Winter 2004-2005

Hitch Your Wagon to a Star: Reflections on TOP
by Anthony Wilhelm
Anthony Wilhelm

In 1993, with the push to develop the National Information Infrastructure underway, our Federal government updated its social contract with the American people. The new deal declared a Nation in which everyone, regardless of where you live or how much you earn, would have opportunities to benefit from what the emergent Information Society had to offer. An inclusive, high-performing Information Society was the beacon to which we hitched our wagon.

Beginning in 1995 with publications such as “Falling Through The Net,” the Federal government began to monitor the take-up rates of computers and the budding Internet to guard vigilantly against the harmful consequences of digital disenfranchisement, a reality that, if left unchecked, would only exacerbate economic and social opportunity in the United States. It didn't take sophisticated econometric forecasting to surmise that if computer networks and the Internet allow individuals and communities to do things faster, better, and more cheaply, then making the Internet something for everyone should be a national imperative. Despite progress over the past decade, over 113 million Americans were not using the Internet in October 2003.

The Technology Opportunities Program was a down payment on the Nation's commitment to be among the most inclusive in lifting all boats as the benefits of ICTs were realized through innovations in educational technology, e-government, community technology, and telehealth. Between 1994 and 2004, TOP had the privilege of partnering with 610 organizations, not-for-profit and public, that thought outside of the box about how advanced information and communications technologies could be harnessed to expand economic and social opportunity (a searchable grants database is available). The overwhelming majority of grantees achieved significant results and leveraged the Federal investment with well over a quarter-billion dollars in non-Federal cash and in-kind contributions. These opportunities were made possible because the government took a risk to provide venture funds to organizations others were unlikely to serve.

While we mourn the loss of this wonderful program, we celebrate the lives it touched and the legacy it leaves behind. To recount just one story, I vividly remember meeting in Spokane with Francis Cullooyah, Cultural Specialist for the Kalispel Tribe of Indians. The Kalispel earned a TOP grant to digitize their living culture, including their language, artifacts, photographs, and the narratives of elders. Busily shepherding me through the Kalispel “collection” at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Francis paused near a beautiful kayak he had built with some younger tribal members, a craft that would be the envy of any contemporary boat-builder. He paused to lament the fact that his ancestors had a name for every tributary of the Pend Oreille, the river his people had plied since antiquity, while at the same time being grateful that the tacit knowledge in his head and those of the other elders, including their dialect of the Salish language, would be preserved. What Francis understood was that the tribe had to capture the past to secure the future, since the loss of their cultural ecosystem would trigger tribal extinction. Public technology was the catalyst that made this process of cultural preservation possible.

I have not known TOP long as its leader. But I want to say thank you to its staff, present and past, that worked tirelessly and were its heart and soul. Bernadette McGuire-Rivera was TOP's administrator and Spiritus Sanctus. Laura Breeden and Steve Downs, TOP's first two directors, established a solid foundation for the program. Much of the program's current staff complement has been with TOP since or near its inception: Judy Sparrow, Don Druker, Francine Jefferson, and Thomas Hardy. Two newer members of the family, Amy Borgstrom and Bart Forbes, brought a refreshing enthusiasm and energy to the program. For them, TOP was not a job; it was a passion. I thank you and the other members of the TOP team for making an enormous difference in the lives of thousands of communities across the Nation.

TOP also has a legacy, I am confident, because organizations like CTCNet and the Association for Community Networking (AFCN) are well positioned to continue the work TOP embodied: that of digital inclusion. I recall fondly my conversation with the CTCNet Board in June 2004 in Seattle. It was clear to me then that CTCNet would be a principal partner in the struggles that would lie ahead. The good news is that CTCNet and AFCN have established themselves as the leading organizations in the community technology space because they achieve demonstrable results. I wish their Boards, leadership, staff, and membership well as they chart the future and seize new opportunities that wait around the corner. CTCNet and AFCN aim high and hope for great things.

It is known that stars emerge out of the chaos and uncertainty of huge clouds of dust and gas. I am sure out of the current miasma, CTCNet, AFCN, and many other organizations will hitch their wagons to newborn stars that will light our way forward as we strive to harness the potential of public technology to become a more just and inclusive society.

Anthony Wilhelm, Ph.D., Director of the Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) at the U.S. Department of Commerce, 2004-05, was previously Program Director for Communications Practice at the Benton Foundation and Director of IT Research at the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.

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