Thinking harder about enfranchisement and cyberspace

Have you ever heard of They describe themselves as:

Powered by CompuMentor, one of the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit technology assistance agencies, offers nonprofits a one-stop resource for technology needs by providing free information, resources, and support. In addition to online information and resources, we offer a product philanthropy service called TechSoup Stock. Here, nonprofits can access donated and discounted technology products, generously provided by corporate and nonprofit technology partners.

We believe that technology can enhance nonprofit work, making us more efficient and better able to serve our communities. We never lose sight of that goal.

CompuMentor itself was founded about twenty years ago, as a result of a guy called Daniel Ben-Horin finding out what made The WELL tick, and wanting to be a part of that something. Everything I’ve read about the WELL makes them the real pioneers of virtual communities, so this is some pedigree.

But that’s all background. Can’t remember where I read it, but what I do remember is what the article said…..  TechSoup (or some part of it) was making virtual office space and equipment available, at no cost, to qualifying charities that wanted to set up in Second Life.

What fascinated me and made my heart sing was the nature of the charity that seemed to trigger TechSoup into doing this; the article spoke of a particular eureka moment for someone from TechSoup, coming across a meeting of real-life quadriplegics in the virtual environment.

The point was that the quadriplegics could do so much in the virtual world that they couldn’t do in “real” life; walk, run, even fly.

I think this is an absolutely fundamental point: virtual worlds allow people to do things they are disenfranchised from doing in the real world. 

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this capacity to enfranchise is restricted to Second Life and similar environments; it is as meaningful in apparently non-graphic environments like Facebook. The enfranchisement is based on the virtual nature of the environment and not on the graphics.

So before you decide to ban Second Life and Facebook and stuff like that from the work environment, think about the disenfranchised. How could you use virtual environments to lower enterprise barriers to entry for the disenfranchised? What happens when you can place-shift? What happens when you can gather people into virtual meetings? What happens when you can provide alternate means of communications to those hard of hearing, hard of speech, or, for that matter, wheelchair-dependent?

You see, what intrigues me is the level playing field. There are many ways to aid people who are disenfranchised in one way or the other, and we have many fantastic technologically-advanced devices to offer those who are otherwise handicapped. Yet, when it comes to a virtual meeting, some of the social aspects of the disenfranchisement become invisible.

We live in a world where many people pay serious money for changing, repairing or otherwise “improving” some aspect of their physical appearance. Let us take the beams out of our own eyes before we take the motes out of others’.  Who are we to deny someone the right to “change” their body (as they would be able to do in Second Life) or “dematerialise it” (as they can do in Facebook?). What do we understand about how the behaviours (and productivity) of the otherwise disadvantaged would change as a result?

I don’t know enough about all this, but I will continue to learn. It’s too easy to say “waste of time” and “nothing to do with work” and “it’s all about sex, drugs and rock-n-roll anyway”.  I want to find out more about the people who see these tools as opportunities to develop and enhance their potential, as opportunities to deliver to that increased level of potential. And I want to find ways of helping people do this. Which means I must continue to experiment with such tools.

One thought on “Thinking harder about enfranchisement and cyberspace”

  1. JP, while I do not in any way doubt either the sincerity or the desirability of your ideals, I am a bit troubled that all this talk about “potential” is, in the words of one of your Categories (whose specific language I do not like very much), retarded-hippie-speak. I have come to the conclusion that the major problem that faces any business, regardless of scale, is the VOLATILITY of the context in which all operations (internal and external) are embedded. As a result every CEO has basically the same goal: SURVIVAL IN THE FACE OF VOLATILITY. This is why, for example, making decisions in the face of overwhelming volumes of data is so intimidating, since you have to implement your decision before it has gone obsolete.

    So, if you will allow me to push your punch line into the metaphor of physics, enterprise management today is all kinetic and no potential. The boss who is quick to “think on his feet” always trumps the reflective analyst, even when the latter comes up with more effective results. I do not like these conditions any more than you do; but we are not going to make them go away by (PACE Engels) enfranchising the masses. I really wish I DID have more constructive ideas for turning things around; but, from where I sit, I am hard pressed even to find sources of leadership that might be able to lead the world of business out of the wilderness!

Let me know what you think

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