Former president Jimmy Carter reflects on technology's role in healing the inner cities

Although former president Jimmy Carter recently received attention for his controversial private peacekeeping missions to Haiti and Bosnia, he spends far more time trying to do good closer to home. The corporate-funded Atlanta Project is one of 13 programs operating out of the Carter Center, a nonprofit public-policy institute in Atlanta founded by the former president and his wife, Rosalynn. It has tackled many of the problems of inner-city Atlanta and is now rolling out a national version of its operations. Carter is a strong believer in the role that technology can play both in strengthening organizations and in addressing some of society's ills. Inc. Technology spoke with Carter about his views on technology's problem-solving potential.

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On technology's role in conflict resolution: The Atlanta Project has an elaborate computer system for keeping in touch with its 20 widely separated and diverse centers in the inner city of Atlanta. Each one of these centers, or "cluster communities," as we call them, has a computer tie-in with our collaboration center, which coordinates the work we do. We use the system for E-mail and training, and also for a remarkable process: the resolution of conflict. If there's a difference of opinion among, say, the people who work with me in the Atlanta Project, we sit around a room together, each with his or her own computer, and in an unidentified way we Email to one another our comments on and personal criticisms of the way things are going. These are highly revealing, even sometimes shocking to some of the people on the receiving end -- like me. Afterwards, we take all those complaints and do another round on the computers, and come up with various opinions on how the problems might be resolved. Then we reach an agreement. The consensus comes in just two or three hours; without the computer system it might take weeks of negotiation and repetition. And some of the opinions never would have been raised at all without the computers. I know some of the folks who work under me don't like how I do some things, but they would rarely -- if ever -- confront me with their gripes. Because the technology lets them be anonymous, people are free to say what they think without fear of retribution. It's kind of a miraculous letting down of the hair.

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On how technology can help the disadvantaged: BellSouth, a Baby Bell based in Atlanta, has offered almost unlimited funding and staffing to teach people how to read and write. But the response has been minimal. The problem has been that adults who can't read and write don't want to admit it. These illiterates will go into a hotel room, they'll go into a courthouse, they'll go into a corporate meeting room, but they don't want to go into a schoolhouse because it makes them look like a 50-year-old student. But if you say you're running a computer-training program, they'll go -- even if the only purpose of using the computers in the program is to teach them how to read and write.

In ghetto areas the Internet will provide ready access to what's happening in the world and in sports and literature, music and art, and so forth. I think that's a wonderful opportunity that's just in its infancy. Another important element of the Internet is the sharing of medical knowledge. For example, in an isolated village in Ethiopia, the Carter Center is establishing a school of public health. We'll be using CD-ROM and satellite technology to transmit information from outside doctors directly into that community to help diagnose and suggest treatments for patients. The system will bring the highest-qualified doctors in this country to the most destitute and poverty-stricken people in the world.

On narrowing the gap between the haves and the have-nots: One of the things that the haves can do through technology is learn more about the have-nots. That is something that's been almost impossible to achieve in large cities, including an enlightened city like Atlanta. You really have two cities: one is made up of those who have the nice homes, who feel protected by the police and the judicial system, and who feel that they can make decisions and control their lives; the other is made up of those who don't have any of those things. I think the have side would really like to do something to improve the life of the have-nots, but we just don't know how. Potentially, technology will let all of us better understand the problems that others face.

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