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Building & Neighborhood Issues

Published: Summer 1997

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**PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN 1997, SO THE INFORMATION AND LINKS MAY BE OUTDATED AND OBSELETE. IT IS PRESENTED HERE FOR HISTORICAL REFERENCE ONLY.


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 and,
  • 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.

Search Engines

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 web sites.

 

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 categories.

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 (http://www.cooperator.com) were both early entrants into the world of cyberspace and have a strong commitment to exploring its usefulness to the cooperative movement.

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 to http://www.wisc.edu/uwcc/info/subscrib.html

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).

New Possibilities

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 operating costs.)

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.

Future Planning

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 considerations.

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.

 
 
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