How did you begin to use the Web?
I have always been fascinated with tools and machinery. As a
small child, I wanted to know how everything worked. So I took
things apart... and usually got them back together, too. When
personal computers hit the scene in the early 1980s, I was at
Michigan and managed to get involved with the initiative to bring
personal computers into the School of Natural Resources.
At some moment, everyone has probably complained about training
manuals, but I happen to enjoy reading them. I want to know everything
a computer can do, what all the applications can do, and how to
use them. So reading training manuals was a no-brainer. With the
manuals under my belt, I was beginning to help people purchase
computers, install new hardware, and learn to use the software.
We actually had email before the Net. Many research universities
were tied together by services such as the Merit Network. But
you had to have an account at one of the participating universities.
Web use really blossomed in the early 1990s. The Peace Corps
is just a tiny government agency, so it wasn't one of the early
innovators. I set up my own private account on a local non-profit
ISP in Washington DC, but was using it mostly to communicate with
staff and consultants around the world who had their own private
accounts. We kept agitating for email for all staff, but it took
several years before Peace Corps was able to do this. In the mean
time, I got more of my colleagues in the office on line through
private accounts, and we built quite a network of the specialists
in DC linked with volunteers in the field. Volunteers were setting
up their own accounts, mostly with free services like Yahoo
and Hotmail. Often I would
know about something that had happened overseas before the higher-up
staff in the country or in the United States knew about it, because
a volunteer somewhere would email me.
Email totally changed the way we communicated. I could now have
a sequential conversation with a number of colleagues scattered
all over the world. We could plan trips, design workshops, develop
training materials, and draft and revise documents -- all without
ever seeing each other or incurring long-distance phone charges.
So we increased the level and cycles of consultation and participation
because the transaction cost was zero. More people, more iterations,
more interchange. This added a richness to the process and to
the products that we simply could not have achieved otherwise.
How did the Peace Corps use -- or not use -- computers and
Peace Corps was using a minicomputer/terminal system for word
processing of reports in Washington DC when I came back from overseas
in 1978. There might be four terminals on a floor, and people
had to sign up for a time-slot to use the machines. At least it
was better than typing and retyping with a typewriter. There were
a few Compaq portables around. This was the model where the keyboard
snapped in place to cover the 6-inch screen. Luggable, but hardly
portable. Since the office where I did some consulting work needed
transportable computers, they ordered a few IBM-compatible desktops
and a few heavy laptops. Then Peace Corps chose Macintosh as their
standard computer. That must have been in the mid-1980s. My office
continued to use legacy Leading Edge Model D desktops for a few
more years after I joined them in 1989, but eventually we got
Recognizing that most volunteers come straight out of college,
and that most college students have Internet access, Peace Corps
started its external web page -- http://www.peacecorps.gov
-- primarily as a recruiting tool. I was chomping at the bit to
get an intranet site set up to supply information to staff and
volunteers in the field and promote broader exchanges, but the
agency was very reluctant to put up an intranet. In fact, only
recently did it finally come on line, after many years and several
earlier attempts and frantic late-night shutdowns. The largest
stumbling blocks seemed to be the office of communications and
the office of general counsel. Finally their fears were assuaged
and the intranet is up and running. At least that's what I'm told.
Earlier in 2000 it was still limited to people inside the building
in DC. I hope that by now it has become a global intranet for
staff and volunteers wherever they may be. In the medium-term
I could see it being open to all sustainable development practitioners.
But that's many more years away.
The World Wise School program, which links schools in the US
with volunteers serving overseas, has used web, video, CD, ICQ,
and different live-video-over-Internet systems to increase the
exchanges between volunteer in one country and a teacher and classroom
somewhere in the US.
One area where we never succeeded very much was the idea of
email discussion lists for topics such as agroforestry, environmental
education, ecotourism, parks and biodiversity, sustainable agriculture,
youth and environment, and any other topic in which volunteers
are working. I envisioned this as a way for volunteers in different
countries to exchange ideas and experiences, and for staff to
monitor and advise as needed. These would be different from the
public global lists on these topics, because many of the challenges
of projects in Peace Corps are unique to Peace Corps.
For example, a volunteer is only on the site for two years.
So we'd need to link them in, warm them up, and support them in
internet time -- and that might be different from the normal pace
of life in a rural community.
Volunteers usually do not have internet access in the towns
where they work. They have to travel to a regional city, or wait
until they get to the capital before they read their email. That
creates a delay in their correspondence, but it's still usually
a smaller delay than international snail mail to these towns.
Some volunteers with better computer skills have been asked
by the agencies where they work to help set up web pages or email.
And many of the volunteers are asked to teach English and computer
skills, especially word processing. These are seen as basic skills
that will be needed for the economies developing in these countries.
Is there a difference in reaction to people reading your
essays, say The
Challenge of Ecotourism online as opposed to in print?
I have received hundreds of email requests for the full text
of the ecotourism paper via email and only a handful of requests
via the snail-mail route. So electronic distribution made a world
of difference in distributing the paper. It has been published
now in a handful of print-format journals and newsletters, and
that has prompted a few more email messages from readers. I don't
think anyone has ever written a snail-mail letter in response
to the paper (although usually only the email address is given),
so the mere fact of electronic publication may have automatically
moved correspondence into the electronic forum.
Planeta was instrumental
in publishing that article and giving it coverage. I submitted
it for discussion at the workshop on ecotourism that we held as
part of the IVth World Parks Congress in Caracas in 1992, but
it became clear that the coordinator was going to write and publish
his own work, rather than compile or even summarize the deliberations
and submissions from the workshops. So I announced the paper on
a few travel lists and then you kindly summarized it on Planeta.
That really launched it to the wider audience, worldwide.