San Luis Valley, NM: Can the Internet Help Improve Rural Economies?

By Howard Rheingold

"The Internet has been the biggest change-agent to hit the San Luis Valley since the pick-up truck"

While others debate whether computer networks might shut out the disenfranchised, some activists are at work in the poorest urban and rural areas, trying to use the technology to tackle immediate social problems of access to educational resources and recruiting customers for local businesses. We might learn a lot more about the potential the Net for rural areas by looking at what some of the people of the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado are doing.

"The Internet has been the biggest change-agent to hit the San Luis Valley since the pick-up truck," claims Dave Hughes. Hughes ought to know: he and local activists wired up a BBS in the community of 45,000 people in thirty agricultural towns, connected the BBS to the Internet, and showed people how to use it. Then they wired the schools.

The Valley is isolated by the 14,000 foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range. The majority of the inhabitants are Hispanic. It isn't easy to keep many highly trained teachers, or find those willing to make a 100 mile drive. Now, according to Hughes, twenty local teachers are taking a physics course from an M.I.T. professor, via the Internet.

"The students and a continuous flow of other people started reaching out of the valley online and started getting the idea that they could (1) get educated and (2) start enterprises in the valley with a technological connection," says Hughes, citing the example of "A guy who had just a little computer and a fair amount of telephone/radio experience, put up his savings and borrowings and in effect 'franchised' the first true commercial Internet service provider service in the Valley - which quickly outgrew its 8 lines, and attracted the attention of local education, local business, local government."

The Web might be a boon for a world-class artist who lives far from the world's markets. Eppie Archuleta, a seventy-four year old weaver in the tiny San Luis Valley town of Capulin, now displays, describes, and sells her weavings via Eppie's Wool Page .

Are technology evangelists rushing in to tackle social issues with no knowledge of the local culture? Hughes introduced me to one of his partners in the enterprise, Noel Dunne, Director of the Christian Community services. "An ex-priest who spent fifteen years in Chile and Peru teaching Indians economic self-reliance techniques based on their crafts," is how Dave described him. I asked Dunne what he thought computer networks could do for people in rural Colorado.

"We aim to stop the cycle of poverty and get people off welfare," Dunne replied. "I see this as one of the ways for some people to get into businesses," he added. "At the Sierra Grande school in Fort Garland, the students set up a computer assembly business, putting together "386" computers and selling them inexpensively to the community. Our problem is that we don't have enough machines to give lessons to all the people who want to learn. John German in NYC with his non-profit Computers Inc. is helping out by making contacts with companies that supply non-profits like mine with computers. We're hoping to get more."

If you know of some used computers, Noel Dunne can put them to good work.

The rural world, outside tourist enclaves, is usually invisible to the online population who live in Tokyo and London and New York. The San Luis Valley home page is a window. Will it also be a door? Much depends on how the world reacts, and how the world's reaction affects the lives of the people in the region. In a few years, it will be time to check back into the San Luis Valley to find out what enduring socal impact, if any, the introduction of the Net brings.