Summer 2003

Technology Scout and Digital Storyteller
by anonymous

Phil Shapiro

If you're on any community technology-related listservs, you likely recognize the name Phil Shapiro. CTCNet considers him their "technology scout," and he consistently comes through for the rest of us with technology updates, fun links, and other technology tips.

After finishing law school at Howard University School of Law in 1986, Phil Shapiro went exploring non-law careers. He was heading in the direction of becoming a journalist until a day in May, 1988, when he went to the public library near his house, picked up a copy of Ms. Magazine and read about a community technology center that Toni Stone helped create in Harlem. "That magazine article knocked me over," says Shapiro. "I was already attuned to educational disparities from volunteering at the East Harlem Tutorial Program when I was in high school. In the summer of 1988, I visited Playing To Win and decided that working to expand technology access would be a worthy way to spend a life."

Shapiro was teaching himself how to program computers at that time and decided to donate some logic puzzles he designed to Playing To Win. "Imagine my surprise and delight a month later to receive a detailed written review of the software I had donated. This software review had been written by youth and adults at Playing To Win—printed out on their new laser printer. Clearly, something very right was going on at that center."

Current Work

I currently work for myself as a freelance computer consultant, while I'm looking for my next job.

I'm currently exploring how blogs (web logs) can be used for personal journalism and to knit together communities. I'm also fascinated with community-produced audio and video that's distributed over the Internet and with digital storytelling in all its forms—especially digital storytelling created with low-cost and free software tools. For those who might be interested, the current address of my blog is near the top of my personal web site.

I'm also exploring various free software tools, such as and GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program.) I've been working on some pro bono Flash projects with a Flash expert who I know only via email. If you've never worked on creative projects with others online, it's something you ought to experience sometime. There's nothing quite like different people contributing their complementary talents to create something unique and valuable. As a career goal, I'd like to be doing more of this.


My largest challenge has been in finding a new job after having left my last one a year ago.

The Rewards

It's hard to say precisely what the most rewarding thing is, but meeting people who are "social innovators" and "community builders" is a big kick. I find a lot of inspiration with colleagues here in town and in other cities. I am awed by the community-spirit of the open source software movement. I hope to contribute in small ways to moving this great concept forward. I am also actively involved in several computer clubs in the Washington DC-area and strive to connect the user group community with the CTC community.

I also stay in touch with some of the families that I've taken donated computers to. It's heartwarming watching the kids grow up and saying to them, "Hey, do you remember when... ?" These kids know that I generally won't help them with specific homework assignments, but I am there to answer questions like, "Why did you choose the career you did?" and "Which persons do you admire in history?" The kids know I'm nuts about the Wright Brothers. They've heard more Wright Brothers stories than they ever cared to know—with each story illustrating an important life lesson. There are others in history I admire, and the kids get an earful when they ask me.

Some Words of Advice

There are a lot of opportunities to learn from one's peers. At the same time, there is "strength in numbers," in being unified. If technology access activists are to make a dent, they need to be more willing to join forces to deliver a unified voice to the public. If we're not banded together, then we're easy to ignore.

I'd also like to pass along some friendly advice to folks involved in computer recycling projects. Be careful not to drop computers and monitors on your feet. The first time I did this I cursed under my breath, the second time I cursed a bit louder and the fifth time I said to myself, "I can't continue dropping computers and monitors on my feet. It's just unfair to a decent and hardworking appendage of my body."

Looking Ahead

As I see it, the only way for community technology centers to become an established fixture in our society is for this new institution to be funded on par with public libraries and other essential institutions. We don't ask firefighters to write grant proposals, do we? Or ambulance workers, we don't ask them to write reports explaining why their work is needed, do we? Their work is essential, and everbody knows it. The work of CTC's is essential, too. So then how can we establish fixed, non-fluctuating funding for CTCs? Easy. Tax every new computer sold 50 cents. No one will ever notice the difference between a $1250 computer and a $1250.50 computer. Bingo. Steady revenue stream.

There's a legislative answer to the funding issue, if only our legislators had better foresight of the dividends such legislation would create. I haven't seen much leadership on this issue at the legislative level, although to be sure there are supporters of the CTC movement in Congress. These supporters need to be introducing legislation that deals with the CTC funding issue at the national level. CTCs also need to be paying more of their own way. They cannot survive using an "everything we offer to the community is free" model. That's a recipe for rapid extinction.

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