Open Mouth, Insert Foot, and Hopefully Learn Lesson.

Generally, I try to limit myself to talking about things I know about and recognize what I don’t know about. But, like most of us, I occassionally think I know more than I do. Such is the case of my recent comment in ComputerWorld about the muni deployment situation in San Francisco. In the last few days, I’ve received a barrage of angry letters and calls from friends of mine on the ground in SF wanting to know what the Hell I was thinking when I said: “”They’ve created a mess in San Francisco where the city seems to be negotiating with Google or Earthlink and not the community.”

Sadly, I cannot even say I was misquoted or taken out of context. Matt Hamblen got my quote exactly right. It turns out, however, that I had it exactly wrong. As my angry SF friends have let me know in no uncertain terms, the City of San Francisco, Google and Earthlink have been conducting neighborhood surveys, meeting with local community leaders, and responding to this input with substantive changes.

So how did I screw up so badly? And what did I learn from all this? See below . . . .

I haven’t been doing much in munibroadband recently, owing to the overwhelming demands of the 700 MHz auction and everything else going on. Heck, I haven’t even had time to inveigh against the recent anti-muni bill in North Carolina, which deserves a thorough smacking down by an irate public tired of legislators protecting their incumbent buddies. So I’ve mostly been following the situation in San Francisco via the press and the occassional conversation with friends.

Most of the press coverage, such as this article, emphasize the community conflict and politics, especially for big city projects like Philly and SF. The friends I’ve spoken to recently have expressed their general worry over public/private partnerships and preference for either outright municipal ownership or for funding of non-commercial providers rather than something that looks rather like cable franchising. My friends were not necessarily talking about San Francisco, but between the news coverage and these general conversations, coupled with recollections of conversations with folks in SF back at the beginning when I was following more closely, I ended up with a view that the SF/Google/Earthlink contract was losing its way.

In retrospect, this was really, really dumb. I had fallen into the classic trap that I often warn people about. Consulting “the community” doesn’t mean just talking to my friends and the mainstream media loves to focus on controversy. So while I thought I knew what was going on in SF, in a sort of vague way when I was thinking of it at all, I really didn’t know squat.

So when I was at Esme’s Muniwireless New England Conference, I raised the concerns I had heard from some of my friends in the community wireless world about cities moving away from community involvement in a general way. This prompted the interview in which, I say again, Matt Hamblen quoted me exactly right. While I still believe that local governments looking at municipal systems do have to keep their eye on community involvement and community outreach (as the Government Accountability Office report last year explained, the greatest indicator of success for local broadband projects is a community champion who actively supports the project and is significantly involved), I missed a splendid opportunity to keep my mouth shut about SF, seeing as how I had only second hand knowledge about the actual state of reality on the ground.

All I can say is that I went from the interview to the airport and proceeded to get on a flight bound for Atlanta rather than Baltimore, which says something about my mental state last week.

No surprise that after the Computerworld story apeared, I started to get calls and emails from friends of mine on the ground in SF, in various degrees of outrage, asking me what the heck I was talking about. Turned out that a lot of what I thought I knew was out of date or just plain wrong. In particular, a number of friends rightly took me to task for equating “community” with “the people I know.” A hell of a lot of people live in San Fransico, many of whom don’t give a crap about the technologies of network deployment but who care deeply about receiving services. While not always a trump card (I can point to a fair number of historic examples where people sell themselves dirt cheap thinking they are getting a good deal), it’s a valid point. And, more to the point, I’m not actually on the ground in San Francisco. I have no idea what the tradeoffs are, the compromises and negotiations around different uses, what is and isn’t a sustainable model, etc., etc.

So, as I told my friends, I messed up. I feel stupid about it, because I should know better. But, doing my best to learn from experience, here are my final thoughts.

1) When we talk about a concept like “community” and “community involvement”, we need to gaurd against the sort of mistake I made here: thinking “community” is me and my friends. Especially when we start talking about something the size of San Francisco, the concept of “community” starts to get hugely complicated. No one is going to get everything they want. Indeed, I may not get anything I want if the vast majority of people disagree with me about priorities or essential services. I may not like it, but that doesn’t mean the project “lacks community involvement.”

2) The trap of thinking of the “community” as people like me and relying on a handful of news reports to form an opinion of a complex project emerging in real time is a pernicious one. I like to think of myself as cautious about such things, but I still managed to blow it here. Not that we can ever expect to have perfect information. And, bluntly, there will be times when I just flat out disagree with folks about whether something is a success or failure. But I should be more carefull before opining on specific projects to assess whether I really have all the facts.

3) As a bank shot, this emphasizes the critical importance the media play in our lives of shaping opinion. I could certainly keep myself informed about the state of play in SF. But I can’t do that and do everything else my life requires. So I rely on the media, even while I know that the media rarely tells the whole story. I may intellectually dismiss a slew of stories about muni broadband birth pangs as having unrealistic expectations, unfair comparisons, and a desire to see local governments fall on their faces. But it still works to shape my opinion.

If the herd-beast media coverage of an issue can do that for me — a sophisticated consumer of news and knowledgable about the basics of the issue — does anyone wonder why the collapse of modern journalistic reporting and the non-stop focus of our news media on “infotaintment” rather than important but “boring” news has in turn generated a political system where voters focus on trivialities and their “gut feeling” about a candidate’s character, despite the availability of detailed information via the web?

Stay tuned . . . .

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