|18 September 2000
Author, The Virtual Community
Lt. Gen Cushman, I understand that the
West Point Society of Annapolis will nominate David Hughes for the US Military
Academy's Distinguished Graduate Award for 2001. I have known of Dave for
nearly 20 years, and when I wrote what many consider to be the definitive
history of online communication, "The Virtual Community," I included the
following passage about Dave, who certainly does qualify, in my opinion,
for this honor
"Ben Franklin would have been the first
owner of an Apple computer. Thomas Jefferson would have written the Declaration
of Independence on an IBM PC. But Tom Paine would have published
Common Sense on a computer bulletin board," Dave Hughes insists.
If you want to talk about grassroots activism,
Hughes is a good place to start. He's an old infantryman: you don't always
wait for headquarters to give you permission to cobble something together
in the real world; it might save your ass, you just do it.
In real life, Dave Hughes is a West Point
graduate who commanded combat troops in Korea and Vietnam. He looks like
the kind of officer the troops would call "the old man." Since he retired
from the military and decided to use technology to change the world, Hughes
has been acting out an ongoing online melodrama of his own devising. The
scenario: Hughes rides into town-and "town" can be an actual small town
on the prairie, or a hearing room on Capitol Hill, or the political structure
of his hometown, Colorado Springs.
He meets the locals, who are frustrated
by the old ways of doing things. Hughes takes out his laptop, plugs
it into the nearest telephone, reveals the scope and power of the Net,
and enlightens the crowd. He tempts them into putting their hands on the
keyboard, and they're hooked. When Hughes rides out of town, the town is
on the Net.
Installments of Dave Hughes's stories of
electronic political pioneering in America have proliferated by way of
online proclamations, manifestos, and seminars on a dozen different public-access
CMC networks for more than a decade. Dave's modus operandi is straightforward
and uncomplicated: First he brags shamelessly about what he is going to
do, then he does it, and then he shows everyone else how to duplicate his
feats. If you want the hard information about how to put your own system
together, you have to listen to his stories.
I first ran into Dave Hughes during my
first session online to the Source in 1982-1983. I saved his 1983 self-introduction
to the online world because I had a hunch this electronic vanity publishing
business might be important some day:
"I am 'Sourcevoid' Dave. Dave Hughes otherwise.
I was born in Colorado, descended from stubborn Welshmen who were never
too loyal to the king, which is probably why I am content being a maverick
of sorts, with a Welsh imagination. I live in Historic Old Colorado
City at the base of 14, 114 foot Pike's Peak. I work out of my 1894 Electronic
Cottage with a variety of microcomputer and telecommunications tools. .
. I am a happily married middle-aged family man who has seen enough of
Big Government, Big Wars, Big Industry, Big Political Causes-either of
the left or right-to now prefer to operate a small business out of a small
house, in a small neighborhood, working with small organizations, using
a small computer to make it all possible.'
Hughes is a believer in teleports - communities
like his own, where people can enjoy a small-town atmosphere and work from
their homes by using computers and modems. When it looked as if the Colorado
Springs city council was going to make a decision that would effectively
prohibit telecommuting from his home in nearby Old Colorado City, Hughes
went into action.
"The city planners of Colorado Springs
decided to tighten the ordinance that regulates working out of the home,"
Hughes recalls. "I was the only person to stand up before the planning
commission and testify against the ordinance; the planners tabled the matter
for thirty days. I then brought the text of the ordinance home with me
and put it on my BBS." Hughes sent letters to the editors of his two local
papers, inviting people to dial into his BBS and read the ordinance. Two
hundred and fifty callers above the normal traffic level for his BBS called
within the next ten days. What Hughes did not realize at the time was that
many of those callers worked in large high-tech plants, and they downloaded,
printed, copied, and circulated hundreds of copies of the ordinance throughout
the city. At the next city council meeting, more than 175 citizens, representing
every part of the political spectrum showed up to protest the ordinance.
It was defeated.
Hughes pointed out that "ordinarily, the
effort needed to get involved with local politics is enormous. But the
economy of effort that computers provided made it possible for me to mobilize
Hughes made his next foray into online
activism in Colorado Springs because he wanted to find a way of letting
local vendors air their complaints that they had been shut out of bidding
on the County computer contract for fourteen years.
