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High-Tech Heroes Who Work for the Public Good

October 26, 1998|GARY CHAPMAN

It's time--overdue, actually--to celebrate some heroes and heroines of the Information Age.

In this column, I have repeatedly taken the high-tech industry to task for its lack of vision, leadership and engagement with difficult public issues.

But there are many technically gifted people in the U.S. who are dealing with important national and international problems, and most of them get insufficient credit. The list below is intended as a counterweight to the overabundant and tired lists of the cyber-elite, such as Time magazine's "Cyber 50" published two weeks ago, and Vanity Fair's annual list of the "New Establishment." The people below are the unsung heroes of the digital era.

* Severo Ornstein, Laura Gould, Terry Winograd and Eric Roberts--These four are the founders and backbones of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility ( After 17 years of hard work, CPSR is still the most interesting and substantive public-interest organization in the computing field. Ornstein and Gould, who are husband and wife, are retired from Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center; Winograd and Roberts are professors of computer science at Stanford. All are technical leaders in their fields as well as tireless crusaders for the public interest. Also, hats off to Aki Namioka, Marsha Woodbury and others who are keeping CPSR going now. (Disclosure: I was CPSR's first executive director but left the organization five years ago.)

* Marc Rotenberg, David Sobel, David Banisar of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Jerry Berman of the Center for Democracy and Technology and the folks at the American Civil Liberties Union. Fighting for privacy and freedom of expression in cyberspace is a never-ending struggle, and no one could ask for tougher allies than these guys. EPIC, in particular, has set the benchmark for relentless and principled advocacy on the main issues of public concern about the Internet and computerization.

* Ceasar McDowell, Larry Irving, Nolan Bowie, Oscar Gandy and Lodis Rhodes. No other issue is as important as the "digital divide," the troubling disparity between people of color in poor communities and the rest of an increasingly wired society. These African American leaders and intellectuals are doing something about it. McDowell, of MIT, is chairman of the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy ( Irving is assistant secretary of the Department of Commerce and director of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration ( Bowie, Gandy and Rhodes are professors at, respectively, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas at Austin.

* Anthony Wilhelm and Harry Pachon. Just as the low level of Internet access among African Americans should be a national concern, a similar problem exists among Latinos, the country's fastest-growing ethnic minority. Wilhelm is director of information technology research and Pachon president of the Tomas Rivera Center, a multistate research program on Latinos and public policy. Wilhelm wrote the center's 1997 report "Out of Reach: Latinos, Education and Technology in California."

* Amy Borgstrom, Steve Snow, Bart DeCrem, Richard Civille, Wally Bowen, Sue Beckwith, Ana Sisnett, Jessica Bray, Doug Schuler and everyone who works for community networks. Community networks, the nonprofit movement to bring computers to low-income citizens throughout the U.S., is one of the most promising and inspiring examples of socially responsible computing. There are more than 250 community networks in the U.S., most of them running on a shoestring and the dedication of their leaders.

Borgstrom and Bowen work in poor rural areas in Appalachia and the mountains of North Carolina. DeCrem, Sisnett, Beckwith, Snow and Bray work in poor urban neighborhoods in East Palo Alto, Calif.; Austin, Texas; New Orleans, and Charlotte, N.C. Schuler, in Seattle, has written the definitive book on this movement, "New Community Networks: Wired for Change" (Addison Wesley Longman, 1996).

* Barbara Simons, Anita Borg and Ellen Ullman. Another disparity in computing is the underrepresentation of women in the field. These three are exemplary role models, all technical experts and dedicated to expanding the role of women not only in computing but in public leadership.

Simons is chairman of US/ACM, the public-policy arm of the Assn. for Computing Machinery. Borg is the founder of Systers, a networking and mentoring group for women in computing. Ullman, a professional programmer in San Francisco, is, I believe, the best writer about technology these days. Her book, "Close to the Machine," (City Lights Books, 1997) brought a fresh, humane, clearheaded and feminist voice to discussions about technology in society.

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