Steve Cisler (by way of Pit Schultz <>) on Mon, 9 Dec 96 02:27 MET

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nettime: The NII Awards and Digital Footprint

The NII Awards and Digital Footprint, Dec. 3-4, 1996, New York City

By Steve Cisler,  This document may not be reproduced,
stored, sold, cached, mirrored, or deconstructed by any commercial firm
without the permission of the author. 

Somewhere in space there is a planet where the inhabitants are
happily moving from a digital view of the world into analog
technologies. Back on earth, we are moving to the digital
environment. Organizations and individuals in that movement
seek to earn and to bestow recognition that this change is 
taking place and that it is beneficial. Home pages are plastered
with icons and medals showing the recognition they have gained
in various competitions. 


In 1994 I heard about a project entitled the NII Awards. From the
pitch being made to my company through the brochures and email, it
was the ultimate Stone Soup strategy: start with an idea (a delicious
meal) and no resources (vegetables, meat, seasonings) and persuade
those who do have the resources to put some into the pot. I declined
to participate in 1995. However, the applicants/contestants entered
by the hundreds (including some projects we had supported) I realized
that it was gathering some steam and did have some serious backing.
Much of this is due to the work of Jim Hake of Access Media in Santa
Monica, California. 

During the startup phase Hake was compelled to make some alliances to
generate revenue to continue the competition. One of these included
the reselling of entrants' data (and some supplementary information)
that had been massaged and packaged by a market research firm. As I
recall the executive summary was about $3000, and a full suite of
services ran more than $25,000.  This is not an unusual practice, but
the participants and some advisors to the project from the non-profit
sector said they were unaware of this resale plan. Naturally, they
were disturbed because of the money involved and the fact they
received no direct remuneration.

I contacted Hake and he came to see me to discuss the whole NII
awards in the aftermath of this tempest. I was impressed with his
vision and his good will. I realized he was struggling to make this
work, and sometimes a juggler can't keep all the chain saws in the
air, but it's still a good show.  I agreed to help out in the 1996
competition which just concluded this week.


As a co-chair of the new public access category with Jock Gill, the
U.S. Postal Service had agreed to sponsor this. USPS has a very
ambitious information and transaction kiosk plan that has gotten off
to a very slow start in Charlotte, North Carolina. During the summer
of 1996 there was a long dry period when we heard very little from
the NII Award organizers. Rumors of server problems and family
emergencies surfaced, but finally all the entries were made available
on a web site, but the timeline to sift through the first entries,
winnow them down and complete final judging was compressed. This was
difficult because many of the participants in the judging process
were extremely busy and could not devote huge chunks of time to
endless rounds of online deliberation.

I needed to print the entries to read on the plane during a
business trip, but all were segmented html documents. I was forced to
print more than 200 pieces, because I just did not have time at
work to read them on screen, and I did not have the bandwidth to do
it at home.  Paper proved to be the best way of making a first pass.
Most all of the sites had a web page or site, and while this was not
a web competition, some judges only commented on the web design and
not the programs in question.  In my category, public access, the web
component is perhaps the least important. We looked for projects that
served a whole public, not just people online or just students, and
when it came to the finalists most of them had physical spaces for
people to visit, to get help from real people (not knowbots or
avatars), and they were very service oriented.  They were successful
combinations of virtual services and real human touch and presence to
make the public feel more at ease. No kiosks projects were entered,
though a few entrants do have kiosks as part of their offering.

The Awards Ceremony

By the time the six finalists were being judged, I had to leave for a
Day of the Dead ceremony in Mexico (but that's a separate trip
report) so I did not know who the actual winner was until the evening
of the ceremony on December 3, 1996, in New York City. The idea of an
Oscars-like atmosphere seemed a little strange to me when I heard the
description of the 1995 ceremony, but this one, sponsored by IBM, was
nicely done, and the Hilton Hotel cooks did a good job of serving
excellent food to a giant group of people. Yes, it was chicken, but
it was very good chicken! 

Bob Costas was the MC; he kept the mood at the right level of levity.
Each of the ten categories had a different presenter who showed the
finalists and then a video clip. The winner  then came to the stage
to make a short speech and accept the award. The video clips were
well done, though there were some of the IBM ads where the subtitles
were written to poke fun at the original ads, and one went over well
but the others were less than successful. Vice President Gore made a
video message and invoked the term "Information Superhighway."
Perhaps that will catch on, just as it has in Canada. I prefer the 
European moniker, "Information Society" because it is more
indicative of the purpose of the awards.