The press dialed in to Hughes's BBS, asked
questions online, and confronted the county commissioners with the complaints
and the facts they had compiled. "It got so hot that county staff members
were reading from BBS printouts at the podium during formal meetings,"
Hughes recalled when I interviewed him in 1988. "In the end," he added,
"the commissioners knuckled under, went to bid, the whole inefficient and
incestuous system was exposed, and today there is a whole new approach
to information management in the county."
For his next venture into BBS politics,
Hughes invited a candidate for city council to post his views on Hughes's
BBS and to respond to questions from voters. The candidate was elected,
and the councilman continued to use the BBS to communicate with his constituents
during his tenure on the council.
Dave tries a lot of things, and when something
works, he pushes the pedal to the metal.
Next, he prodded Colorado Springs to create
a City Council Telecommunications Policy Advisory Committee, which does
its business on the city's new BBS; the committee is proposing recommendations
on how to make elected officials publicly accessible online. Penrose Public
Library in Colorado Springs, working with the city, now has City Hall Online,
which includes all agendas, announcements, and minutes of meetings.
Then Hughes decided to see what he could
do for candidates on a countywide scale: "I used my personal computer to
dial into the county clerk's computer and list of all the voters in my
precinct. Now anyone can dial me and go into the world's first political
precinct BBS." Then he told his local branch of the Democratic party that
he could put 100 percent of the voters in every one of the 120 precincts
of the county on a public BBS. The cost would be nominal, considering
that his county normally charges $800 to print out their list.
It isn't hard to imagine the light bulbs
going on in their heads when Frank and Reggie Odasz, educators and activists
from Montana, came to Hughes in the late 1980s with some ideas about hooking
up inexpensive BBS systems in rural Montana schoolhouses, to help overcome
the educational isolation of some of the widest open spaces in America.
They called their project Big Sky Telegraph. Dave had spent enough time
and money in his retirement, learning how to operate the equipment that
linked his electronic cottage with his worldwide constituency.
He knew how to cobble together BBS systems
from the cheapest hardware, and how to get it to work with the telecommunications
system. And he was burning to demonstrate how his "great equalizers" could
revitalize real communities. to demonstrate how his Frank and Reggie Odasz
were computer-literate change agents who were eager to use the kind of
technology they had encountered on Hughes's own online system to enhance
educational resources and other aspects of life in rural Montana. They
had in mind practical ways of helping real people with down-to-earth problems,
and they also had big dreams.
Like Hughes, Frank and Reggie Odasz felt
that they had found something more than a communication tool with CMC.
It was, to them, a means of trying to fulfill their hopes of improving
their community. It was part of a new way of thinking that technology made
possible. CMC technology was the means to the end of enhancing human relationships
in a rural area where long distances made means to the end of enhancing
human relationships in a rural area where long distances made traditional
face-to-face community-building more difficult. The possibility of using
CMC to extend all kinds of Montana citizens' power to build relationships
with each other was the feature of virtual communities that drew together
the principals of Big Sky Telegraph.
This idea of many-to-many communications
as a framework for collective goods is a powerful one that many who are
familiar with previous communication revolutions are often slow to grasp.
Most people think of mass media as one-to-many media, in which the mass
represents a large population of consumers, who pay to be fed information
by the few who profit from their control of that information conduit: the
broadcast paradigm. For years, educators and political activists have not
taken advantage of the power inherent in CMC networks because they failed
to take advantage of the power of a many-to-many or network paradigm.
In terms of the high expectations of a
microchip revolution in our badly ailing schools, computer education was
a failure in the 1980s. One reason dispersal of personal computers to schoolrooms
failed to check the deterioration of traditional public education in the
media age was that the computers were so often seen as just another channel
for transferring knowledge from the teachers to the students (broadcast
paradigm) rather than providing an environment in which the students can
explore and learn together (network paradigm).
Only a very few pioneers in the early 1980s
thought of plugging their schoolroom computer into a telephone line, and
few could have afforded the online resources available at the time. To
Frank Odasz, CMC wasn't just a shift from the broadcast paradigm of educational
technology to a network paradigm, it was a consciousness shift on the part
of the people who took to the technology. As he told researcher Willard
Uncapher "It's more a consciousness thing than anything else. And I'm in
the business of teaching new ways, new levels of thinking, new levels of
intellectual interaction. . . . When I e-mail with Dave, or when I e-mail
with you, that is more consciousness than any other single thing. So we
are not just computer networking, when you and I share comments back and
forth. "It's in a context that to me is much more a consciousness thing.
