Why We Should be Riding the Information Superhighway

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    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA 
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                         6 September 1995

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     Why We Should be Riding the Information Superhighway
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                         by Mary Treacy


Pick up any newspaper these days and you will see articles
referring to  the Information Superhighway. Although the
Internet was started way back  in 1969 as a means of
exchanging military information between different  states, in
the last few years, this  exciting new communication 
technology has become widely available to all sectors of
society, and we  have only begun to realise the tremendous
impact it will have on our lives.
 
The Internet  is a decentralised international network of
computers all  connected via highspeed, high-capacity data
lines.  Rather than the  technology itself, the interactive
potential offered via the various  Internet utilities is
changing the way we do business, the way we govern,  and the
way we educate our children and ourselves.
 
The growth of the Net in recent years has been phenomenal,
rising from  less than 5,000 to approximately  30 million
people on-line in the past  ten years, and according to
experts, this is just the beginning. The  potential for
spreading the co-operative message via this media is, 
therefore, enormous; and  as most of the people using the
Internet are  young academic types, it would be an ideal way
of reaching the young  hearts and minds so necessary for the
future development of our movement.
 
The Important Bit: Why hook up If you have a computer, you can
easily hook up to the Internet - all you  need is a modem, a 
telephone line, some software to make them all work together
and away you go.  


It is not my intention to go into a lot of technical detail
here, however  it is important to explain briefly some of the
benefits in getting hooked  up to the net.
 
Faster, cheaper communications By far the most widely used
application on the Internet is Electronic  Mail or E-mail.
This sends messages from computer to computer and has  several
advantages over traditional mail (or snail-mail) in that it is 
fast (takes only seconds to send a message from Scarborough to
Sydney),  easy to use and cheap (it costs the same to send a
message to Manila as  it does to Manchester).
 
It is also possible to send the same message to a group of
people through  a listserver or to reach millions of people
the world over by posting a  message on an electronic bulletin
board which will be read by like-minded  people the world
over. And if your addressee does not have an E-mail address,
you can E-mail a fax.
 
Efficient, cost effective research and dissemination Internet
users have developed their own lingo and you may have heard
them  referring to 'surfing the net' as if they were
navigating a vast ocean of  information. It is quite a
accurate description and it would be easy to  get lost in this
sea of information if there were not tools to help you.  One
of these is the gopher, a user-friendly, menu-driven system
developed  by the University of Minnesota which helps you find
the resources you  need. Research can be done through software
which searches,by keywords,  on all the gopher data bases
worldwide and presents the researcher with a  list of
available resources  So by 'surfing the net', research, which
by traditional methods would take weeks of work and entail
physical  displacement and extensive travel,  can be done in
minutes  without  having to leave your work station.
 
World-Wide Web of Information
One of the most exciting developments has undoubtedly been the
World Wide  Web or WWW. Developed in  Geneva, Switzerland at 
CERN, the European  Centre for Nuclear Research, the Web gives
its users a point and click  environment for accessing and
transferring text, graphics, photos and  even sound and video
film. The  possibilities  are endless.
 
Once you find the information you need it is simple to
download directly  onto your personal computer from any of the
applications mentioned above,  eliminating the need for
retyping or sending documents or diskettes by  expensive
courier service.   
 
Similarly, information can be easily disseminated on the Net
by sending  via E-mail, listserver or by posting in gopher
data banks, bulletin  boards, user groups or web pages.
 
Democratic Structure
What is especially interesting to the Co-operative Movement is
that the  Net's structure is non hierarchical and its growth
decided bottom-up,  which encourages democratic participation.
The Net also increases  democratic participation by allowing
geographically dispersed groups to  actively participate in
on-line fora, share information within minutes  and suggest
amendments  or correct draft documents almost instantaneously.
 
 
The ICA Project
Until recently it was almost impossible to find any
information on  co-operatives on the Internet. There were only
one or two discussion  groups, very limited in their scope,
but several people had posted  questions about Co-operation
into these fora or written messages  lamenting the absence of
such information on the Net and asking where  this could be
found.
 
The ICA began researching electronic networking possibities
about 18  months ago and implementing a strategy based on this
research in April  1994. 
 
