Hook, Online, and Sinker

Minneapolis neighborhood honchos are betting on Tyrone Reed's dot-com dream. But is there an operator error?

None of this does much to impress Langdon Winner, a political-science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, who has written extensively on the intersection of democracy and technology. After a few clicks through wayzata.net, Winner chuckles, "This is the way community bulletin boards looked in the Eighties. It's very cold and sterile.

"The model here is that you are basically a consumer of information," he continues. "And that's one of the functions of network computing. But we're way beyond that now. You want to encourage people to be creative. The powerful possibilities of the Internet is that people will reach out and initiate action online."

Actually, under the Whittier kiosk proposal, residents won't see much of the Internet's possibilities, powerful or otherwise. Users of Reed's public-access terminals will be able to view hand-picked sites on the Net, but they won't be able to surf freely or use e-mail.

Neighborhood Revitalization Program director Robert Miller says Reed's info kiosks could soon pop up all over Minneapolis
Craig Lassig
Neighborhood Revitalization Program director Robert Miller says Reed's info kiosks could soon pop up all over Minneapolis

To Winner, that notion could defeat the very point of the project: "All I can do is express my shock that they would build a system that seems so closed and confining," he says. "It's wonderful and laudable to reach out to people who might not otherwise have access, but that they would do this with this model in the year 2000 is astonishing. This is basically a digital billboard, and it's entirely possible that it won't even be welcome. Even people who don't have computers already know enough [to understand] that they won't be getting the real McCoy."

According to the NRP's Miller, the decision to go with a closed system in Whittier was based on a simple concern. "As we talked about this, we realized we did not want to get into a situation where kids are going to come here and surf every pornographic site on the Web," he explains. But that argument doesn't satisfy Winner, who notes that porn filters, albeit controversial, are readily available. "While there has to be some parental and community oversight," he contends, "you don't do young people a favor by being overly paternalistic."

Philosophical disputes aside, Miller says, Reed's offer seems like a win-win proposition for the neighborhood. CFIC's investment will be "significantly" higher than the $28,000 Whittier is slated to pitch in, he maintains, adding that CFIC has already purchased a number of expensive software packages for the kiosk. "This is not your typical vendor relationship," he argues. "This isn't a contract where we're going to pay the cost of the project, whatever cost overruns occur. Tyrone's taking a huge risk, and finding someone who's willing to take a risk is difficult."

Miller also believes that once Whittier is online, the project will catch on throughout the city. Already, he points out, CFIC has plans for a kiosk in the Windom neighborhood. (That kiosk, according to Miller, is not slated to receive any public money, but instead will be financed exclusively by CFIC.)

Reed says he hopes to recoup his investments, which he pegs in the "tens of thousands," by selling advertising. He says he hopes to have the Whittier kiosk up and running by March 30 so it can be shown off at the annual meeting of the Whittier Alliance--and, he points out, to date he has received "not a penny" of public money. Sales have been good, he reports, with "10 or 12 sponsors" already committed.

Steven Durenberger, the former CFIC marketing director, takes a dimmer view. "Bad things just happen sometimes," he says. "People go through tough times. But after a while, when you see a pattern, you've got to wonder."

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