Berkeley, Calif. — Thanks to author Alvin Toffler, the dominant image of the information age is the electronic cottage, a computerized home where professionals work as efficiently as in an office.
But Lee Felsenstein - one of the pioneers in the personal computer industry and designer of the first portable microcomputer - and colleagues at the Community Memory Project have a substantially different vision. They see the tools of the information age creating electronic villages as well.
Last week, the group announced the prototype of a public computer network they hope will make this vision a reality.
They have installed terminals in three popular gathering spots in this liberal university city. These allow anyone to enter a message - a comment, advertisement, or notification - or search for entries on a specific subject.
The Community Memory network differs from other computer networks or bulletin boards in some significant ways. The biggest difference is that the Community Memory system is public rather than private.
Terminals are placed in public areas. The system cannot be tapped by home computers.
All activity takes place at the public terminals, and all information must be typed in by hand.
So far the system is free. But eventually the group expects to put coin slots on the terminals.
The cost of a 16-terminal system is about $30,000 and will be self-supporting if users are charged about 5 cents a minute, Mr. Felsenstein explains.
''Computer systems model various things,'' says Karen Paulsell, a telecommunications expert who has worked on the project for the last four years. ''For instance, (electronic mail) systems model business communications. Community Memory models the way people look for little bits of information in their everyday life.''
The new network is the result of a decade of part-time volunteer effort by the eight-member collective, whose roots are in the countercultural movement of the late 1960s and early '70s.
In those days, San Francisco was noted for its countercultural information exchanges, known as switchboards. One of these switchboards, called Resource One , managed to get its hands on an obsolete, $1 million computer time-sharing system. They adapted it so the switchboards could use it to store and retrieve information, but the other switchboards were not interested in supporting the system.
At about that time, a number of people around the country realized that computer networking had some unique characteristics. Felsenstein was one of these.
Resource One had a computer, so he and the group tried an experiment. It adapted the computer for network use and placed a terminal in a store in Berkeley in the summer of 1973.
In the year and a half the network operated, the group was amazed at the breadth and the depth of the ideas that accumulated. Musicians used the system to find partners and line up performances. Poets posted a few lines of doggerel to advertise their skills. One person even tried to sell a Nubian goat.
In one instance, the group seeded the network with a query asking where one could get good bagels. Most of the replies were predictable, suggesting various bakeries and delicatessens. But one answer was different. It informed users that if they called a certain number they could take lessons from a former bagel-maker on how to make bagels.
''Essentially, what we got was a snapshot of the whole society,'' Felsenstein recalls.
In 1977 Felsenstein, along with Ephraim Lipkin and Ken Colstad, formed Community Memory to adapt the system for microcomputers.
It has taken seven years because the group has been unsuccessful in attracting foundation support. But the result is a system that is extremely powerful, yet quite simple to use.
Over the years, Community Memory has been written up repeatedly in countercultural journals. As a result, the group has had a steady stream of visitors from around the world, including representatives of West Germany's Green Party. Now that the system is operating, it hopes to inspire other community groups to establish Community Memory networks of their own.
''We envision local communities networking into systems of roughly area-code size. Ultimately these may be linked together nationally by satellite. Admittedly, it's a grandiose scheme. That's why its worth doing,'' Felsenstein says.