Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 150 / MARCH 1993 / PAGE S7

How to use your computer to effect change. (Compute's Getting Started with Computers, Health, & the Environment)

You may think that the PC industry is run by a few powerful companies that dictate the kind of hardware you can buy and the software you can use--in short, the entire direction of personal computing. But every PC company on earth wants one thing that you control: your money. And they'll do almost anything to get it. They'll even make the products you want to use and sell them to you in the way you want to buy them.

PC giants acknowledge that they pay attention to consumer input and follow where consumers lead--as long as consumers provide that leadership. For example, according to a source at Microsoft, the company has investigated environmentally responsible ways to use recycled paper in its software packaging and collect used packaging at Microsoft dealers, but won't put plans into action unless pressured by the company's existing user base.

Voting with your pocket-book works a lot better if you let manufactures and developers know directly what you want from them. You can call customer service, but the best way to contact most companies is online, through the forums they maintain on most of the major online services. America OnLine, for example, has over 200 manufacturer and developer forums; ComputServe has more than twice that many. Post your tips, complaints, bug reports, and ideas for new products and features online first; they'll get attention, and you'll get a quicker response. Don't be discouraged if you don't get the answer you want right away; most companies are like elephants--it takes a lot of effort to turn them around.

The Power of Groups

Many voices are louder than one. Any group--a company, a user group, an institution--has consumer clout you can never hope to have on your own. Get together with your group and decide what you want to say--then get to it. Let developers and manufacturers know your concerns about their products and their business practices. Post messages on company bulletin boards and online forums. Mount a fax-modem campaign. Don't let up until you get a response. Even better, coordinate your actions via e-mail with other groups on issues of common interest.

Your group will be more effective if you target one issue at a time. Don't like a developer's upgrade policy? Concentrate on that until you get action. Let companies know your group will switch to a competing product if you don't get satisfaction. But be courteous, and be sure to provide concrete suggestions for change.

PC Advocacy

Consumerism is only the beginning of what you can do with your PC to change the world. Your computer can be a tool to address social and political problems. Just as PCs increase the amount of work you can perform on the job, they can increase your power as an advocate for change. The tools you already have--a PC, printer, fax board or fax machine, modem, and telephone--can multiply your efforts a hundredfold. For example, with a fax modem you can draft a letter on your PC and fax it to everyone on a mailing list. PCs also give you access to the vast world of online information, much of it relevant to one form of advocacy or another.

The benefits of PCs really kick in when you use them in the service of an advocacy group. Most grassroots advocacy groups are undercomputerized. Use your PC knowledge to computerize your group and increase its effectiveness. Once you've computerized, set up an e-mail network to connect committed members.

The easiest way is simply for all members to subscribe to an online service that offers e-mail capabilities, like CompuServe. A networked advocacy group can effectively coordinate its actions from many online offices whose actual location may be thousands of miles apart.

You'll meet other like-minded people on the networks, too. Your group can team up with other groups online around the world, combining local efforts into an international response to issues that concern you.

Global Village

There are bulletin boards for advocacy of every sort, from green politics to labor unionism to conservative Christian activism. Many are listed in The User's Directory of Computer Networks, by Tracy L. LaQuey. On a larger scale, the Institute for Global Communication operates three global activist networks: PeaceNet, EcoNet, and ConflictNet. PeaceNet concentrates on human rights, disarmament, and international relations.

EcoNet is a forum for environmentalists working for ecological sustainability and preservation. ConflictNet offers services for choosing neutral arbitrators to help resolve international and intranational conflicts, and intranational conflicts, and also offers extensive legal help.

All three networks include e-mail, special-interest forums, and access to useful databases, but perhaps the best thing about them is that they're truly international. EcoNet, for example, has links with some 200 environmental organizations worldwide. There are IGC partner networks in Australia, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Nicaragua, Russia, Sweden, the United States, and Uruguay.

PCs Go Political

Political action is one area where PCs are just coming into their own. For example, CompuServe, Prodigy, and other commercial online services maintained forums on the recent presidential elections. Before the election, then-Democratic-candidate Bill Clinton's campaign assigned a campaign staffer to CompuServe to answer queries about the candidate's positions and take suggestions from voters. (Interestingly, pre-election polls of CompuServe and Prodigy users indicated that George Bush was likely to win the campaign.)

Online contact with politicians isn't the only way to go, however. A new category of software puts the savvy of a Washington lobbyist at your command. Multi-faceted programs, such as Write Your Congressman!, contain databases of the names, addresses, and phone numbers of powerful national politicos and their staffs.

Combined with the databases are letter-writing word processor and mail-merge programs that can address envelopes and print mailing labels for you, or fire off a fax. There are no better tools for communicating your concerns to the people who can do something about them.