Muki Izori of East Palo Alto Gets Plugged In
<> accepted the award for  public access. He
and one of the young programmers who writes html to support the
initiative came up, and I spoke with him later. I judged it as a
top candidate, not because it was aiding an underserved population,
but because it was trying in so many ways to serve all groups in the
area in many different ways: training, web information, a place to
meet and talk, sales of services, and access to good equipment.  I
was also impressed with CTCNet <>, the alliance of more
than 100 sites around the country, of which Plugged In is a member,
because they are offering support to many of these fledgling public
access venues, some of which are not as well organized as East Palo
Alto's. LinkNet <> from the Bremerton,
Washington library did not win, but two of their technical people
came to New York and I think they will be back again, especially
since they have instituted a new and successful 2 mbps wireless link
between one branch and the main library. Ohio Public Library
Information Network <> was also a strong

Other winners by category:

Arts & Entertainment--The CitySpace Project: <>
Business--Interactive Wall Street Journal <>
Children--Faces of Adoption <>
Community--Charlotte's Web <>
Education--The Jason VII Project <>
Government--NSF FastLane Project <>
Health--Applied Informatics <>
Next Generation--Starbright World <>
AT&T NII Telecollaboration--Electronic Cafe International <>

There were more than 800 entries, and the winners are posted
prominently. In the community category, Steve Snow of Charlotte's Web
(one of four winners that had received NTIA TIIAP grants) made a
great pitch for the benefits of community networking. I hope he posts
his acceptance speech. The library in Charlotte, NC, is fortunate to have
him in charge of this solid project.

Some of the real benefit is the mix of people who usually move in a
much narrower track: business, health, non-profit, education,
government. Getting them together and having them hear about dozens
of interesting achievements outside of their own world view will
probably help the online world stay diverse and surprising. It's been
several years since I imagined I could keep up with all the Internet
changes, and I learned about programs like the NSF's FastLane and the
Starbright Foundation (which is not using the Internet) and most
impressive of all, the National Adoption Center online which has
placed many children using the Internet to publicize older kids,
disabled, kids, brothers and sisters. It was an outstanding example
of how the net really did extend the reach of this volunteer group
whose founder started at her kitchen table with 3 x 5 cards. Her
first upgrade was to 5 x 8 cards! I'd urge you to take a look at her
site no matter how many kids you have or even if you'd never have
any.  One mother with nine adopted children came on stage with the
director who made a short but eloquent acceptance speech.

I like serendipity so I frequently will go into a dining room at a
conference and sit at an empty table to see who winds up nearby.
However, this time Mario Morino, an enthusiastic supporter of the NII
Awards, had asked a group of his friends to sit at his table. He even
sent out short biographies of each guest, but I was offline and did
not know anything about anyone there. It turned out that Mario did
not even get a seat at his own table, but by chance I sat next to a
woman who is a fine writer and consultant who not only was my age,
from my alma mater, but it turned out I used to serve her when I
worked in her sorority dining room. We traded stories of old
professors, talked about the quality of writing on the Net, and where
it was all going.

Digital Footprint

The next day a couple of hundred people spent the day talking about
the future of the Net and where we really were. Hake put together an
event called Digital Footprint and set up ten panels and several
speakers for the 8-3:30 pm event for some of the attendees and winners
of the NII Awards. In a sense, it was a time for appraisal and not

One of the goals was to come up with metrics that could be used to
measure success or at least progress in the different areas. For
some, it was enough to say that X schools had been wired at capacity
Y, or that computer ownership in a community was increasing, or that
a site had received 100,000 hits the previous day (or month or in the
last hour). Some like, Red Burns of Tisch School for the Arts and a
longtime pioneer said she would like to see less quantification and
more risk taking in projects. The whole movement is young and needs
more time for experimentation. 

The organizers made one brilliant addition and also a common mistake.
They had Klesmer Madness to provide musical interludes and to signal
the moderators that their panel discussion needed to conclude. The
mistake was trying to fit all the speakers into 7 hours of sitting,
with only a little amount of time for Q&A and no time for a full
discussion with all the participants.  For a group so devoted to
interactivity and to symmetric network connections, the experts
talk-audience listens was at best a compromise since most of those
present could not devote another day for leisurely discussion. Some
people said their words and left, but most stayed until the end. Of 
course there were good discussions in the halls.

