By Ben Joravsky
In a dark and dusty room above an old Woolworth’s at 3411 W. Diversey, Carl Davidson is busy changing the world.
It’s there amid dust and clutter that Davidson, once a leading theoretician of the New Left, tinkers on a bunch of old computers. In his own way he’s a third-wave Robin Hood, giving away computer hardware and software to community groups that serve the poor. His immediate purpose is to make sure that salvageable machines are not wasted. His larger purpose is much more ambitious.
“I want to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots of the information age,” says Davidson, who oversees an operation called Networking for Democracy. “I want to bring the information age to everyone.”
Davidson was born and raised in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania (the steel-making town that produced Mike Ditka). His father was an auto mechanic, his mother a beautician (and both, incidentally, champion bowlers enshrined in the Pennsylvania Bowlers Hall of Fame).
In Aliquippa Davidson was something of a cultural rebel, one of the few kids who listened to jazz and read poetry. (“I got my first copy of ‘Howl’ from a Korean war vet I met in a pool hall.”). In 1965 he graduated from Penn State as a philosophy major. “By then I was radicalized,” he says. “I organized an SDS chapter at Penn State and filed a claim as a conscientious objector to get out of compulsory ROTC.”
Throughout the 60s and 70s he was at the forefront of antiwar and civil rights protests, driving from town to town for several years as a Students for a Democratic Society campus organizer. “Mississippi, Berkeley, Columbia University–you name it, I was there,” he says. “I was on a list of people not to invite to universities. Of course that made students want to invite me.”
At one point in 1967 he and a few comrades gathered in a bar near Columbia University and wrote an angry manifesto predicting the coming of technology that would destroy or save (depending on how it was used) the working class. “I didn’t realize how relevant it would become for me,” he says. “In those days I knew nothing about computers. As primitive as it sounds, we wrote our stuff by hand.”
In 1968 he became a reporter for the Guardian, a leftist newspaper in New York City. In 1978 he came to Chicago to run Liberator Press, a radical publishing house. When the house folded Davidson went to work for an industrial supplier, selling truck bumpers of all things. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about bumpers.’ They said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll learn.’ I said, ‘But I don’t know anything about sales.’ They said, ‘Are you kidding? You’ve been trying to sell socialism for the last 20 years, only no one wanted to buy it.'”
Soon after he took the job his company computerized operations, and Davidson had what he now calls a “breakthrough revelation.”
“I tripled my income and cut down on my work time by getting the machine to do most of the drudgery work that I had to spend hours doing,” he says. “I didn’t know squat about computers until then. But when I realized just how much difference they made in my life as a bumpers salesman, it hit me that these things are going to change the world.”
Davidson began taking computer classes and reading books and trade journals on the subject. Within a few years he not only knew how to run most machines, he could take them apart and put them back together. In 1988 he and an old friend, Ivan Handler, formed Networking for Democracy. “I dreamed it up while on a long drive through Kansas, selling bumpers,” he says. “It kind of went back to the old stuff we did for SDS with our working-class manifestos, only putting aside the old dogmas and looking at the world with a fresher perspective. Basically, we want to prepare the working class for the next wave of technology, even if it means jobs are lost in the meantime.”
It might sound hypocritical for a radical socialist to promote job-destroying industrial changes. But Davidson has a wider view. “One of the scourges of mankind is the meaningless toil. Computers will do away with repetitive blue-collar work and middle-management paper shuffling. These people will have to learn new skills or they’ll be put on the dole, which is not necessarily bad. I believe anyone who creates value in society should be paid. Right now, anyone who has a job gets paid. But what about a mother raising children? She’s creating value, she’s raising the next generation of workers–she should get paid for that. Someone teaching basketball in the public parks is creating value by adding to the physical and mental health of the younger generation–they should get paid for that. I’d like to believe that out of the increased production that comes from technology we’ll have more money to pay people for the value of what they create. Well, I know we’ll have more money. But whether it gets fairly distributed or is hoarded by a few–that’s the big issue.”
By the early 1990s Davidson was able to stop selling bumpers and make his living as a consultant who installed and repaired computers for various companies. In his off hours he and Handler began rebuilding old machines and teaching poor and working-class people how to use them.
“If information’s power and that power’s on the Internet, then we better teach people how to get at it, unless we want them to be powerless and dependent all of their lives,” he says. “At the very least I can teach someone computer skills that society clearly values, so his services will be in demand and he can go out and get a job as a technician making $25 an hour or whatever.”
A few years ago, Davidson and Handler hit on a new idea for encouraging companies to donate obsolete computers. “Give them to us, we’ll give them away, and you’ll get the tax write-off,” he says. “I did a mass mailing to every accountant saying something like, ‘Here’s a way to get your client a write-off.’ And then I sent another one out to computer professionals.”
So far he’s collected over 150 computers, many of which have been cleaned, revamped, repaired (when necessary) and sent to such organizations as Nobel Neighbors, the Nkrumrah-Washington Community Learning Center, and the Uptown Multi-Cultural Arts Center.
On most days his office on Diversey is a buzz of activity, with one or two young computer wizards out of DeVry or some other vocational school huddled over the innards of old IBM compatibles. The walls are lined with hundreds of books, an eclectic collection that includes the works of Lenin and the Harvard Business Review. In boxes piled high on the floor and in the closets are bits and pieces of old computers. Down the hall a narrow stairway leads to the attic, where the software is stored.
“We get piles of software,” Davidson says. “People have to buy this stuff even if they don’t really need it. Since it’s illegal to pirate this stuff by copying it, the software police make sure each company buys enough software for every machine. That means many companies wind up with too much software. After a while they don’t know what to do with it all, so they give it to me. There’s so much waste in the world–might as well put it to good use.”
Among the people waiting to see him one day last week was Mordecai Jackson, a 27-year-old south-side resident from Nkrumrah-Washington Community Learning Center. “I learned a little about computers in grade school, but mostly what I know is on my own,” says Jackson. “It’s really not that hard. I think I have a gift for it. I just need to get at the computers. I like to take them apart to see how they work. I plan to go back to the south side and teach people what I know.”
For over an hour Davidson shows Jackson how to install the latest version of DOS. “I’m not quite where I want to be with this yet,” says Jackson. “I’ll have to come back again and practice on it.”
In the afternoon Davidson will dash downtown to show one of his paying clients how to use a similar system.
“I don’t think the old and new are incompatible. Books are great information-storage devices–they’re the only one you can take to the beach,” says Davidson. “But we shouldn’t pretend that the computer doesn’t exist. We shouldn’t pretend it’s not already changed the world. If we’re serious about eliminating inequities and promoting democracy we have to teach the new skills to everyone. Why should all this technology and power be on only one side of town?” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jon Randolph.