VISIONS OF CYBERSPACE
AUGUST 3, 1995
Omar Wasow, the 24-year-old founder and president of New York Online, discusses the virtues of cyberspace with Charlayne Hunter-Gault. New York Online has over 1,200 subscribers and aims to build community by promoting local activities and connecting residents from all over the city.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you see technology affecting education and how people are educated? Because there have been some criticisms that it doesn't encourage the kind of education that is useful.
OMAR WASOW: Well--and this is before my time, but when--I'm told that when audio cassettes came out, people thought that would revolutionize education, and that when television came out, people thought that would revolutionize education, and, and to some degree I think all of the hype about computers is probably overstated. At the same time, though, I've seen programs that were working, again, with working class people who--where they were getting better training with a sort of multimedia station where there was a laser disk and a computer, getting basic job training skills, where they could pace the training to their own level, and when they didn't understand something, they could go back and, and when they did understand something, they could skip it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You talked about demo--you mentioned the word democratic. You've been involved with groups that have been using the computer. How do you see this affecting activist groups and organizations and people?
OMAR WASOW: Again, part of what excites me about the technology is the powerful democratic effect it has. I mean, we saw in Tiananmen Square that people were sending e-mail out. There were recent student protests in France that were all coordinated by e-mail; the same thing happened in the United States last year, where people who share a common passion but are widely disparate are using this medium as a way of organizing. I mean, you even saw it in a way that has been sort of roundly criticized by the militias on the right. And, and while I'm certainly concerned about that, I think it speaks to the power of the technology that it allows people who are sort of disenfranchised to, to make links and build, build connections that, that are, you know, sort of politically and organizationally powerful.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What about the argument that, you know, you're talking about activists, but one argument against--that's made against the technology is that it makes people more isolated, that they stay in their houses, and sit behind their computer screens, rather than actually getting out and that it leads to more isolation rather than to more community.
OMAR WASOW: Right. That's a very good question, and part of what we've tried to do with New York Online is to really focus on community, rather than on the things that isolate you. So for example, all of the activities on New York Online involve people to people communication, and we really feel that, that the computer and that this medium should be a catalyst for getting out and meeting more people, rather than isolating you, so you know, we have parties on a regular basis, and there are people who meet and start dating, and people who get hired for jobs.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What kind of impact do you see it having on, for example, race relations, or social relations in general, but race relations in particular?
OMAR WASOW: Well, one of the things we're most proud of at New York Online is the diversity of the people on this service. We are about 50 percent of color, and a lot of those issues of race relations are dealt with on this service. People are talking to each other who had never talked to each other in real life, and like, like the subway, we're a network; it links up the whole city, and unlike the subway, people are talking to each other, and even when there's disagreement, there's a kind of connection and communication that's quite valuable, and you know, most people have a sort of fixed circle of friends that is work and neighborhood, and you know, and their friends. And what's happening online is that all of a sudden you're mingling in a much broader world, and you're doing it in a way that's still very comfortable and convenient but, but that sort of, kind of undermines a lot of those cleavages in society.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What about the argument, though, that too much information unfiltered tends to--has the potential for overwhelming people, or else people feel or think that they're informed and they're not really and that there's a danger in that?
OMAR WASOW: One problem with the idea that there can be too much information is that it means that the information we're getting now is sufficient, and I think there are a lot of people who would criticize, you know, mainstream newspapers, mainstream television, as having its own set of problems, and I think that, that broadening diversity of voices is, is--can only be a good thing. That said, there will be--there will be an information glut, and people will rely on--I mean, this is part of what's coming down the line, people will rely on filters and different kinds of filters to pick out the information they want and need.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What is the thing that concerns you the most about the future?
OMAR WASOW: I mean, I think there's a worst-case scenario where you have a lot of people who are poorly educated, who are sort of unwired, who are quite hostile to the technology, who don't have access to jobs, because many of the jobs require a level of sophistication, and you end up with more and more violence like we saw in Oklahoma, where there are people who sort of choose to sort of unplug from society and, and then become very antagonistic to the broader society.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what excites you the most about the future?
OMAR WASOW: What excites me the most is the possibility that sort of every individual will have the ability to sort of communicate and express themselves and, and develop their mind to the fullest potential with--you know, through this tool so that it sort of breaks down national boundaries--it breaks down all kinds of, of cleavages that separate people, and also elevates a whole class of people who are sort of locked out because of, of poverty.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Omar Wasow, thank you for joining us.
OMAR WASOW: Thank you, Charlayne.