Technology for community-building in America

Just back from a workshop at MIT on technology for community-building in America.  The focus turned out to be poor communities.  Apparently the middle class don’t need community because they can enjoy their suburban comforts.  I reflected that technology has so far mostly harmed the poor in the U.S.  In the old days when telecommunications and transportation were expensive there was a real need in our economy for the labor of the lowest economic class.  Maybe they’d work in a factory or do some kind of clerical job.  In 2004, however, our businesses can get all of the unskilled labor that they want in China or India.  Fear of crime was once a motivator for trying to improve poor neighborhoods.  But improved management techniques, universal cell phones for calling 911, innovations like the gated community and security cameras everywhere, and pure technology such as the fancy alarm system have lessened this fear.


The elephant in the room that nobody wanted to talk about was education.  The non-profit world likes to think about affordable housing, leadership development, better health care, specialized training, etc.  If everyone in a poor neighborhood were educated to the standard of the average Harvard graduate all of the other problems would be solved.  Someone who is really well educated probably has a good job and makes a lot of money and can afford whatever housing is out there.  Someone who is really well educated may find that others naturally want to follow him or her so leadership development isn’t that important.  Someone who is really well educated will probably have better habits and won’t need as much health care (it is the college grads who wear seat belts).  Someone who is really well educated can read a For Dummies book and learn how to use a computer application.


Schools for poor people are government schools.  Everyone who works there is either a bureaucrat or a union member.  None of these people incurs any kind of pay loss or risk of firing if the kids remain totally ignorant.  All attempts at reform over the past 40 years have failed.  So people give up.  One community organizing expert sitting next to me responded to my observation that if everyone had a first class education the other stuff would fix itself with “that’s just not realistic”.


Working from the assumption that most people in a poor community are doomed to a third-rate education, what can we do for them with technology?  It turns out that the answer is “not much”.  Foundations fund thousands of small groups nationwide and they spend $billions on IT (i.e., indirectly the foundations are spending $billions every year on IT).  None, however, has a large enough budget to do more than buy packaged software or write some half-working half-documented custom software.  All the groups complain that there is no packaged software that actually serves their needs and that they can’t afford to develop full custom apps.  Although their IT needs are fairly similar none of them have a large enough budget to attract commercial software companies except for fundraising management software.


You’d think that the open source revolution would have attracted some notice.  Programmers who weren’t paid a dime generated a tremendous amount of social benefits worldwide.  What more effective use of grant money than to pay some programmers to develop open-source software products and toolkits for common non-profit organization requirements?  Yet nobody at the conference had ever heard of a foundation funding an open-source software project.


One bright spot… a handful of folks had set up free wireless Internet access blankets over struggling neighborhoods in various parts of the country.  All of the academic papers written about the “Digital Divide” turned out to be nonsense.  As soon as a poor person had an opportunity to get broadband without being reamed out for $50/month by the local telco or cable monopoly the poor person was able to leap right over the exotic language and cultural barriers that sociologists had posited.  I.e., it turned out that these folks were poor, not stupid.

23 Comments

  1. Preston L. Bannister

    June 12, 2004 @ 11:22 pm

    1

    Phil, you spend too much time with bright, highly educated people.

    Education is not like a coat of paint – you cannot expect to slather “Harvard” over anyone who comes along and expect to get the same result. Even if “the poor” were offered a free Harvard education, not everyone – and probably not anywhere near the majority – would be able to get through.

    Now some people who could benefit from a first-class education do not get the chance. Some people who do get a first-class education do not really benefit. One is a shame and the other a waste.

    I think it would be a great idea to offer a first class education to anyone who can do the work. At the same time I would not expect this to entirely solve the problem.

  2. Not a Pilot

    June 13, 2004 @ 12:25 am

    2

    There has been some interest by foreign governments in using some type of open source software in place of Microsoft products. A lot of this probably comes from US-Hatred.

  3. PatrickG

    June 13, 2004 @ 12:45 am

    3

    When you come to understand that far too many non-profits are there for the benefit of the people drawing a salary, you will see that it is not in the economic self-interest for the poor to actually become better off.

  4. brett

    June 13, 2004 @ 9:04 am

    4

    talk about proving your point! Preston and the person sitting next to you are the trouble – “knowing” ahead of time what won’t work, the impact of a good education (Harvard was just a nickname, eh?) should be tested

    I’ve been working for years to try to aggregate non-profit tech needs in my local/regional area, and have recently (past two) switched to lighting up as much airspace as I can with wireless (and nearly no budget, I have most of a Dartmouth education and these days spend my time training folks in the basics of computers)

    access (or rather the lack of it) is the issue, for many, and for those for whom that isn’t the issue they will still benefit from their sister or brother (for whom it is) gaining that access and raising their sites and opportunity to improve their life

    like a mesh network, you don’t need a “node in every pot”, just enough to be within reach, with a little work

    anybody want to help?

