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new internationalist
issue 162 - August 1986

Greenpeace is one action group that makes extensive use of high-technology. Their research vessel Beluga has on-board computers which analyse water samples for their pollution-control campaigns.
Computer technology may have been developed to exercise
military might - but it can also be exploited by radical groups
bent on opposing such tendencies. Richard Kazis reports.

THE US Navy is planning to cut down the Ikego Forest near Zushi in Japan to build houses for Navy personnel. When Izumi Aizu learned of this, he was determined to stop them, for this would involve the destruction of one of Japan's few remaining wilderness areas.

The local community set about organizing public opposition in Japan. But Aizu, employed at the Institute for Networking Design in Tokyo, decided to turn the Ikego Forest into an international issue. As a member of a worldwide electronic information group called the META Network, Aizu asked others who used their personal computers for worldwide communications to write protest letters to the Japanese Government and to the US Navy.

The Global Referendum on Ikego Forest, as the effort is formally known, has already been effective in stalling construction. This is because, according to Japanese law, all correspondence concerning a project of this nature must be translated into Japanese and filed with other case documents. With letters arriving in so many different languages from people plugged into the META Network, the backlog in translation and filing has given local preservationists more time to broaden their base of support.

This 'global referendum' is one of many ways that people equipped with only a personal computer, a telephone and a 'modem' for linking computers through telephone lines can undertake projects that were unthinkable a few years ago. With the cost of computing power and telecommunications dropping rapidly, more and more people are buying personal computers. And more and more people are using them not just for playing video games and filing home recipes, but for communicating and working with others.

Patrick Withen is a graduate student in sociology at a university in Boston. He has organized an electronic bulletin board called People United for Peace. In any given week, as many as 100 people have their computers dial Withen's computer for a listing of upcoming peace movement-related events and to engage in electronic dialogue with other interested people in the Boston area. This is one of more than 2,500 independent bulletin boards in the US that can be plugged into with a simple computer-generated telephone call.

Some of these networks are simply informational. Others have specific goals. Another network called Computers for Christ helped publicize a national boycott of the '7-eleven' chain of convenience stores that convinced the company to stop selling X-rated magazines.

As with most new technologies, electronic bulletin boards do not change convictions. At best they allow people to do more easily what they have already been doing. Consequently bulletin boards are sometimes used in ways that are illegal and frightening.

The neo-nazi organization called the Aryan Nations communicates its antisemitic messages and co-ordinates member activities through a bulletin board called The Liberty Network. In the Washington DC area, a group of paedophiles who swapped information and stories of their child molestation behaviour was broken up by governmental authorities.

Electronic networking and electronic mail are primarily used nowadays by large corporations who want to flash messages from one office to another. But non-profit organizations can similarly benefit.

Greenpeace USA uses portable Kaypro computers to link its various regional and national offices. The anti-apartheid movement in the United States similarly used a computer system to co-ordinate its demonstrations - although the owners of the system (who had large defence interests in South Africa) eventually threw them off it.

Fortunately some of the other hi-tech companies have been more helpful to radical organizations. The Apple Computer Corporation has helped small non-profit groups make use of computer technology. Some have taken the free Apple computers and let them gather dust on the shelf, or just used them for clerical work. But others like ECONET have been more creative and assertive. ECONET runs a bulletin board and electronic mail system that links most of the non-profit groups interested in ecological and international development issues. European groups are similarly starting up a connection through GeoNet and the two systems have just been linked (see following page).

The most sober assessments of the potential of electronic networking come from those who have been active the longest. Steve Johnson is one of the pioneers of networking from the late 1970s and he has his doubts: 'I'm still waiting to see how much people will use networking systems after they get tired of saying hello to each other.'

But most of the early enthusiasts are now mature enthusiasts. As Mimi Maduro, one of the founding members of the recently created Electronic Networking Association, says 'There is something positively exciting about this medium. People are talking to each other based on interest areas. They don't know what the other looks like or how much money they make. Class, race and other barriers start to melt away. And that to me will always be exciting.'

Richard Kazis is a freelance journalist based in Washington DC.

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