The National Association of Housing
Cooperatives (NAHC) asked T. Rasul Murray to explore the Internet
and discover how it could be useful to owners and board members
of housing cooperatives. The following is his article, which
appeared in the NAHC Cooperative Housing Bulletin. It is reprinted
here with the permission of the NAHC and the author.
**PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS ARTICLE
WAS PUBLISHED IN 1997, SO THE INFORMATION AND LINKS MAY BE
OUTDATED AND OBSELETE. IT IS PRESENTED HERE FOR HISTORICAL
CO-OPS IN CYBERSPACE
All around us, cyberspace and the internet are becoming a steadily
more evident part of our everyday existence. Cryptic e-mail
and world wide web addresses appear on advertising for our favorite
TV shows, movies, and a growing range of consumer products -
the internet is everywhere we turn. For a growing number of
us, it's as close as the home computer across the room.
Somewhere in the early days of this century, there must have
been a newspaper that reported the first traffic jam. The
automobile had arrived in American life! Just recently America
Online, in what could be called the information superhighway's
first recorded traffic jam, offered rebates to customers who
were unable to access its services because the phone lines
were overloaded. Welcome the arrival of the internet as an
integral part of American culture! And not the fast-fading
fad culture of hula hoops and pet rocks, but the essential,
core culture of the automobile, the airplane, and the telephone.
Worldwide, popular access to multimedia data communication
is a permanent feature of our lives.
One of the ironies of the cyber-explosion is that the only
thing that has grown faster than the internet itself is the
wealth of written materials about the internet and the world
of computers. I will confess that this article is, in part,
another of those "what's out there in cyberspace?"
articles, this time geared toward identifying some of the
electronic resources available to meet the needs of housing
cooperators and board members. But, in addition, it is an
effort to prompt some thinking about possibilities the new
technology creates for cooperators and cooperatives, as we
move into the 21st century.
Given the exponential growth of the internet over the past
several years, there are two initial problems with an article
like this. The first problem is defining the audience. As
more and more people rapidly move from being first-time computer
buyers to becoming accomplished "web surfers," it
is hard to know what level of expertise to target in an article.
The second problem is determining the available, relevant
resources. The growth of internet materials means that research
done last month, or even yesterday, may miss many of the resources
available today. While the public discussion of the information
superhighway rages on, the cooperative housing community continues
to seek new ways of making cooperative living more participatory,
as well as ways to improve how cooperatives deliver services
and ways to broaden the range of services which they can deliver.
This article attempts to relate the terms of the public discussion
to the concerns of the cooperative living community.
I am not going to include here information that is easily
available elsewhere. This is not an article on buying a computer,
choosing an internet provider or, for the most part, how to
use the many helpful internet tools. It is an article which:
- describes several particularly helpful internet tools,
- directs you to some key resources for cooperators,
- discusses the internet and the web as interactive media
- proposes some practical and theoretical considerations
for the future.
The World Wide Web
The "www" that you see in many internet citations
indicates the World Wide Web, one of the tools used on the
internet. A relative newcomer to the internet toolkit, the
web's multimedia capabilities (it can incorporate graphics,
text, video, and sound, send them across the net, and secure
an interactive response from you in the process), coupled
with the growth in home computers, has made the web responsible
for the lion's share of new internet usage. I won't get into
the technical details except to point out that to use the
web you will need an internet browser, a piece of software
that allows you to receive and read web transmissions. Many
internet service providers include this browser software with
their internet access software. For many of you, the web will
be where you spend most of your internet time. Some of you
will divide your time between the web and e-mail, while others
of you will become full-service internet users, switching
back and forth among the various tools available to help you
with whatever task you are performing.
The most popular browsers include a facility for reaching
one or more search engines, software designed to search through
the vast resources of the internet world to pull out information
on any topic you choose. Netscape, which provides Netscape
Navigator, includes 22 specific, free search engines and half
a dozen categories which lead to more special-purpose searches
and directories. The importance of search engines is the facility
they provide for finding internet materials on whatever subject
interests you. Search engines were a critical tool for me
when I was developing a list of materials for this article.
Since different search engines use different approaches to
their searches, it's always helpful to perform the same search
using several different engines.
Some indication of the wealth of materials - and the importance
of narrowly defined search conditions - is offered by the
results of my research for this article, using two popular
search engines. In one instance, a search for "cooperative"
and "housing," using Excite,
found 331,375 documents. A search for information on "cooperative
housing," using Lycos,
yielded an amazing 66,557,959 documents. Fortunately, I found
what I was looking for early in the listed references, but
searching 66 million documents is a bit too much of a good
thing! Define your search as narrowly as possible.
