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A Flock of Eagles

Networked nesting in good places, wherever they are.

by / August 3, 2004
Lone Eagles appear to be an endangered species. Even the organization that, a decade ago, coined the term to describe independent information professionals living in rural areas has fallen on hard times. Like the assets of failed family farms sold at auction, the Web site for the Denver-based Center for the New West has been replaced with a "For Sale" sign.

This is underscored by recent disappointed -- even bitter -- memoirs of their longtime advocates. Frank Odasz, a veteran self-styled consultant to Lone Eagles, laments the failure of bureaucracies to deliver on promises of telecommunications companies and government that broadband is "essential and indisputably beneficial," leaving rural citizens to draw conclusions from practical, yet unproven, experience.

Odasz, as a 1980s community networking movement disciple, has still not forgiven Tim Berners-Lee for ruining prospects for a dial-up participatory utopia.

In a forthcoming book he writes, "In 1994, the World Wide Web appeared and suddenly the power and purity of text-only communication was viewed ... as inadequate and suddenly obsolete." The graphical user interface, he argues, "displaced purposeful collaboration, much to the chagrin of the early pioneers who understood the power of online written communication."

His regrets about what might have been echo those of Al Gore, whose metaphor of the information highway as a government protectorate lost out to the commodity Internet.

By 1997, the Lone Eagle was dead. In writing its epitaph, pundits and professors pointed to single-digit migration into rural America. According to a study that year in Washington state, only 3 percent of in-migrants could be classified as Lone Eagles -- with another 7 percent considered telecommuters.

The story did not end there.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, looking back on the Web's first decade, called it a "decade-long pattern of city dwellers retreating to rural counties in search of a better quality of life."

Now, continuing tracking of Internet use and penetration, the Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that 52 percent of rural America is online, and rural connectivity still lags suburban and urban areas -- two-thirds of their populations are online. The research also indicates rural penetration growth rates are keeping pace with suburban communities -- each enjoying an 11 percent bounce since 2000.

Is all this attributed to Lone Eagles? No. Nor would we want it that way.

The evidence indicates that people can pursue digital careers and analog lifestyles in a shared place, regardless of how long they have lived there. An economic analysis by the Wilderness Society in Bozeman, Mont., found quality-of-life issues were more likely to dissuade old-timers from leaving an area than to entice newcomers.

Still, newcomers have an important catalytic effect on their adopted communities.

"These regions need new blood, new ideas and stable sources of income," the Frontier Centre for Public Policy said. "It used to be that any good place to work was a good place to live; today only good places to live are seen as good places to work."

We care about these communities not just for political advantage -- more than half of battleground states this election year are rural -- or altruistic public-policy reasons, but because we are all from somewhere.

Senior fellow with the Center for Digital Government Clay Jenkinson has a passion for his hometown, Marmarth, N.D. -- one of thousands of communities a flock of eagles short of a future.

Undaunted, Jenkinson holds out hope for recovering the original American dream.

"The possibilities for living in isolated places, not having to live in a city, having the benefits of urban culture but to be de-urbanized, to be diffused all over the landscape in Jefferson's sort of ideal pastoral way -- all these are made possible by the Internet."

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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