It's literally, as I have said tongue in cheek before, working as an electronic
analogy for telepathy. I don't even think that's right. I think it's something
more. I think, in a sense, it is shared consciousness.
In the 1980s, Frank Odasz and his wife,
Reggie, worked in rural Montana as educators who were determined to improve
the living conditions for their community by "thinking globally and acting
locally," as Buckminster Fuller advised. They were enthusiastic about the
educational potential of computer technology, especially the kind of CMC
technology they had seen through Chariot, the conferencing system Dave
Hughes and his partner Louis Jaffe ran in Old Colorado City as a successor
to Dave's original "Rogers'
Frank and Reggie Odasz had been looking
for ways to use new technologies to improve the communication problems
inherent in an area where very small schools are spread out over a large
amount of countryside. Teachers are on their own, without the kind of personal
as well as pragmatic support network that is available even in impoverished
urban schools. Communication costs are high in that part of the country,
and transportation costs are even higher. The Big Hole Valley, part of
the territory included in Big Sky Telegraph, has the longest school-bus
route in the United States. When Frank Odasz talked about his hopes for
using something like Chariot to encourage resource-sharing among the schools,
Dave Hughes pointed out that they were already ahead of the game because
so many rural schools probably had old computers sitting around from the
first failed computer revolution in education, when everybody thought computer
literacy a great idea and many school districts purchased computers. Indeed,
In the early 1980s, the only affordable
computers were pathetically underpowered compared to what is available
today, which severely limited their usefulness. The initial computer literacy
grants that purchased the computers, however, usually did not include training
and continuing support, so most of the computers were never used. And those
teachers who did learn how to use the machines had trouble sifting out
the few examples of genuinely useful educational software from the large
amount of crap. Many schools abandoned the attempt, but few threw away
the old Apple IIs or Ataris or Commodore-64s. Although none of the old
computers in storage rooms all over Montana could hold a candle to the
kinds of graphics and simulation that are available on today's computers,
Dave Hughes knew that they are all perfectly serviceable terminals for
a telecommunications network. You don't need fancy graphics or a color
screen to run simple terminal software. Even one-room schoolhouses usually
have a telephone line. The modem-the piece of hardware that plugs the PC
and the network together-used to cost $500 or more; now they cost $50.
So the actual physical infrastructure for most of what Frank and Reggie
envisioned for Big Sky Telegraph (BST) was already in place when they got
together with Dave Hughes.
(BST) was already in place when they got
together with Dave Hughes. Hughes just happened to know the right things
to say and used the Net to discover the right people to say it to at the
regional telephone company for both Colorado and Montana. Frank and Reggie
Odasz knew the where (rural Montana) and the who (schoolteachers, students,
local change agents, and ranchers) of Big Sky; the rural teachers they
trained to use the technology provided the what; and Dave Hughes came along
with the how.
They obtained two grants, of approximately
$50,000 each, to equip and train rural teachers to communicate with a central
BBS and information database. Students of CMC are fortunate that social
scientist Willard Uncapher was looking for a technological revolution to
study at the same time that Frank and Reggie Odasz and Dave Hughes launched
their experiment in CMC community-building. Uncapher saw BST as an ideal
site for the research needed for his master's thesis. The title of his
report to the Annenberg School of Communications, "Rural Grassroots Telecommunications,"
reflects the most important aspects of BST: it was a rural, populist effort,
rather than an urban, top-down design.
Uncapher went to the Big Hole Valley, in
the heart of BST territory, for two weeks, after BST had been operating
for a short time. He interviewed the teachers, ranchers, local social activists,
Hughes, and Frank and Reggie Odasz. This was not strictly a study of CMC
technology, but a study of the social changes that were triggered, or failed
to be triggered, by introducing the technology to a largely nontechnological
part of American society.
Uncapher declared his intention to observe
the impact of CMC technology in the context of the community the technology
was entering. His thesis was that you can't predict the way people will
use communications technologies without knowing something about the social,
economic, political, and cultural circumstances of the specific environments
in which the technologies are introduced. Uncapher hypothesized that the
skills necessary to use the new technologies and the inspiration to adapt
them to new uses would be unevenly distributed in each community. Some
groups would lack the skills, some groups would resist the changes, and
the reasons for those reactions would be rooted not in technology but in
local culture, economics, and politics.