Search Results and Resources
What I did find in my search were some most helpful and informative
leads. One URL (Universal Resource Locator - the technical
term for a particular web site or other internet location)
led me to a listing of books related to co-ops: http://www.stdorg.wisc.edu/mcc/books.html
Another led to information on conversion of rental housing
to cooperative ownership: http://www.loc.gov/lexico/liv/c/Cooperative_housing_conversion.html
I had never realized the extent of the contribution of student
cooperative housing until I discovered and visited the web
page of The North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO)
at their web site: http://www.umich.edu/~nasco/
Another useful web page, that of the National Cooperative
Business Association, can be found at http://www.cooperative.org
Another interesting site explores cohousing: http://www.cohousing.org
If you are interested in subjects as far-flung as cooperative
retirement villages or cooperative mobile home parks, you
may want to visit http://www.ncb.com/day/article7.htm.
This URL is part of the National Cooperative Bank web
site. To go to the top of their web page, when you get to
the URL above, follow the home link. And from there you can
even find a page which describes the National Association
of Housing Cooperatives! Be careful if you follow any search
engine references to a National Association of Housing Cooperatives.
In an early search of mine, I found myself at a web page for
the National Association of Housing Cooperatives - of the
People's Republic of China!
All of these references are helpful to look for something
specific. But if you're looking for many possible resources,
you want to find a URL with a good list of links. Using a
technology called hyperlinks (which embeds the addresses of
other resources within a document and allows you to follow
them with a click of your mouse), a web page can serve as
a jump-off point to any number of intriguing and useful sites.
The measure of a good web site is its relevance to your purposes
and its depth of coverage or breadth of related links.
For example, a reference in one of my searches led me to
a page at The Well (more later), which led me to the Intentional
Community web site: http://www.ic.org
I learned about the journal Communities, found several articles
about intentional communities, and was able to use a list
of links to go to the NASCO site listed above. I also discovered
a valuable resource, the University of Wisconsin Center for
Cooperatives (UWCC) whose home page is http://www.wisc.edu/uwcc/
If, as I did, you use the URL http://www.wisc.edu/uwcc/coop.html,
you can find:
- co-op principles and history,
- UWCC research, projects, and publications,
- a list of cooperative events,
- a list of links to cooperative service organizations
- cooperative information on the internet and links to useful
Obviously, this last item was of special interest to me,
given my purposes. This choice led me to another menu which
included choices for 12 kinds of cooperatives, from agricultural
to worker. Choosing the housing link, I found a list of various
housing cooperatives, grouped by urban, rural and student
I followed two links to organizations which are familiar
to me, being from New York. Both have helpful links to other
resources. The Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums
and The New York Cooperator: The Co-op and Condo Monthly Magazine
were both early entrants into the world of cyberspace and
have a strong commitment to exploring its usefulness to the
In addition to the web browser there are easy to use tools
like ftp (file transfer protocol),which you can use to download
an amazing additional amount of information.
Using the search engines, resources, and tools I've listed,
you are well on your way to finding out just the information
you're looking for!
A New Paradigm
What a wonderful, worldwide library and handy card catalog.
But that's only the beginning of the story. It's easy to call
on the library and card catalog paradigm which we grew up
with and think we have grasped the essentials of this new
media. But there's more. The information superhighway is a
two-way street. The internet is an interactive resource and
if we fail to grasp the possibilities in its interactive nature,
we've missed its real essence. Anyone who can get information
from the internet or world wide web can put information on
the net. Many, if not most, internet service providers offer
subscribers the capacity to mount a web page of their own.
The ability to create a web page is being built into this
generation of word processing and office automation software.
The internet takes the democracy of the Xerox machine to
a global level. Here is the real possibility of the internet
for cooperative living. It is a new tool for communication
and cooperation. Some organizations are exploring the nature
of on-line communities of different kinds. The Well at http://www.well.com
is specifically concerned with exploring the creation
of on-line community, with a "cluster of electronic villages"
that, in its words, "live on the internet." Their
web site is also a fine general resource.
Newsgroup (open forums) and Listserv (subscriber-oriented)
software can allow groups of like-interested people to automatically
exchange e-mail. A single group or list may reach over a thousand
people. Your web browser is likely to have a capacity for
reading newsgroup content. Two newsgroups you may find of
interest are alt.co-ops and alt.housing.nontrad. If you are
interested in subscribing to an electronic list, a visit to
the intentional community site listed above can link you to
the Village Mailing List, which can tell you how to subscribe
to COOPERATIVEN-L, "a source of news from and about co-operatives
and co-operation." Another relevant list, the cooperative
business listserv, can be found by pointing your web browser
Be careful about lists. The number of daily posts can clog
up your mailbox - and run up your bill if you pay by the post.
Some lists have the option of subscribing to their digest,
which sends all of a day's or week's posts at once.
Web-based chat room technology can allow real-time exchanges
among participants (conversational, with no delays, in contrast
to e-mail, which has delays while the mail is sent through
electronic post offices).
What interests me as a cooperative board member are the applications
of the technology as a tool for cooperative living. The first
thought that comes to mind is how hard it is to get cooperators
gathered in the community room at the same time for a meeting.
How hard it is to share discussion among cooperators of critical
community issues. How much easier it will be when we can use
an intranet (internet technology, only within an organization)
to have electronic conversations and reach an electronic consensus
on issues. In fact, when you think about it, the impact on
the public discourse of this media, inter and intranet, at
every level of community - co-op, neighborhood, state, region,
nation and world - is staggering!
