      situations. In addition, there was a concern about large numbers of
      people from all backgrounds who considered technology irrelevant to
      poverty and vice versa. These are the colloquium papers: transcripts
      of the sessions themselves can be found at
      http://sap.mit.edu/projects/colloquium/. The papers come from a
      variety of sources and viewpoints but are overall a disappointing lot,
      stating that technology is changing society, technology is making new
      opportunities, technology is widening disparities, computers have
      problems, computers can be fun, and we all need more education.

      In chapter one, Manuel Castells makes an important point that social
      and economic disadvantage is also arranged spatially within cities,
      and that barriers of space and distance are added to the others.
      Technophiles, of course, would immediately dispute this, saying the
      net breaks down space. While Castells' point can be made applicable
      to technology, he does not do so in his paper. Peter Hall certainly
      disagrees, in chapter two, but his own reading of statistics makes him
      admit that cities are not in decline. Using his own illustration of
      the Model T it is easy to see why: there is a much greater need for
      someone to fix the machines when they fail than there is for
      "theoretical abstract intelligence" tied to urban centres. Some
      slight knowledge of the technology might be more helpful to his
      analysis than his constant references to an army of social scientists.
      The questions and statistics presented by Julian Wolpert show plenty
      of poverty but few answers in chapter three. (Very little relation to
      technology, either.) William Mitchell reiterates his "need for
      design" thesis from "City of Bits" (cf. BKCITBIT.RVW) in chapter four,
      but the most telling statement is his assertion that "Nobody really
      knows what the digital revolution will ultimately mean for towns and
      cities." (In a change of pace, this paper says even less about
      poverty than it does about technology.) From a historical
      perspective, Leo Marx finds the rise of information technology
      irrelevant, in chapter five. Viewing the more recent claims for the
      educational value of television, and the hideously ironic quality of
      offerings on the "500 channel universe" of today, I find it hard to
      disagree.

      William Mitchell starts off part two, in chapter six, with a
      principled statement against the kind of asymmetric information flow
      involved in cable modems and ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber
      Line), thus using a democratic ideal to negate the need to analyze the
      type of information flow needed in work situations today. The rest of
      his chapter is a fairly superficial overview of the Web. Joseph
      Ferreira got me all excited by promising to address "the prospective
      benefits for service providers and service recipients of decentralized
      access to information about populations and their needs, service
      systems, and operations" which sounds useful and right on target until
      you realize that neither providers nor recipients are going to be
      defined and that the chapter is spent formulating SQL queries to find
      variant spellings on title deeds. For no apparent reason. Various
      types of community "nets" and educational technologies used for
      collaborative planning are cited by Michael Shiffer in chapter eight.
      This comes closest to addressing the issues raised by the title, with
      two provisos. One is that the experiences cited are anecdotal. The
      other is that while the community systems are said to be accessible
      with a low cost PC and a modem, the collaborative programs illustrated
      require reasonably high end graphical machines with sound capability.
      Chapter nine is even better, where Amsden and Clark do a first rate
      job of exploding the myth that a few computers in the inner city would
      catapult the "disadvantaged" population to the heights of software
      entrepreneurship. Jeanne Bamberger's piece in chapter ten is
      interesting to an old teacher, but seems to have neither a point
      (other than that some kids learn kinesthetically) nor a relation to
      the book. Chapter eleven tells some stories from the Computer
      Clubhouse project. These are apposite, but have few details that
      might allow a successful transfer to another location. A more
      detailed account of the Community Computer Street Library Project is
      given in chapter twelve. A look at community nets in chapter thirteen
      is limited by its singular account of the Multi-User Sessions In
      Community program. Sherry Turkle says something about personal
      empowerment through learning and understanding, but not much about low
      income in chapter fourteen. Anne Beamish, in chapter fifteen, looks
      briefly at a number of models for getting computers and computer
      access into low income communities. Again, details are sketchy, but
      references, mostly online, are provided.

      Chapter sixteen concludes by noting that there was much agreement
      between participants in the colloquium, but has to admit that the
      agreement was only "implicit" in the discussions. A number of
      motherhood statements are made in regard to public policy on
      technology access.

      While one cannot doubt the sincerity, intentions, and (within their
      fields) scholarship of the authors, it is dismaying to look in vain
      for a solid understanding of the technology that might have informed
      some possible answers to problems, or even an insightful analysis of
      the problems themselves. While raising some issues for debate, few of
      the papers do more than that.

      copyright Robert M. Slade, 1998 BKHTALIC.RVW 981108

      ======================
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