Roel Pieper, CEO of Tandem, kicked off the event with an infomercial
about his company and its role in the NII: transactions,
invisibility, reliability, scalability. The message seemed to be: the
humans who are not online are probably passive consumers who won't
want NT, NC, or a PC. The solution is SmarTV, a two-button (buy/don't
buy) control that can be used with existing sets. Barcodes in the
images and a sensing device in the control. He asked, "How can the TV
be used to embrace the consumer?" and I despaired for the future of
this new medium. Online sales may be the use that will drive many
other activities of greater social value, but to hear that was his
primary message being delivered at Digital Footprint was very
revealing. Pieper, a European, did warn the audience not to think of
the Net as an English-only environment. I'm already working on my new
Eurovocabulary: Kaufen: ja/nein; Acheter:  oui/non; Comprar: si/no;
Buy: yes/not yet.

Farai Chedaya of CNN moderated the government and democracy panel and
did a good job as moderator. Larry Irving of NTIA-represented the
Statist (one of Louis Rosetto's favorite terms) forces and subbed for
John Heileman of Wired. Adam Clayton Powell III of the Freedom Forum
discussed the importance of the Net in the last election. I tend to
agree with ex-White House staffer David Lytel who said it would be
about like television in the 1952 election. Powell gave harder
statistics: Of all voters 8% visited candidates' web sites; 12%
visited journalistic web sites. 50% found it somewhat or very useful.
Larry Irving talked about how many grants they have done at the
Department of Commerce, including the 4 NII winners this year.He's
interested in best practices. To him the importance of the net during
the election is getting what he calls unfiltered access to info:
headline plus in depth info about the same topic. I would just call
it multiple sources of info, none of it unfiltered. Powell talked
about the increased amount of connectivity he found on a trip to
Africa, with high tech being used in unexpected places.  You need a
high level of security for distributing pension payments. In South
Africa a van travels to villages and has a with handprint recognition
for the payees. The image is transmitted to a central server,
verified, and the payment is made. Would something this robust be
needed before people could vote online?

John Gage of Sun reminds me of someone with an unsorted bag of
goodies. He sizes up the audience and pulls out little stories,
quips, and statistics that may seem unrelated. And in fact, they are.
I do that too when I speak, so I don't object to it. But taken as
pieces of a mosaic to reflect change, technological advance, or
progress toward some infrastructure goal, they do finally tie together.  He
spoke about the changes going on in fabrication plant cost, the
opening up of Malaysia as a secure data haven (tip of the hat to
Bruce Sterling for alerting us to that trend many years ago), NSA'S
Fort Meade--the biggest newsroom in the world; and of course, the
story of NetDay in California. But this was interrupted with a blast
of Klezmer music. He finished up reinforcing his notion that
slow-moving school staff and principals should move aside for the
volunteer techno-kings who knew that wiring the school should be a
top priority. The Clinton administration thinks that wiring the 
schools is a trojan horse for school reform, but parents of many
children to not equate access to the Internet with better schooling.
There needs to be a learning process for the adults as well as the kids,
and that was part of Mario Morino's message.

 Mario Morino of the Morino Institute <> commented on
the diminished faith in institutions schools, corporation, and
government. The awards show how differently we are communicating with
each other, yet they form a collective IQ leading to a societal
transformation.  He spoke about the Potomac KnowledgeWay Project and
one involving netrepreneurs (probably a similar concept to the
'consolidators' described by Mitch Ratliffe in "digital media" for
October 1996). 

In his high speed delivery he urged the audience to:
-Convey the potential of the revolution (and the threats)
-Move away from infrastructure metrics and move toward outcome-based 
-Ensure ubiquitous access. We need low cost devices and cheap access.
-He is working on promoting neighborhood learning centers for all social 
and economic classes
-Provide and promote a 21st century literacy, where people can understand 
the origin, flow, uses and misuses of information and its derivatives.
He said the future will be divided into those who know how to learn and 
those who don't (or have stopped). 

Morino asked,  "Why do we approach the 21st century
with problems of society, of dead cities, of little healing in our

Other out-of-context pearls and URLs: Bill Smith of Bell South: I'm
amazed at what happened with ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber
lines) systems (lower costs) IP switching advances, and personal
broadcast networks like Pointcast.  

