Congratulations! It looks like all the years of paying dues in school, in dead-end jobs, and not-ready-for-primetime business deals are finally starting to pay off. If you're like many of us in this industry, you've recently turned the corner, and are seeing a rising tide of black ink and a rosy future. It may well be worth what you've sacrificed to launch a business in the age of interactivity. But you've been lucky. You had a choice.
You could have chosen to design industrial machine parts, manufacture widgets, or publish a fashion magazine. You chose instead to answer the call of the wild techno-frontier and explore these uncharted realms whose rewards might be far more satisfying (or not). It's a field in which you are among the pioneers, a small miracle due in part to the chance combination of factors: vision, ingenuity, and resources. And we mustn't forget "timing," that fluid dimension which impacts everything we do in life.
Here's an idea: let's envision a different scenario to the one that brought you to where you are today, a successful (or up-and-coming) new media mogul browsing the worldwide web. Let's imagine together that instead of learning your skills in that fine school or schools you attended, that you were busy trying to figure out where you would be sleeping each night, or how you would avoid being beaten or arrested. I'm not suggesting this because of any morbid fascination, it's just that the latter scenario is a very real way of life for a large and growing segment of society today.
What does this have to do with you and me? Plenty. Consider the fact that doing your best in school was greatly impacted by your mental and physical health. If as a child, you had lived with homelessness, drug abuse, psychological abuse or a host of other problems of our culture, you most likely would not be where you are today (if you overcame such adversity, how much farther might you have gotten without it?). If just combating hunger was the foremost thing on your mind, it's unlikely you would have even made it to class, let alone succeed as well as you have.
As much as we'd like to credit our successes as deriving from the first two combined factors, the truth is that most of us would not have achieved what we have without a solid helping of luck in the mix. Whether that means the luck to be in-the-right-place/at-the-right-time, or to be gifted with a healthy wholesome family-life, or financial wealth, it is a factor which cannot be dismissed.
Suppose your luck had been different. That you'd had all the other gifts, but were unfortunate enough to have been born into a less favorable environment. [move forward in time]. Say you've somehow managed to finish high school. Your gradepoint-average hasn't won you any scholarships, and even attending a junior college may be out of your reach because of the need to pay rent, or perhaps support a family. You look at the job market, discovering that even the basic entry-level positions require you to have word-processing and spreadsheet experience. The better jobs require even more specialized and higher-level computer skills. Your choices are very unsatisfying, low-paid, and dead-end jobs, or working the welfare system. No wonder so many choose the latter. The wall we've built is just too high, the chasm too wide.
The Inadvertent Evil of New Communications Technology
The information-revolution that has swept our culture has made instant millionaires of a few, and opened avenues of potential great success for many more of us. But the bottom rung of the ladder is farther from the ground than it has ever been before...and it's just getting higher, apparently.
If you went to school twenty years ago, there were no computer courses, no requisite data-processing skills. You could get and keep a job by your wits, and get ahead by continually learning and applying yourself. The gap that existed between society's "haves" and "have-nots" existed, but was not nearly as wide as it is today. While our generation has been busy producing new products designed to make life easier and advance the human condition, it has in actuality made life more difficult and degraded the human condition for a great many. By adding new technology, new hardware, and new skills into the picture, we've made survival all the more difficult for this and future generations beneath the poverty line.
We're all culpable. And whether we know it or not, we're each making choices today that will either widen or narrow the "survival gap" in the future.
Here's one possible future:
We stay with the course we're on today. New technologies revolutionize our business and educational world at an ever-increasing rate. The schools continue to fall behind the curve in preparing the next generation for the world they're about to inherit. While those who manage to keep up are treated to the pleasures of success, those less fortunate can't even get their hands on an old computer to practice their typing skills. The rich do indeed get richer, and the poor. . .just don't seem to get a chance. The welfare rolls continue to swell. Self-esteem and a sense of "hope" are lost, and crime continues to increase until it seems the only alternative is class-warfare or revolution. A future too ugly to consider. But consider it you must, because if you do not take responsibility for changing things, this is what you may be choosing.
I'd prefer another future:
Feeling that I'm part of a community and an industry that is as caring as it is brilliant, and committed to the furthering of humanity's highest aspirations, I envision a concerted effort by the movers-n-shakers, and multimedia-makers in our field to give back something meaningful. I'm confident that those who've made it possible to see full-motion video over networked computers, and to explore virtual worlds in immersive interfaces can find a way turn this tide. I've discovered some who are actually doing just that, even as you read this.
I'm referring to the concept of Universal Access, whereby we make available to those who need it, access to the equipment, the software, the Internet, and training, at no cost. This is at least what we owe in return for having made it necessary to use these things to survive. And when we offer such access to the disadvantaged, we give them the tools to change their own lives, get off welfare, raise their self-esteem, and become proud productive creators of a better future. Not just for them, but for us all.
Am I dreaming? Perhaps, but if I find myself joined by a few thousand other dreamers who are in a position to help, we can be assured of the better choice of outcomes. I'm certain of it. Take for example the work of Computers & You, the inner-city learning center, in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Each year for the past six years, they've graduated about 2,000 people through classes designed to do exactly what I've described. And guess what? It's made a difference. Their graduates get off the streets, get good jobs, and come back to teach the next year's classes.
For this community, in a small way, the system I'd propose is working. But it's not enough. There are other centers, like Playing to Win in New York, Plugged-In, in East Palo Alto, and Computers & You II, in Atlanta which are reporting similar success, but it's far from enough. What we need to see are companies, organizations and institutions everywhere supporting the concept of Universal Access, and standing behind that with financial commitments to help these centers (or to launch new ones).
Connectivity and software companies must work harder to bring the educational resources available through the Net to remote communities, subsidized somehow by the more profitable business we represent.
We need to see intern and mentoring programs in more communities, which focus on cultivating skills and aptitudes that will inspire the creative geniuses of the coming era. Companies like yours need to go out of their way to find and mold the talent that will be the next generation of interactive media developers.
More like making an investment than a donation. . .
It may seem like I'm admonishing you to do benevolent acts, but in a way, they're merely acts of enlightened self-interest. After all, we need future employees and customers for our brilliant productions. And surely we'd like to strengthen the infrastructure of the communities we live in. By putting programs in place in our organizations to train and prepare underprivileged folks for these things, we'll engender goodwill for the company among the people we live and work with. And cumulatively, all of us doing this will be creating a more-level playing field from which future generations can launch their dreams. Isn't that an ideal worth investing in?
Whether you agree or disagree, I'd love to hear from you. Perhaps you've got a success story you'd like to share, or want to know more about agencies in your area offering these services that need your support. Maybe you think I'm the one that is from another planet. I like to know if there are other "alien-visionaries" who support these ideas.
About the Author:
Robert B. Gelman is an author, editor, and online activist in the cause of "cyber-rights" (freedom of speech, right of privacy, universal access). He is also a producer of multimedia and of industry events, and is an advisor to Computers & You, the pioneer inner-city learning center. He is an associate producer of the Digital Be-In, a contributing editor to InterActivity Magazine, The CyberEdge Journal, and other publications, reporting on issues of concern to developers of content for new media. Write him: email@example.com Or visit http://www.well.com/~cyberguy