Educational Technology & Society 2(2) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

High Technology and Low-Income Communities

(Book review)

Reviewer: R. G. Baird
Design & Communications, Faculty of Art & Design
University of Ulster, York Street, Belfast BT15 1ED United Kingdom

Textbook details:
High Technology and Low-Income Communities (Prospects for the Positive Use of Advanced Information Technology)
Donald A. Schon, Bish Sanyal and William J. Mitchell
1998, The MIT Press, Fitzroy House, 11 Chenies Street, London WC1E 7ET United Kingdom
(ISBN 0-262-69199-X) 19.95 paper

I intend to start this review with my conclusion, everyone connected with the application of computing to empower the end user, most specifically the common man, should read this book of symposium papers. There now, you need read no further, the book and its excellent introduction will do the rest, sell itself.

I started to read this publication on a train journey to visit another university and found myself over lunch, later that day, recommending it to a head of school and a postgraduate researcher, its that kind of book, there is something for everyone involved in this particular application of computing. I quickly found myself using the American inner city as a metaphor for personal experiences of introducing computers to institutions teaching and learning programmes, where the academics were the low-income participants and the establishment was the state or city authority we read of here.

It is just a pity that the, necessary, title may put certain readers off, as it may have done me had I not been asked to review it, High Technology and Low-Income Communities.

The introduction to a collection of published papers such as these is of paramount importance and Don Schon's scene setting tone of voice approach is exceptionally good, creating just the right atmosphere and overview allowing us a clear picture of the symposium and its intentions. Don Schon, who had been Ford Professor Emeritus and Senior lecturer at the school of Architecture and Planning, (MIT) died in 1997.

This book emerged from a colloquium organised by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the spring of 1996. The colloquium papers strive to address the problem of whether low-income communities will be affected by the waves of social, economic, political and cultural change that surround the new information technologies. How can we influence the outcome? The book strives to identify the key issues and explore the evidence, suggesting some answers, and it is to be complimented on the fact that it addresses both sceptics and enthusiasts as well as social activists.

The colloquium had a clear and very real focus, the plight of Americas central cities, and as the subtitle of the book suggests, Prospects for the Positive Use of Advanced Information Technology, as applied there to.

The book is organised in three parts. Part 1 examines the issues in their sociotechnical, economic and historical contexts.

Part 2, the core of the book, proposes five initiatives for using computers and electronic communication to benefit low-income urban communities.

  1. Provide access.
  2. Improve dialogue between the neighbourhood communities and the state agencies.
  3. Encourage youth to develop entrepreneurial skill in IT.
  4. Develop approaches to Education taking advantage of the computers' unique abilities.
  5. Promoting the computer and communication technology to foster community development

Part 3, presents an excellent synthesis of the various topics.

It is worth keeping in mind the obvious fact that the papers concern themselves with the North American city and society, a society driven on the myth and indeed deep seated belief that associates technological change with social progress. This is not always the case with other cultures, and we need to read with this in mind, applying the necessary conditioning factors relevant to our own individual situations.

However the conclusions and recommendations have highly satisfying and universally applicable headings such as, IT is No Substitute for Social Policy, The Poor Must Not be Excluded from Shared Inquiry , and so on.

It is good to judge a book against your own conditioning experiences, dropping over it the 'open architecture' of applied problems, identified solutions and retrospective thought etc. This book responded positively to my own experiences in the introduction of Information Technology to a selected target group, all be it a radically different one.

Over a number of years I ran a project concerned with the application of IT to the transference of course delivery in one of the United Kingdoms largest Universities.

At that time universal application of IT was not very strong in course delivery and in fact our team, it could be said, was entering a metaphorical large inner city and facing a number of the questions addressed in the book. Higher Education was facing financial cutbacks, buildings over crowded and run down, staff under pressure, increasing student numbers, cash shortages at every turn and politicians throwing money at Computing as the solution they hoped would work.

IT is surrounded by myths, "These include the myth of technological utopianism in which technological change is seen as assuring social progress, benefiting everybody, and correcting the inequities in our society: and the myth of technological leapfrogging, for example, the belief that software entrepreneurship offers unlimited opportunities for the emergence of modern day Horatio Algers among the persistently poor".

The conclusions produced in this publication reflect our own in many ways and particularly the fact that the target group must be educated, in our case educated in IT and its applications, but educated non the less!

They identify the need to bring "education, training, and job experience up to par" as an essential first step if the urban poor are to set out on "the long road to successful entrepreneurship".

Bruno Tardieu notes ".... IT reinforces for the poor the idea that machines know more than they do. Under these circumstances, the poor, even if provided access to IT, are unlikely to transform themselves from consumers to producers of knowledge".

Solutions are offered concerning the use of schools and colleges to integrate the technology into the community through the encouragement of parental participation and the development of hyperspace facilities to create a common 'ground zero' for all participants by way of chat rooms, MUDS, information data banks, news groups etc. these are all addressed at some point.

Finally I would say that the conclusions we came to in our metaphorical inner city experiment reflect, in general terms, the book .. you must introduce the right computer, with the right software, to the right person, by the right person, at the right time, in the right place and then you require the compilation of information data banks to facilitate and empower them with the knowledge they need.

I recommend this book to you, your library and post graduate students.