Why stand in line when you can go online?BY BECCI ROBBINS
"If knowledge is power, the computer is a tremendous tool." So says Michael Flessas, a geek with a mission.
Flessas is his own public relations department in a one-man effort to haul South Carolina into the computer age, a task he says is proving harder than he predicted. The Palmetto State, he's discovered, is fairly computer illiterate, and seems intent to stay that way.
That's too bad, Flessas says, arguing that fear and ignorance translate into missed opportunities.
"The sooner South Carolinians accept the new information technologies, the quicker some of our social problems will be addressed," he says. "The sooner state government requires all its departments to go online and post all of its public information, the cheaper it will be to run state government."
Flessas, who when warmed up speaks with the fervor of a late-night tele-evangelist, so far has gotten a lukewarm response from many of the reporters he has contacted about doing a story on his pet project: building a Web page for Columbia's homeless.
It is, of course, a hard sell. The idea of creating an online service for people who don't have homes, much less computers, at first seems plain silly. But talk to Flessas long enough, and the idea begins to sound, well, sound.
"The myth is that homeless people don't know about computers, or can't learn about them," Flessas says. "That's intellectual elitism."
Flessas knows what it's like to be jobless, without a car, without the trappings of Normal Life, at the mercy of bureaucrats who too often have none. He knows the tedium of forms, of standing in line, has suffered the condescension of overworked workers in government offices. That's why he is doing what he does.
About 10 years ago, at age 27, Flessas was fired from a telemarketing job in Columbia. Pushed to the financial edge, he went to various churches and social service agencies looking for support.
It was an unpleasant education.
"No one gave me the help I needed," he says. "A lot of the social service groups perpetuate a pyramid scheme with tax-exempt status. They are parasitical."
He was also disappointed by the church. "All I got was pious platitudes. It was like, 'If you're obedient enough, humble enough, we will help you.'" For a true believer -- who majored in religious studies at the University of South Carolina and spent a year in a monastery -- the failure of his church to help when he really needed it shook up long-held assumptions about spirituality, compassion and what it means to be destitute.
"I left Columbia dirt poor, nearly homeless," Flessas says.
He moved north and eventually found work, but never forgot what it felt like to be desperate, The Other, dismissed.
Then in Boston, while waiting for a subway train that would carry him to his job at MCI, he had an epiphany, so he puts it. "I realized that in many respects I was a byte of information about to travel on a wire -- the train track -- to a network node, my computer. A tremendous amount of time, money and energy was being wasted to transport my body to the MCI office. All the work I did could have been done by telecommuting instead. "
He began to look around him and calculate needless movement, people getting from a computer terminal at home to another one at work, cnsumers driving to places they could access online -- or could in a perfectly plugged-in world.
Flessas figured we all could save time and energy, real and psychic, using two simple principles: shortening the distance between A and B, and reducing waste.
"I wanted to find systems in which you can get the job done without big muscle movements," Flessas says. "You can walk five miles to meet someone, or you can pick up the phone." You can send a letter, which requires a pen (that works), paper, envelope, stamp and, when it's important, the gas to get you to the Post Office. Or with a few keystrokes you can send the same message in a matter of minutes, for free, using electronic mail.
You can schlep around town looking for a job, or an apartment, or a free meal. Or you can go to the public library, get on the Internet and dial up "Resources for the Homeless" at http://www.scpronet.com/homeless.html for a current listing of social service agencies and other resources for people in the Midlands.
In a perfectly plugged-in world, Flessas sees churches, schools, shelters, libraries and community centers housing computers, as well as the necessary staff to help students, patrons, clients and the idly curious get online and navigate the Internet.
Flessas set up a homeless Web site in Milwaukee which included everything from bus schedules to where to go to score a shower. Now Flessas, who grew up in Shandon, has done the same for his hometown. On his own time, and with the help of Webmaster Stephen Hait, Flessas has compiled a resource listing for Columbia. It is a work in progress, and needs community support to be truly useful.
Flessas hopes that Columbia can learn from other cities, which have forged relationships between businesses, churches and social service groups to provide used computers and Internet access to the public.
"It is not a panacea," Flessas says. "We will still have homeless people, but they will be savvy homeless people."
Flessas does not own a car, a computer or a telephone, but has managed to do what many of us don't: to reach out to those worse off.
Maybe it's a sign of things to come. Maybe the next generation of revolutionaries will come armed with keyboards. "The techies know what needs to be done; the bureacrats are getting in the way."
Michael Flessas knows what it's like to be jobless, without a car, without the trappings of Normal Life, at the mercy of bureaucrats who too often have none.