  5. Philip Greenspun

    June 13, 2004 @ 11:15 am

    5

    Preston: Maybe my posting wasn’t clear. I wasn’t suggesting offering everyone in a poor neighborhood four years at Harvard. I was suggesting that if everyone in that neighborhood were as well educated as the average Harvard graduate is they wouldn’t be poor anymore. A typical Harvard kid gets to that level by age 22 fuel by superior IQ but also distracted by video games, TV, hormones, etc. A person with a lower IQ or who’d wasted some years in bad schools or watching even more TV might require 30 or 40 years to reach the same level.

    A typical Harvard kid has such good motivation and IQ that he or she often to that level in 30-person classes. Someone with a lower IQ or motivation might require learning in a small group. There is no reason to write off a human being as uneducable because they have failed to learn in a factory school system from ages 6-18. All that you can really say about them is that they couldn’t learn at that age and in a class with 30 other people led by an unaccountable unionized civil servant.

    (I’m in the middle of studying for my flight instructor’s rating right now. It is interesting to note that the FAA would never approve any kind of flight training or certification if done the public school way. They would say that the groups are too large, that the instructor has no way of knowing how much the students have actually learned, and that the students aren’t given enough opportunity to feel like they’ve accomplished something. Even ground school stuff is generally done in much smaller groups and with more hands-on learning relative to the amount of lecture time.)

  6. Alex Peake

    June 13, 2004 @ 12:13 pm

    6

    Could someone define the software that these Foundations would find useful. Let’s begin the process of open-source development.

  7. Andy Todd

    June 14, 2004 @ 5:33 pm

    7

    Mark Shuttleworth has started something here;

    http://www.shuttleworthfoundation.org/

  8. Beau

    June 14, 2004 @ 5:44 pm

    8

    I would dispute the “if everyone is educated they wouldn’t be poor” comment. Imagine if everyone of working age in the US had the equivalent of a BS degree. Where would all these high paying jobs come from? It never took a college education to work on an assemby line or in a factory and it doesn’t take one to operate the robot assembly lines we have today. Some of those workers along with plumbers and carpenters make/made much more than I make as a marine biologist. Lack of an education is not an excuse for being poor although it can be a big impediment to improving your situation. 5000 years of civilization have shown that there are always “poor” people, whether by their own choice or other circumstances. Non-profits trying to eradicate “poorness” most likely are tilting at windmills.

  9. The Lone Iowan

    June 14, 2004 @ 6:46 pm

    9

    Philip – You are an extremely intelligent person and I enjoy your blog. However, your attitude towards public education in this post worries me. Particularly this:

    “Schools for poor people are government schools. Everyone who works there is either a bureaucrat or a union member. None of these people incurs any kind of pay loss or risk of firing if the kids remain totally ignorant. All attempts at reform over the past 40 years have failed. So people give up.”

    With all due respect, I can’t believe anyone who would make this statement has ever stood in front of a class of 6th graders and tried to teach them for any length of time. My mother and my wife are public school teachers. What makes them great teachers is that they care about and love each kid. The fact that they are union members and (as you say) don’t feel the pressure of consequences has no bearing. When they come and sit next to me at the dinner table and cry because one of their kids is struggling its not because they fear consequences, firing or pay loss. Its because they wish they could do more for that child.

    It doesn’t matter if the child is poor or not. If they have two parents at home who care about their education they will do well. Use the technology to make better parents who care more. Don’t blame the teachers – certainly until you’ve at least attempted to understand their job and what truly motivates them.

  10. Phil Atio

    June 15, 2004 @ 12:07 pm

    10

    Philip,

    Personally, I’m no fan of unionism or bureaucracy. But I wonder how being a union member or a bureaucrat affects the quality of education one delivers.

    Most large educational institutions employ bureaucracy. For example, I have first hand knowledge of the bureaucracy at MIT. Does the fact that the MIT administration is extremely bureaucratic make MIT inferior to its peers? I think not, because most of MIT’s peers are also bureaucratic.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen schoolhouses in rural South Dakota that house all of Kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) in one room. As you can imagine, such schools are far less bureaucratic than their counterparts in affluent suburban areas like Montgomery County, MD. Do many of the graduates of the one-room schoolhouses reach the highest levels of industry and academia? Even though the populations of Montgomery County and South Dakota are comparable, there are a lot more kids admitted to Harvard from that one county in Maryland than several rural states combined.

    Most public K-12 schools employ union members. That is the same in Montgomery County, Maryland as in the District of Columbia. Does the union membership of the teachers account for the difference in academic (and job) performance of the graduates of these schools? Of course not.