Once the Secretariat had become familiar with E-mail, the ICA
began to  establish its presence on the Net by posting
information into these  existing fora.
 
Then in Spring 1995 we reached an agreement  to develop a
co-operative  data bank with the University of Wisconsin
Centre for Co-operatives which  will soon be available to the
public an the ICA /UWCC Co-operative  Gopher. 
 
The database and gopher will regroup information on all
aspects of  Co-operation, thereby reducing  time searching on
the Internet. 
 
The ICA worked out the gopher plan based on the most
frequently asked  questions on co-operatives and on the
movement at ICA Secretariat over  the last 13 odd years.  We
hope that our members and indeed co-operators  and people
interested in co-operative theory and practice will contribute
to this gopher with information, statistics, articles,
co-operative  legislation, details on development projects,
movement to movement aid,  co-operative values and principles
and any other issues of importance to  co-operators and
eventually photos etc. in order to build up a  comprehensive
data base on Co-operation in all its various forms.  Although
as comprehensive as possible, the plan can be added to as new 
issues come up or according to members' needs.
 
A copy of the ICA Strategy, Project Proposal and Gopher Plan
is available  from the ICA Secretariat in Geneva.
 
The next stage will be the setting up World Wide Web home
pages which  will make the information visually more
attractive to organisations  having more sophisticated
equipment and software. Home pages are the  entry point into
the Web which help the user to rapidly access the source  of
information s/he is seeking.
 
 
Need for Solidarity
We have established that there is a genuine need for
information on  co-operatives to be made available on the
Internet, but we must also  ensure that this new information
technology does not broaden the  disparity between countries
from the developing world and the  industrialised nations.
Therefore the ICA is encouraging its regional and  project
offices in Argentina, Costa Rica, Cte d'Ivoire, India, Kenya
and  Tanzania to use local low-cost E-mail and conferencing
facilities,  to  ensure that they can access and contribute to
ICA's on-line activities;   a component of this project aims
to provide training and  telecommunications cost subsidies for
these six offices. We have also  developed a strategy which is
backwards compatible to ensure that ICA  members in countries
which do not have access to high-bandwidth Internet  lines can
contribute and benefit from the project. ICA has also become a

founding member of the first European chapter of the  Internet
Society  and will take part in its special working group on
development which aims  to promote the development of
electronic networking in countries in  transition and
facilitate the transfer of technology to the developing world.
 
Several organisations worldwide have already expressed their
willingness  to participate in the ICA project, either by
providing funding or by  contributing information. These
include various universities and the  members of COPAC (the
Committee for the Promotion of Co-operatives which  regroups
the departments dealing with Co-operative matters at the
United  Nations, International Labour Office and UN Food and
Agricultural  Organisation, as well as ICA, World Council of
Credit Unions and the  International Federation of
Agricultural Producers. The Government of New  South Wales
(Australia) has informed ICA that it too wishes to offer its 
assistance. In the UK, the CWS, Co-op Union and Society for
Co-operative  Studies have pledged their support to the
project.
 
Need for Joint Action
It is necessary that the different co-operative movements
follow a plan  of action which will establish the co-operative
presence on the Net in an  organised manner. Otherwise the
lack of shared vision could eventually  lead to
incompatibility, or worse, to downright rivalry.
 
Standardisation at certain levels is one path towards
compatibility.  Co-operatives organisations which want to
start their own on-line data  banks, gophers or web pages are
encouraged to do so, but also requested  to exchange their
information with the ICA and to make a mutual agreement  to
allow a gateway from their gopher site to  the ICA gopher and
vice-versa.
 
We have already mentioned the need to attract young people to
our  movement. We need to educate the future opinion leaders,
politicians,  journalists, economists and writers about the
potential of Co-operation  and what better media to do so than
the Internet which is used by so many  university students and
researchers worldwide. Co-operation in its  various forms
could play a greater part in helping to solve some of the 
social and economic problems facing much of the world today,
if its  values and principles were more widely appreciated.
The concept of  Co-operation has to be more clearly recognised
as a significant social  and economic force for good. If this
could be achieved, Co-operation  would claim a higher position
on political agendas.
 
If we wish to become better known as an organisation and a
world-wide  movement then it is necessary for us to pool our
efforts and what better  way than under the umbrella of our
own international organisation.