Magazine article American Libraries

Special Report: A View from the Summit

Magazine article American Libraries

Special Report: A View from the Summit

Article excerpt

In an effort to push libraries to the center of a national debate that has frequently left them on the periphery, ALA hosted a six-hour communications forum Feb. 20 at the Annenberg Center for Health Sciences in Rancho Mirage, California.

Invited were 18 intellectuals who play diverse and prominent roles in shaping the debate over the information superhighway. Charles Ogletree, the Harvard Law School professor made famous by his role as moderator on PBS's Ethics in America, moderated the discussion, titled "A Nation Connected."

A video production team filmed and audiotaped the three summit sessions. Thirty librarians observed the proceedings and are expected to record their observations for further distribution. ALA President Betty Turock, who has made this summit the special focus of her Presidential year, hopes the event will become the model for "mini-summits" to be held around the country by ALA chapters.

In her introductory remarks, ALA Executive Director Elizabeth Martinez called the summit "the beginning of a conversation between ALA and the American people about the information superhighway." Turock set the direction of the discussion by saying that in the last five years "10 major corporations have spent more than $40 million to influence telecommunication legislation," making "connections to power at the highest levels."

Arguing that decisions about the superhighway have been dominated by corporate and financial interests, Turock said that "what technology can do for the people, and how it can address society's needs" have been overshadowed. She applauded the opportunities the telecommunications revolution has presented large, corporate interests, but said that ALA wants to ensure "comparable expansion in the public interest." Underlining the words with her tone, Turock stated ALA's priority: "Access to electronic information by people of all ages and circumstances." This is critical, she argued, in a time when "more of the information we need is in electronic format."

Ogletree directed the first question at Howard Rheingold, author and founding executive editor of HotWired, the online sister publication of Wired magazine: "Where are we in technology?" Rheingold replied that we "are at a crisis point for democracy. Democracy depends on citizens being able to communicate with each other, not just vote for their leaders. The technologies we are talking about are not just information technologies, they are communication technologies. The question is: Will the citizens of democratic societies use this technology to talk with each other about the issues that concern us or will access be limited, as it has been in the mass media, to those who can afford to buy that access?"

Rheingold worried that instead of seeing the Internet as an opportunity for communication, ordinary people, misled by journalists, have become afraid that the new technology will replace jobs and "corrupt children." Librarians, he added, "ought to be the activists" in turning this situation around.

At the feet of individuals

Esther Dyson, one of the technology's most frequently quoted analysts, saw, a different problem. As she sees it, the problem is not haves and have-nots--"information is much more accessible, it's getting cheaper"--but that "the people who have the information don't know what to do with it." Dyson laid this problem at the feet of individuals. "If you give people freedom, you also give them responsibility, and not everyone is taking it. You can't give people education, they have to take it." She singled out parents having particular responsibility for teaching their children how to use the information that is now available.

Herbert Schiller, professor emeritus of communications at the University of California/San Diego, wasn't ready to let technology off the hook. Fundamental forces in society are pushing technology in a certain direction, he argued. The dominant players in this society are "the people who put up the money" to get the Telecommunications Act (or, as he put it, "a telecommunications giveaway bill") passed in Congress. …

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