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The Oberhambach Project - connecting a village
A narrow perspective on a wider problem

In a Wired News article entitled "Old Town Taught New Tricks" and dated December 30th 2000, Steve Kettmann relates the experiment taking place in the village of Oberhambach in Germany. He begins his article by saying "All Europe is a kind of laboratory in which to watch what happens as people try to catch up to the Internet revolution that has remade American life." This somewhat arrogant and self-centred way of seeing the rest of the world supposes that others necessarily need to use the Internet the way the "Americans" have. Apart from the fact that I am not sure there is necessarily an "American way" of using the Internet that applies to all Americans, it is not certain that people from other cultures necessarily want to or should follow the road down which the media portray Americans as going with the Internet and the so-called start-up economy. If you really must fight a battle, make sure it is you who choose the battlefield. But let's come back to Oberhambach.

A consortium named BIR inform e.V. was set up at the initiative of Manfred Dreier, Mayor of Birkenfeld, with a view to "supporting and co-ordinating innovative regional use of multimedia" are aimed at improving competence in information technology (IT) use so as to increase the number of people able to work with such tools and to encourage the development of start ups. In the online description of the Pilotprojekt Oberhambach, the organisers argue that only limited groups of citizens have access to the Internet and that the cost and developing necessary skills can be prohibitive for many. It was principally to overcome this problem that BIR inform launched the Oberhambach project.

Oberhambach is a small village about five kilometres north of Birkenfeld with a population of 279 people (145 households), many of whom are elderly. Their village has no bakery, no butcher, no grocery store, no post office, and no chemist. The project initiators plan to create an online shopping centre that will allow local people to order goods and have them delivered. This is somewhat different from what is reported by the Wired journalist who quotes Dirk Schmitt, head of the state sponsored consortium organising the project, as saying "The idea was to take a whole town that has no infrastructure [...] and provide people, especially older people, with a computer to find out what they would do with them."

The Oberhambach solution is clearly not a sustainable or generalisable solution! To be able to equip all the households in the village it required sponsors to provide computers, ISDN lines and Internet access either free or at much lower than market prices. Unless, market forces decide that giving away the basic equipment is a viable long-term market strategy, this sort of experiment will be only a one-off experience. There is however another reason why this project may well be unsustainable. It is heavily technocentric. Even if the words attributed to Dirk Schmitt were misrepresented, the general impression is one of thrusting technology on people without much thought about how that technology could be integrated into their lives. The motivation in Oberhambach for providing technology was to allow citizens to use online services provided by local authorities and to replace disappearing local shops by online services.

The BIR inform documents state that the project is being followed closely by scientific experts who are carrying out a market study during the project. Implicitly, the use of a market study indicates a lack of knowledge about what people need. I suspect that this points in turn to the difficulty of the project organisers and more generally the local authorities to be in direct contact with local people's needs. If this were the case, it would be interesting to understand how and why local and regional authorities have lost contact with their citizens. OK, I agree, they have clearly identified the need for a way to buy things in a shopless village, especially for older people who do not necessarily have a means of transport. However, the solution they have chosen is far too narrow in its perspective. It may well further sap the cohesion and participation of the local community already weakened by the exodus of local shops. I am referring to shops here not just as places to buy things, but also, and more importantly in their role of favouring cohesion in the community, as places where people meet and talk. The solution chosen by BIR is based on the perspective of individual consumption, whether it be of material goods or administrative services, not on active participation by local people in the local community. The sceptic might well ask if local authorities are necessarily interested in extensive local participation. After all, it could well make their work much more difficult to accomplish. Such a point of view, based on the delegation of authority and responsibility to a limited number of others who are nominated to decide and to carry out the tasks, does not fit in with current thinking about how we affront complexity and the rapidity of change of the modern world. A wider perspective on getting citizens connected would take into consideration such questions as the cohesion of the local community, exchange and development of both knowledge and local culture and identity and would use the potential of the Internet to link people together without neglecting face to face contact.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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Created: January 1st, 2001 - Last up-dated: January 1st, 2001