In that regard, I raise one caution which should be of concern
to anyone committed to the underlying principles of cooperative
living. There has been significant discussion of the possibility
that the consequences of the information superhighway, for
communities of color, will be as devastating in its consequences
as the original superhighway. The highway system divided many
long-standing African-American neighborhoods and other communities
of color, disrupted access to services, and often had seriously
limited highway access in inner city communities. The original
superhighways separated people of color from neighbors and
community institutions, from social and physical infrastructures,
and also further distanced them from the broader community.
As the information superhighway increasingly becomes the
route to participation in the emerging global electronic community,
there is serious concern that access to the tools and skills
of the highway will be essentially unavailable to communities
of color - creating serious consequences for their economic
well-being and the quality of their participation in the broader
community. At least one lawsuit has already been filed against
a telecommunications carrier, charging that its upgrade of
cable and services is redlining poor neighborhoods and communities
of color. Ways must be found to assure that income and color
do not define information haves and have-nots among cooperative
communities or in the larger society.
Meanwhile, back at the co-op, what better way than an intranet
to assure that updated co-op documents are available to cooperators,
or that monthly carrying charge bills are available in a timely
fashion, individual payment histories are available for confidential
review, and work orders are registered and tracked.
How many more membership applicants would we get if we had
a web page of our own on the internet, like the Inter Cooperative
Council, a student co-op in Ann Arbor, Michigan (http://www.umich.edu/~umicc)
or the Hawk Circle Co-op near Tipton, Iowa (http://www.ic.org/hawkcircle).
Creating a web page does not require a lot of investment
or effort. Help for mounting your own web page now may be
as close as the expertise of one of your cooperators or a
local community organization. Your presence on the information
superhighway doesn't have to be a long term goal. A web page
and e-mail address could be implemented almost immediately.
The web allows a level of privacy which would permit a cooperative
to have a "private web page" to keep cooperators
abreast of current co-op issues.
How much greater depth does it lend our cooperative communities
if we can link our cooperators to other cooperative resources
- such as food co-ops and credit unions - in our area? What
about providing on-line banking services, automated maintenance
charge billing, and problem reporting for our cooperators?
And what about offering local retailers a for-fee opportunity
to offer coupons on our intranet? (It saves them printing
costs, saves us clutter in the hallways, and strengthens our
relationship with the local commercial community - not to
mention offering a modest revenue source to offset the intranet
Student tutorial programs and adult skills development possibilities
abound. One school district in New York City is using internet
communication to increase parent involvement with the local
schools. As cities and towns across the country rush to set
up their own web pages, these become additional helpful links
to which your co-op's web page could point your cooperators.
The Virtual University at http://www.vu.org/campus.html
offers a range of free courses. Many university-based distance
learning centers use the internet to offer both courses and
entire undergraduate and graduate degree programs. With some
thought, I'm sure you will come up with all sorts of other
uses for internet resources in your co-op.
There are numerous ways that the creative cooperative can
tap into today's technology and make use of the internet.
But, except for the unusual cooperative with an especially
high level of computer ownership and internet connectivity,
our own community intranet is not today's action project.
That model does, however, offer a perspective for some of
our strategic planning and capital projects. Industry periodicals
are talking now about very low cost ($500 range) network computers
(personal workstations, with limited or no capability of their
own, connected directly to the network), which can be connected
to network servers (computers that provide applications and
data to the network computers) available in the $5,000 range.
Network computers may or may not be the popular information
superhighway of tomorrow, but whatever the particulars of
the technology, we can look forward to affordable pricing.
On the hardware side, the secret here is wiring. In most
instances, the existing phone lines in most buildings cannot
carry enough traffic (do not have enough bandwidth) to support
an intranet. However, if your co-op is considering upgrading
its wiring or telephone system (or telephone-based intercom
system) you should discuss with your telephone service provider
the ways you can build in intra and internet capacity. The
technology evolves at a spectacular rate. There is no way
to sit here today and detail the best technical solution for
the future. It is possible to bring to our planning a mind-set
which is open to including technology and digital telecommunications
Beyond hardware concerns, intranets may or may not be a viable
option for your cooperative. If you are considering a move
in this direction, planning is a critical component. The cost
of computers, printers, connectivity, productivity tools,
information and consumer resources are only the beginning.
You will also have to consider the crucial and intensive,
personalized training for users and network administrations
as well as the ongoing costs of information superhighway access.
And even more important than any of these considerations
is the issue of what your intranet will do. Define your purposes
and services clearly, and get a firm handle on the level of
effort, initial and ongoing, that will be necessary to support
your enterprise. Even at its most economical, your intranet
is a major investment and detailed planning of its implementation
and maintenance will determine its success or its failure.
In summary, there are a whole lot of resources out there
for the taking. There are a whole lot of possibilities for
the imagining and there is much arriving on the technical
front that is worth watching, because it offers the promise
of enhancing our lives as cooperators. The information superhighway
promises to provide a different and exciting context and process
for the conduct of our cooperative life and governance.