The failure of trickle-down technology

There's an information crisis in government and nonprofits

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Somewhere in our much-heralded subculture of information technology, "The Machine That Changed the World" seems to have changed only part of that subculture. Time magazine's Man of the Year for 1982 is seemingly more human than we've imagined; likewise, his celebrity and notoriety among industry-specific compatriots has become an odd malfeasance among a certain group of have-nots: nonprofits and local governments. A friend of mine who works for a Chicago nonprofit describes the predicament. "In the morning I get in, turn on my computer, and go to the bathroom. The machine takes some time, so by the time I get back, it's up and running. Then I check my e-mail, so I grab a cup of coffee while it's dialing out -- I usually get a lot of mail, but I can generally get the whole thing done in under 45 minutes."

Interestingly, the Information Age has an even larger waiting room for those just like him. All they're trying to do is business, and they can easily waste more than a month each year in a similar caffeine/lavatory roundabout. Thing is, the most forward-looking technologists among us often don't look back to see if anyone got left behind. True, we had LANs in the 70s, but most nonprofits didn't. True, we had good desktop databases in the 80s, although local governments were busy stretching Paradox into a "close enough" datakeeper. And true, broadband was there for the 90s, but you would never have guessed it by the number of community-based organizations who saw Juno as their only way to keep up.

These same organizations lived through Metcalfe's fathering of Ethernet, were there when ARPAnet transitioned to TCP/IP, and saw Andreessen and Clark develop Mosaic. Of course, these technology highlights were incidental to many nonprofits and local governments that didn't need to care about such things outside of their calling. But it also meant that more than half of these organizations had no idea whether Y2K was A-OK until 1/1/00, and possibly this was a signal -- a warning shot -- for the less-able to be more prepared.

Is it fair to say that the technology gap between the last two generations and their business machines in no way resembles the chasm between us and our current office tools? While even the most disadvantaged of organizations had a typewriter and telephone two generations ago, it is the adoption of the business computer in the early 80s that caused a runaway distance between person and machine, producing a trench technology ghettoland for those who could least afford the ticket to remain current. In effect, here's where the crisis began, and combined with society's slow-roast consciousness for this kind of thing, it was an undoing for local governments and nonprofits.

Thing is, we want to believe that trickle-down technology is possible, because our religion of technology commits us to the idea that somehow this great leveler of people and societies will be making its promised appearance any day now. For years we've trusted that our underserved have a place in line, even though a growing following on both sides of public and private have known differently:

"This secret is so weighty, 'twill require / A strong faith to conceal it."

-- William Shakespeare, The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth

I'm feeling much less faithful these days.

Duane Ebesu is the CTO of New York-based Housing Works and was recently named as one of InfoWorld's most influential CTOs. For information on writing a CTO Adviser column, contact