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Community Revolution Builds Online : E-Mail Pluribus Unum


Like her neighbors in Blacksburg, Va., senior citizen Connie Anderson wanted to voice a few opinions on plans to build a big local highway. So she did what everybody else in her small town (pop. 36,000) in the Allegheny Mountains was doing: She sent e-mail to her city councilman.

"E-mail is a major help. I even use it to figure out where we want to put the drop boxes for the annual used-book sale," said Anderson, who does volunteer work for local organizations. "And, of course, I use it to keep up with my two grandchildren in Alabama."

E-mail, which has already fundamentally changed the way many businesses operate, is beginning to revolutionize everyday life in a handful of small towns like Blacksburg, where online community networks have debuted in recent years to hook up thousands of residents.

From Sarasota to Seattle, publicly sponsored networks have made it possible for parents to e-mail their children's teachers, for residents to attend electronic town meetings, for homebound seniors to keep in touch with each other.

The community benefits of such keyboard conversations are so great, in fact, that researchers at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica say the time has come to give every American a personalized e-mail address. In the next few months, researchers at the nonprofit think tank will embark on a study to determine if increasing access to e-mail could make government agencies as efficient and cost-effective as private companies that already rely on electronic communications.

"E-mail has become one of the major means by which we participate in life," said Tora Bikson, a researcher at Rand. "Every study has shown that people online have more information than people with the same education and income who don't have modems."

Indeed, a recent Rand study titled "Universal Access to E-mail: Feasibility and Societal Implications" recommends an annual government investment of as much as $1 billion a year to connect society's have-nots to an e-mail service. That may sound like a lot of money, but experts say the potential benefits may prove cost-effective.

Over the years, many studies have shown that e-mail is an important tool that improves people's abilities to do everything from find a new job to hook up socially with others who share their interests.

"Increasingly, e-mail is serving as a means of tying people together in families, with colleagues, with friends, with people they used to know who moved to another part of the world," said Tony Rutkowski, past president of the Internet Society. "And it's going to become more important as a way to interact with government."

For now, simply assigning every citizen a permanent e-mail address, perhaps based on street address, would cost virtually nothing.

"Even people who don't have a modem, like my mother, could have an address," Bikson said. "If they don't want to actually use e-mail, they could go to the nearest printer to print out their messages. The point is to give people a universal way to be reachable, to communicate."

In an era when deregulation has made the telephone industry more competitive--and also undermined both the philosophical and economic underpinnings of the much-cherished universal telephone service--some believe universal e-mail could help pick up the slack.

"Go to even the most remote places in the world--in China, in the mountains--and you'll generally find somebody with a TV set and VCR and some sort of mechanism for distributing videotapes," Rutkowski said. "That's the paradigm for how e-mail is going to develop at the community level as well. Of course, some people ask if we all need e-mail when there's a significant portion of the world that doesn't even have electricity."

Already, though, some 100 million people worldwide are sending e-mail to each other, and the number is growing at an explosive pace.

E-mail has been considered the most important function on the Internet since the earliest days, when the network was known as ARPAnet. The Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency created the experimental network in the 1960s to test whether a decentralized system of computers could survive nuclear attack. The idea was to build a system that could still transmit important military messages from point A to point B even if one or two of the nodes along the way had been destroyed by bombs.

"It was a total shift from the old days. You go back to Napoleon, for example, and how he won all his wars. He had a central headquarters in Paris where all the messages went before they went back to the field," said Tom Munnecke, an expert on e-mail history who works for Science Applications International Corp. "E-mail is better because it promotes lateral communications. It just makes sense."

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