Western Montana offered an interesting
mix of people for observations to test such a thesis. There were the teachers,
mostly women; the ranchers who supported the schools through taxes, controlled
the school board, and were traditionally conservative about newfangled
technology; and the students, who were far away from the world's centers
of learning. There were also environmental groups, domestic violence support
groups, and of learning. There were also who might also make good use of
CMC, if somebody could show them how. The organization most important to
the early success of BST, as it turned out, was the Women's Resource Center
in Dillon, where the vital ingredient of a highly motivated population
of early adopters was found.
According to Uncapher, Hughes sought to
broaden Frank and Reggie Odasz's involvement with the wider community.
"While Frank Odasz had come up with the idea, and had apparently discussed
it with some of the rural teachers, Dave Hughes sought to involve the broader
community in an effort of rural self-development," says Uncapher. "His
idea was not to bring specific ideas to the area (other than interactive
telecommunications), but to provide an augmented means by which the rural
communities could acquire and exchange their own ideas and resources, beginning
with the rural teachers. The Big Sky Telegraph represented an extension,
thereby, of his own online efforts."
Big Sky Telegraph went online January 1,
1988, at Western Montana College. As Uncapher had hypothesized, it appeared
at the beginning that some existing groups in the community resisted the
technology -the ranchers, for example- and other groups seized the technology
as a way to alter their own status in the community. The Women's groups
seized the technology as a way to alter their own status in the community.
The Women's Resource Center, for example, was the nexus of a widespread
community of interest that lacked the resources to get together often in
the same physical place. The center's mission was to find ways to retrain
and help women who were having a rough time-victims of physical abuse,
unskilled women who were divorced late in life, single mothers without
child support-who needed ways to climb out of their predicaments.
Teaching computer skills to some of these
women was a good idea, Jody Webster, director of the center, noted, for
reasons related to their sense of themselves. Could this be an example
of the "change in consciousness" that Frank Odasz was trying to describe?
Jody Webster, as quoted by Uncapher, put it this way: "Some of it is attitude.
All your skills aren't the physical skills, like typing or shoveling. A
lot of it is attitudinal skills, communication skills: how to ask for a
raise, or how to ask for a job or not to ask for a raise; the fact that
you need to sell yourself; the difference between self-esteem and conceit."
Through Big Sky, women across western Montana were given an opportunity
to teach and support each other emotionally as well as a way to impart
skills. "The Women's Resource Center . . . would get funding, often project
by project, primarily to aid the women in the region to get new jobs, to
learn new self-esteem, and to protect women and the women in the region
to get new jobs, to learn new self-esteem, and to protect women and their
rights;" Uncapher reported. "In fact, to a great extent the use of
the Telegraph took off first in the general community in the hands of women,
and the kinds of issues this center addressed revealed why. Indeed, most
of the rural teachers were women. . . .
When I visited a woman who ran her connection
to Big Sky Telegraph from the Lima Stop 'n Shop gas station, which she
and her husband ran near the Idaho border, it turned out that the computer
had been loaned to them by the Women's Resource Center." Frank Odasz, in
an article about BST, also mentions the same woman at the truckstop, although
he has a slightly different name for the gas station: "Sue Roden, the woman
in Lima, was able to learn computer skills from the Gas 'n Snacks truckstop
between fillups. When she got stuck on Lesson 2, a trucker named Windy
looked over her shoulder and got her going again." You can bet that as
soon as Frank told Dave about Sue and Windy, the story started spreading
through the Net.
Hughes and Odasz knew enough about the
power of citizen-to-citizen (lateral) communications to set up common discussion
areas and BBSs as well as databases of information and software. There
is power in the broadcast paradigm when you can give people access to large
bodies of useful information, such as agricultural and meteorological data
that can be critically important in the real lives of Montana rural populations.
But the community-building power comes from the living database that the
participants create and use together informally as they help each other
solve problems, one to one and many to many. The web of human relationships
that can grow along with the database is where the potential for cultural
and political change can be found.