    Let’s talk about a variable that IS significant. Study after study has shown that K-12 schools in affluent suburban areas show far higher test scores and more students admitted to Harvard, Yale, Caltech, etc. than their poor urban counterparts. Yet the teachers in both kinds of school are union members and they work in a bureaucracy.

    I don’t claim to know why one school turns out more successful graduates than another. But it probably wouldn’t take much thought to come up with a few variables that are better predictors than union membership and degree of bureaucracy.

    Suggestions, anyone?

  11. Keith Neundorfer

    June 15, 2004 @ 12:15 pm

    11

    I believe parental involvement has more to do with a student’s academic success or failure than the teacher or the state of physical structure where classes meet. I live in a school district that is consistently ranked as one of the best in the state, yet its most accomplished teachers are regularly poached by other districts paying up to 30% more and, until the past few years, our infrastucture is well aged. What we do have is a majority of parents who are interested and involved in their kid’s school and education.

  12. Konrad

    June 15, 2004 @ 12:51 pm

    12

    Philip, don’t confuse causation for correlation.

    Yes, most people making good money are educated but that doesn’t mean education creates wealth. Rather, people who are intelligent and motivated are more likely to get an education in the first place. These same people do well in the marketplace because of their intelligence and motivation – not necessarily because of their education.

    Here in Canada, universities are almost free. There best universities in the country are government-run (and the vast majority of university grads went to public high schools) so you can’t make the argument that rich people are doing better because they get a better education. Yet we still have the same correlation between education and wealth. This is a strong argument against the “education leads to wealth” theory.

  13. Konrad

    June 15, 2004 @ 12:52 pm

    13

    Philip, don’t confuse causation for correlation.

    Yes, most people making good money are educated but that doesn’t mean education creates wealth. Rather, people who are intelligent and motivated are more likely to get an education in the first place. These same people do well in the marketplace because of their intelligence and motivation – not necessarily because of their education.

    Here in Canada, universities are almost free. There best universities in the country are government-run (and the vast majority of university grads went to public high schools) so you can’t make the argument that rich people are doing better because they get a better education. Yet we still have the same correlation between education and wealth. This is a strong argument against the “education leads to wealth” theory.

  14. gary

    June 15, 2004 @ 1:48 pm

    14

    Konrad, Your statement ” people who are intelligent and motivated are more likely to get an education in the first place” is only valid if other pressures like opportunity (or lack of it) are eliminated.

    In the US there has been a very long trend towards drawing money out of the public school system. One example has been the long-term effects of proposition 13 in California:
    http://www.pbs.org/merrow/tv/ftw/prop13.html

    Other fine examples of ‘opportunity’ in america are the ‘school voucher systems’ where parents can remove their money from the public school system and use it to fund private education, or localized funding schemes where tax money from wealthy areas only goes to schools in those areas.

    The opportunity of quality education must be made available to all people from an early age. There has been a long, drawn out battle over funding for ‘full day kindergarten’ in my state. Even though this has been shown to have an extremely positive impact on scholastic careers, the republican state representatives are very reluctant to provide funding.

    If given the opportunity… talented, educated people can be successful. These people may come from all walks of life and if given the opportunity they may help others in their communities.

    Currently in america many talented people are not given the opportunity of education. That is a shame.

    Canada (and socialism) is sounding better all the time.

  15. Dusty

    June 15, 2004 @ 4:37 pm

    15

    you can take the kid out of the ghetto very easily..its not so easy to take the ghetto out of the kid. this is most noticeable by looking at some of the pro sports “college educated” athletes.You can try to educate every single “poor kid” in the U.S.,but if you havent affected some kind of change in their outlook towards the rest of the world and the years of being raised in a negative enviornment, you will not make much difference in their lives. I am not a “harvard” educated individual but a local “jr college”.I did grow up within the confines of the “ghetto” and until I changed my perspective on life and my role within the universe..college did nothing for me. More than a “good education” is needed to affect real change within the ghetto communities folks..dont kid yourselves. unless and until that happens, only a few get out of there alive and unscathed.

  16. JP

    June 15, 2004 @ 6:22 pm

    16

    Bootstrap, hand. Hand, bootstrap.

  17. Konrad

    June 18, 2004 @ 6:00 pm

    17

    Gary, that’s exactly my point. Here in Canada, everyone has the opportunity to get a good education, so the confounding factor of lack of opportunity *has* been removed. Yet, kids of wealthier parents are *still* more likely to be and get an education than kids of poorer parents.

    The implication is pretty obvious: smart, hard-working people tend to get educated and make money. The reverse isn’t necessarily true. (i.e. giving people free education won’t necessarily make the smart and hard-working.)

    You said:
    “Currently in america many talented people are not given the opportunity of education.”

    That’s a very nice way of putting it. Another way of putting it would be: Curently in America, people are not forced by the government to give up the money they earned so that someone else’s kids can get a free education at their expense.

