It is a delusion to think that digital technologies will solve complex, deeply rooted social and economic problems -- a mindset exemplified by the House Speaker's famous suggestion of providing a laptop for every inner-city child. Andrew Blau of the Benton Foundation has astutely noted that telecommunications policy is often seized upon as a surrogate for failures in economic and education policymaking: Let technology sweep away the tangled complications of history with a grand sweep of new solutions! is the general drift of such thinking.
If such Tofflerian visions are fatuous, it is equally inescapable that the new telecom world -- in essence, our society's new central nervous system -- will profoundly shape how our democratic culture evolves. "Community" is often invoked in discussing the new online world, and its relevance is unquestionable. Yet "community" is often used in facile, uncritical ways that obscure and confuse rather than clarify the challenges we face. We need to develop a more meaningful taxonomy of "community" so that we can support behaviors, experiences and values that are truly valuable in this era of "bowling alone."
One concept that I have found extremely useful in this regard is the idea of the gift economy, a theory that stands in contradistinction to free market theory. The gift economy is a branch of sociological inquiry that illuminates the ritualized moral connections (through gift-giving) that bind a group of people together. The Internet is a colossal example: People make available all sorts of useful information for free, in defiance of orthodox economic "rules" that claim such voluntary behavior can occur only with financial incentives. In fact, the Internet is so robust precisely because people are giving of themselves without demanding a specific contractual payback. This is the very essence of community and civility. People are willing to give of themselves without economic payback because they trust that they will share in the "free wealth" that the community freely passes among itself -- much as an academic community (before the sanctioning of entrepreneurialism) freely shares among itself and disdains those who financially profit from the community's shared knowledge.
Online relationships are not necessarily communitarian, however; they often are secondary relationships that allow a person to join or opt out at will, and not primary relationships that engage our deepest personal commitments. With some justification, critics such as Vartan Gregorian lament: "What is being created [in cyberspace] is less like a village than an entity that reproduces the worst aspects of urban life: the ability to retreat into small communities of the like-minded, where we are safe not only from unnecessary interactions with those whose ideas and attitudes are not like our own, but also from having to relate our interests and results to other communities." ["A Place Elsewhere: Reading in the Age of the Computer," Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, January 1996].
At the same time, there are many real, powerful forms of community that subsist online. This can be vividly seen on SeniorNet, an online community of senior citizens, and in the virtual community that was aghast at a "virtual rape" in its cyber-domain; no one was physically harmed but the interpersonal shock to the individuals and community was real. The new book by Douglas Schuler, New Community Networks: Wired for Change (Addison-Wesley), suggests how richly satisfying and useful community networks can be. For now, it is enough to say that the nature of community in the emerging American culture needs a sharper, more intelligent focus. The interpersonal relations developed online should neither be trivialized nor hyped. But they should be understood as consequential to our national life, our local communities and our daily personal experiences. (A provocative analysis of one online community, the WELL, can be found in "Voices from the Well: The Logic of the Virtual Commons," by UCLA sociologist Marc A. Smith. The text can be found at http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/csoc/papers/voices/Voices.htm.)
The stakes may be higher than we casually suppose. In a culture showing increasing signs of anxiety, anomie and the breakdown of civil connection, we need to find new ways to nurture deeper, more humane values, democratic participation and genuine bonds of community. As the U.S. population grows to a phenomenal size, with a far more diverse population clamoring for economic opportunity and political empowerment, the very basis of the American experiment will be put to the test.
Digital technologies may hasten a reckoning. According to the Wall Street Journal "Outlook" column (4/15/96): "High technology, rather than international trade, is turning out to be the force that is driving a deepening wedge between the pay of skilled and unskilled workers," prompting many downwardly mobile Americans to question the ultimate benefits of innovation and to look for scapegoats. The recent wave of telecommunications mergers followed by mass layoffs suggests the huge dimensions of the problem. And this may only be the beginning if, as Richard Sclove suggests, the new technologies displace local businesses (travel agents, stockbrokers, etc.) with large national businesses offering discount prices. What happens if such national and global businesses "hollow out" community economies -- what Sclove calls the "cybernetic Wal-Mart effect"?
Can our culture endure the kinds of market- and technology-driven transformations that are seemingly under way? Can Americans remain sufficiently committed to democratic constitutionalism if the social and economic bases of our society change so radically, and perhaps negatively? This may sound apocalyptic, but the alarming rise of the religious right, the militia, an economically fearful work force, and social and voter alienation on a mass scale, suggests that the culture upon which our political life is based may be more fragile and volatile than we dare imagine. It behooves us to be as alert and intelligent about the emerging paradigms as we can, if only to help us give our most cherished values a new and sounder footing. I find odd reassurance from Alfred North Whitehead:
It is the first step in sociological wisdom to recognize that the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur -- like unto an arrow in the hand of a child. The art of free society consists first in the maintenance of the symbolic code; and secondly in the fearlessness of revision, to ensure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlightened reason. Those societies which cannot combine reverence for their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.
Can we combine the reverence we have for American democratic and social values with a fearlessness of revision in adapting them to the new circumstances that are all but upon us? These issues deserve a more searching examination than they have received from most quarters, if only because so much of our culture is rapidly migrating to the online world. Robert Putnam accuses television of displacing the idle social time that we previously spent with each other. What if this time is soon sopped up by online media instead? If the online realm does not allow for building genuine communities -- i.e., personally satisfying interconnections and communication beyond those afforded by the unfettered marketplace -- then I fear our society will face some serious convulsions.
Yet there are reasons to be hopeful. Never before have we had a communications medium of such vast democratic potential. Chaordic systems, as suggested above, tend to challenge concentrations of power that are unresponsive. Proponents of citizenship have never enjoyed such a home court advantage! But will the democratic propensities of distributed electronic networks be neutered in significant ways by commercial interests? Conversely, will the nonprofit world be resourceful, farsighted and clever enough to use the technologies and public policy to reinvent democratic culture? I consider these the central questions.
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