By 1991, the success of the system enabled
BST to meet goals of getting online "forty rural schools, including ten
Native American schools, twelve rural public libraries, twelve rural schools,
including ten Native American schools, twelve rural public libraries, twelve
rural economic development offices or chambers of commerce, twelve women's
centers, twelve Soil Conservation Service or County Extension offices,
five handicapped organizations, and five rural hospitals," according to
Frank Odasz. Besides the local connections that formed the core and real-life
community of BST in western Montana, Hughes and his net-weaving cohorts
were plugging places like the Big Hole Valley into the vast rich turmoil
of the Net. First, Dave established a connection with FidoNet, and through
FidoNet's gateway, to Internet through Dave's Colorado system. Then they
looked for ways to take advantage of more direct Internet connections at
Dave is the kind of guy who will walk into
the county commissioner's office or MIT or the Pentagon and shake down
everybody he can find in the cause of an educational crusade. He found
a lot of sympathetic Netheads at key power points, as he always does. As
he was wiring BST to the world, Dave Hughes also was zeroing in on the
kind of distance-education prestigidation he could report about on the
Net: connecting a professor at MIT's Plasma Fusion Laboratory to the BST
to develop a course on chaos theory for gifted science students in rural
After Big Sky was working, and bright kids
in Montana were learning physics from MIT professors, Hughes and Frank
Odasz started doing demonstrations for another kind of community in that
part of the country. Hughes brought a color laptop for another kind
of community in that part of the country. Hughes brought a color laptop
computer and a modem; all he needed was a telephone line. Hughes has always
insisted on including ways for people to create and share graphics as well
as text online. He had the notion that the Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Crow,
and Blackfoot who gathered around his computer might be interested in the
way the graphics software would enable them to create and transmit text
in their native alphabets. As he had done with the teachers
and change agents at BST, Dave encouraged his audience to get their hands
on the equipment as soon as possible and teach each other how to use it.
After his performance, Dave turned the computer and software over to the
graphic artists among the assembled Native Americans and challenged them
to create one of their tribal designs on the computer screen and upload
it to BST.
By 1990, one of the groups who were inspired
by Hughes's first demonstration had opened the Native American Share-Art
gallery on the Russell Country BBS in Hobson, Montana. The idea was to
make people outside the immediate geographic area aware of tribal culture,
and to generate income for tribal artists. The artists used graphics software
to create tribal designs that could be viewed on a computer screen. People
could dial in to Russell Country BBS and view different designs; for a
small fee, dial-up BBS users could download the BBS and view different
designs; dial-up BBS users could download the designs and display them.
Their motivation behind these projects, as Hughes explained it online in
1990, was to "use telecommunications to help Native Americans learn the
skills and knowledge they will need, by getting them first to be the teachers
of the rest of us about their culture, and in their preferred modes (graphic
art, storytelling, native language expression) rather than just feed the
white man's view of the world into them by satellite educational feeds,
or impose upon them only white man's ascii text."
Dave Hughes and Frank Odasz certainly weren't,
and never claimed to be, the first to teach Native Americans to use telecommunications.
John Mohawk and AInet (American Indian Network), and other ventures by
American Indians to use networking, were also happening. But Hughes was
a kind of Johnny Appleseed. It is far easier to operate a well-set-up BBS
or network than to set one up. Dave's strategy has always been to come
to town, dazzle them with possibilities, show them how to do it on their
own, and move on. Although he believed in working at the local level, Hughes,
who had once written a major policy speech for Secretary of Defense McNamara,
always showed up in online debates on national online debates on national
and international telecom policy.
In 1991, when then-senator Albert Gore
began talking about government sponsorship of a National Research and Education
Network, Dave started spending as much time online in D.C. as in Dillon.
The budget for a National Research and Education Network to link scholars,
scientists, government workers, students, and business people into a national
high-speed information superhighway was built into the High Performance
Computing Act of 1991.
There was only one problem, as far as Hughes
was concerned: if NREN was going to be a superhighway, there were no on
and off ramps for elementary and secondary (K-12) schools. Hughes and others
insisted insisted that unless it provided for a truly broad-based educational
component, with affordable access by the already-impoverished public schools,
NREN could lead to even greater gaps between the information-rich and the
information-poor. Dave started haunting hearings on the Hill. He and his
cohorts were heard; 1992 amendments to the bill made provisions for the
beginnings of K-12 access.
As Dave put it, in his own inimitable online
"It's ramp-up time in America, for telecom.
And education is going to ride the wave-with all kinds of fools, charlatans,
gold-counting houses, clowns, trying to get on their boards.
Its going to be messy. Just like America.
But as they say on Walden Pond
Howard Rheingold firstname.lastname@example.org
Fax: 415 388 3913