    And what’s wrong with the voucher system? Are you saying people should not be allowed to pay extra for better education without being forced to subsidize public schools?

  18. Brent

    June 23, 2004 @ 2:09 pm

    18

    The elephant in the room that nobody probably did talk about was social (not necessarily economic) class.

    When politicians talk about education, they mean two things: one, they are promising jobs and power to the unionized bureaucrats that you bemoan here. And two, they are dangling the carrot of class mobility in front of the rest of the electorate.

    You seem to have bought into the latter con job: education is not class mobility, and moving between social classes is a difficult, multigenerational project that few families manage anywhere with any real success.

    It’s also typical of middle-class snobbery to pretend that education is what makes them different from the people they consider “beneath” them. Prosperous working-class people—who are often at least as well-off as their middle-class counterparts—tend not to want or need much education.

    You can’t just turn everyone into an upper-middle-class Harvard kid with social programs or the clever application of technology. There’s more to what those kids are than what they’ve been doing in classrooms for the past 16 years of their lives. And even if you could, access to high-paying jobs, good health care, and housing, would still distribute itself out unevenly.

  19. Ken

    June 30, 2004 @ 9:15 pm

    19

    “A typical Harvard kid gets to that level by age 22 fuel by superior IQ but also distracted by video games, TV, hormones, etc.”

    A kid who’s overly distracted by video games, TV, hormones, etc. is not going to get into Harvard, no matter what his IQ is. He’s got to do the work as well as posess the aptitude. Some kids have the aptitude, do the work, and enjoy TV, video games, and hormones in moderation. Those kids go to Harvard, MIT, etc. The rest don’t.

    “A person with a lower IQ or who’d wasted some years in bad schools or watching even more TV might require 30 or 40 years to reach the same level.”

    A person with a significantly lower IQ is never going to reach the same level, no matter how hard he tries or how long he lives. Learning in a small group won’t get them there. Neither will learning from the best available teachers. The best they can do under any circumstances will fall short of a Harvard-level education.

    “Imagine if everyone of working age in the US had the equivalent of a BS degree. Where would all these high paying jobs come from?”

    Working on complex tasks that aren’t even attempted today because of a shortage of skilled people. We are not at the pinnacle of our technological development – in case you haven’t noticed, the sky is not filled with traffic, there aren’t any shuttles to the moon, and our bodies still fall apart in less than a century. There’s plenty of work to do if we come up with people that can do it.

    Some people will never be able to do it. Those people will be poor. Our best bet to help these people is to (a) stop jacking up the cost of housing, medical care, and education with regulations that severely restrict supply, (b) properly protect poor neighborhoods, and (c) allow the continuation of the technological advancement and economic growth that keep redefining “poor” to conditions that count as “middle class” a generation or so previously.

  20. Ken

    June 30, 2004 @ 9:20 pm

    20

    “You seem to have bought into the latter con job: education is not class mobility, and moving between social classes is a difficult, multigenerational project that few families manage anywhere with any real success.”

    But moving between economic classes requires the acquisition of skills and a reputation for diligent application of same for customers’/employers’ benefit. Which people manage to do all the time, if they have the intelligence. Social class is much less important.

    “I believe parental involvement has more to do with a student’s academic success or failure than the teacher or the state of physical structure where classes meet.”

    Well, then, where’s the value-added of the fricking school? Is there a point to our public education system, or is it powerless to rescue a kid from bad parents who don’t give a damn and a hinderance to kids with good parents who do give a damn?

  21. Brent

    July 9, 2004 @ 5:55 pm

    21

    Sure, Ken, but we’re talking about education here, specifically not skills-training, or, to a lesser extent, learning to keep your employers or customers happy.

    And there’s an old saying about economic class mobility, and the futility of attempting to “climb” socially: shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves… Social class is rather important when it comes to the social issues that Philip is talking about: what’s the crime rate among, say, graduate students, compared to comparably poor members of the general population? Is it a bachelor’s degree that makes someone wear a seatbelt or is it all the pressures and lessons and concerns of their social class?

    There is a point to the public school system, but it’s not really to educate people, not in the classically liberal sense. And most people don’t want an education, anyway.

  22. a

    August 27, 2004 @ 5:06 pm

    22

    Phil:
    “If everyone in a poor neighborhood were educated to the standard of the average Harvard graduate all of the other problems would be solved.”
    “Someone who is really well educated probably has a good job and makes a lot of money and can afford whatever housing is out there.”

    I think you forgot about the capitalist economy system that America have. There’s always someone who has to clean the toilets, collect the garbage, and do other menial jobs.

    Question for you:
    Even if your utopian dream is ever realized somehow, which very highly unlikely;
    would those Harvard graduates willing to
    clean the public toilets as their primary
    occupation?

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