Encryption will be the most important issue says Kris Younger of
Netscape. This was echoed by several others, partly because of the
distance between what industry and cypherpunks would like and what
the law enforcement contingent wants the federal government to do.
 In the e-commerce panel, John Patrick, V.P. of IBM proved that he is
still the most optimistic of all Internet boosters. Well, maybe
George Gilder might have even a rosier picture, but Patrick  thinks
there will be a billion home pages shortly, and that a lot of
business will be conducted online. Leo Campbell of the USPS talked
about the digital postmark to be offered by the post office. I was
glad he reminded people just how much paper we are still moving. 

There was a short music and coffee break, and later KarNet the Great,
showed up in a cape, turban, and sprinkled metal stars in his path
(after the conference I watched the janitor struggle to clean them,
but they were hooked to the fibers of the carpet). A comedian
provided him with answers and envelopes. Some of you may remember
Steve Allen's Question Man routine that predated Johnny Carson.
Sample answer from Steve Allen: Stork Club.  Question: What do you
kill a stork with? This forecaster merely wanted to show the enormous
changes in technology through interesting statistics. 

In the business value and opportunity section, several people were
bullish on the so-called "push" model of net services. Examples are
numerous, but Pointcast is the most well-known, and After Dark is the
first one on the Mac.  Ratliffe pointed out that people like the push
model because it resembles the broadcast television model. He believes
agent technologies will be more interesting, perhaps even being used
to resolve conflicts in so-called online communities.

A general theme running through the discussions was not wonderment at
the technologies and increases in bandwidth, resolution, or even the
amount of information, but the need for human skills in relating to
people (as customers, citizens) and the abilities to write, think,
and communicate were the most important competitive weapons. I found
the common thread of people appreciating people's skills to be
refreshing for a technical conference.

Children were discussed in a couple of panels, and I liked the
observation that kids congregate at the house with the highest modem
speed (Gigi Wang of IDC)

Mitch Ratliffe filled in as moderator for the final session on the future. 
It was the end of the day, and the audience was tired, and so were the
panelists. Some needed questions repeated, and people lost their
train of thought. The standout for an optimistic outlook was Douglas
Rushkoff who admitted to having recently learned to talk to real
people and not just engage in online discourse.  He said something to
the effect,  "I'm an optimist. Humans will not rape and pillage; they
will be nice and evolve to a higher stage.  Will we be able to 'steer
the ship of global culture' or we allow the naysayers force us to
retreat to a more conservative stance." He claimed the Net is forcing
participants to drop social prejudices and that somehow indigenous
groups online will battle the forces of imperialism and prevail.  I
had this image of the final scene of Star Wars (which was inspired by
Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will) where Hmong and Mayan and
Lakota and Romani cyber-guerillas were getting some sort of
Indigenous II award from Rushkoff.  But perhaps he meant the early
users of the Internet were 'indigenous' and that they will prevail
over the arrivistes.  It was unclear. Kit Galloway of the Electronic
Cafe said that cultural imperialism was no longer an issue, but he
was comparing it to the 1970's when it was much more in the headlines
and was being discussed in the UN. Many groups are worried about
the spread of the Net culture and Net effects.


Although it was very hard to tie all of these threads together to get
a cohesive picture, Hake's statement of purpose did make sense to me.
Hake made the important point that seemed to justify events such as
Digital Footprint and the awards ceremony:  There is an unnecessary 
division between the for profit and non-profit sectors. He thinks we
all have to make money for all these good things to be supported. The
NII Awards and the forthcoming academy will help  the different sides
be aware of their interdependence and the existence of other types of

Softbank International, a Japanese firm, has purchased the NII
awards, or at least the concept. What that will mean in the future
remains for the volunteers as well as the new owners to decide. If
they try and take it international, it probably should be on a
country by country basis, or perhaps a region. The differences in
infrastructure and access are so pronounced, that it will be hard for
a digital version of Kip Keino to emerge in some sort of cyber
Olympics if a Slovenian online zine tries to compete with Wired or if
the Jason project is pitted against a project to connect rural farm
kids in Michocan, Mexico.

Another point is that some countries will reject an "international"
concept if it was hatched in the United States.  There will have to
be a strong local involvement for this to spread even to other
countries in North America.

While Hake has tried to get publicity in regular media, it seems that
a book might be worthwhile to supplement the shorter profiles that
show up after the awards in papers and magazines and online. Maybe he
will have time to write that book after the new owners take over.

For information on the recent competition, see <>.

Steve Cisler

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