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  • Networks and Communities

    This is Chapter 6 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    It is not surprising that in a culture widely cited for its loss of community, the word "community" itself should come in for heavy use. The more we lack something, the more we may be fascinated by fragmentary glimpses of it. A starving man will discover food where the well fed see only garbage.

    One doesn't, however, expect the starving man to pretend his meal is a catered banquet. And yet, the magical delivery of precisely such transformed goods seems to be what many expect of the electronic network. For example, the publisher of The Internet Business Journal, Michael Strangelove -- articulating the faith of a thundering host -- is sure that "the Internet represents a return to the fundamental dynamics of human existence: communication and community." /1/

    I need not remind you of the special affinity wanderers on the Net seem to have for this word "community." We hear about online communities, the Internet community, global electronic communities, virtual communities, and so on. There are senses in which this usage is perfectly reasonable: human community in some form or another will naturally take hold of whatever mechanisms we create for expression and communication -- whether car and road, telephone, computer network, or even the television talk show.

    In most cases, the physical media are not likely to become identified in our minds with the very substance of community itself. But have you noticed how easily "network" now seems almost to imply "community" -- as if a set of electronic connections automatically constituted community? The phrase "net communities" captures this well, for its meaning slides effortlessly between "a matrix of communication channels" and "communal human exchange."

    There is no doubt that physical networks will dramatically affect the forms of our communities. But if we fail to distinguish radically between such networks and the personal sources of community, then the only sure thing is that we will continue to degrade what community remains. /2/

    Technology is not community

    What is true of community holds for democracy as well, for democracy is a set of human institutions (and, for that matter, styles of community) rather than a group of technical tools. And yet, even as sensible an observer as Howard Rheingold was tempted into remarking that "if a BBS (computer Bulletin Board System) isn't a democratizing technology, there is no such thing. /3/

    The assumption that networks constitute some sort of positive realization of, or at least predisposition to, community and democracy is extraordinarily widespread. One repeatedly encounters the thought that (in the words of one Internet contributor) "the Net is fundamentally democratizing and leveling. /4/ Apparently, the fact that a Net connection may reach into each home substitutes in this thinking for any consideration of how people will actually relate to each other over their connections. The relation is somehow thought to be given by the connecting technology itself.

    Another Net voice agrees:

    While I'm not forecasting Utopia, I think networks of the future will be the most incredibly egalitarian technology ever invented. It will transform our entire societies. Imagine that homeless people or single parent children can "interconnect" with anybody who is willing to talk to them in the world. The possibilities are rather dazzling. Sure, there might be even cyberspatial outcasts, but the point is that we will be doing at least as well as we are now, which is not something to "write home" about. /5/

    What seems so obvious to this speaker as to require no defense is that giving Net connections to the socially isolated will at least tend to lead them out of their isolation in happy ways. It's a stunning leap of faith. Who constitutes the society that isolated them in the first place -- persons different from those who will make the Net whatever it becomes? Did the telephone -- bringing with it the ability to call anyone in a city of five million people -- move the city toward more intimate community, or has it merely enabled us to hunker down within our separate castles, talking, perhaps, to more and more people while cut off from community more than ever before?

    I take all this to be part of the general tendency to substitute thoughts about technology for thoughts about the actual terms of human exchange. Given this substitution, a community is no longer, in the first instance, a group of people bound together by certain mutual concerns, interests, activities, and institutions (which find expression through whatever technical and nontechnical means are at hand). Rather, a community becomes the mere "instantiation" of a network diagram that shows the available technical means for interaction.

    It's rather as if you traced on a map a set of automobile routes, and then focused upon this "community" of roads. You certainly could learn something about the people who use these roads by analyzing traffic patterns; and all roads provide, to one degree or another, a site for expressions of community. But you are hardly likely to conclude that the asphalt network itself is decisive for constituting community.

    Now, it's true that many so-called Net communities do find almost their sole expression across certain electronic links. Describe the online traffic, and you've quite neatly characterized almost everything that distinctively binds these people together. This neat characterization, however, results precisely from the extraordinarily restricted nature of the community, by any traditional standards.

    Gilded vision

    The commentator who seems most determined to read one-sided social implications into networking technologies is George Gilder. He comes very close, as we will see, to reconceiving a network's distributed intelligence as the very substance of an ennobled society.

    Gilder's head is abuzz with facts and figures about the technologies that will "come blindingly to the fore" during the next few years. His central conviction is that peer-to-peer communication will replace broadcast (radio/TV) and centrally switched (telephone) communication. "Whether offering 500 channels or thousands, television will be irrelevant in a world without channels, where you can always order exactly what you want when you want it, and where every terminal commands the communications power of a broadcast station today." /6/

    The reason for this is that "fiber optics is going to render bandwidth and hertz virtually free." We will no longer have to choose from among communication channels dictated by others. Rather, we will simply sit at our terminals and tune in to whatever we wish, anywhere in what Gilder calls "fiberspace." One thread of glass the width of a human hair, he tells us, can carry one thousand times the content of today's entire radio spectrum. So we will all have access to everything, and can speak to everywhere.

    From couch potato to mogul

    Gilder's technical vision may, for all I know, be accurate, but his prediction of the social consequences is startlingly naive. Noting the "100,000 acts of television violence" watched by the average thirteen-year-old child, and citing the "obtuse denial that such a diet could affect behavior," he goes on to indict the television industry, which
    ignores the fact that people are not inherently couch potatoes; given a chance, they talk back and interact. People have little in common with one another except their prurient interests and morbid fears and anxieties. Aiming its fare at this lowest-common denominator target, television gets worse year after year.

    And what does Gilder believe will save us from television? The fact that, instead of five hundred channels to choose from, we can choose anything -- and can talk back if we want. When intelligence and control are embedded in the devices at our fingertips, it means that "technologies are much more servants than rulers of [our] life."

    Moreover, we can be assured that "confidence in the new paradigm ... does not spring only from the desire for a better culture, and it cannot be stemmed by some new global plague of passivity and tube addiction." Why? Because "propelling the new order is the most powerful juggernaut in the history of technology: an impending millionfold rise in the cost-effectiveness of computers and their networks." Somehow this apparently means that the new, whizzy devices will also have a power of psychological and social healing.

    Gilder was asked about the "utopian" ring of his hope, since "anything complex self-organizes into nested hierarchies, just in order to manage itself" -- a patently false assumption by the interviewer, incidentally, since it doesn't apply to living organisms. But Gilder's response couldn't be more telling:

    You need nested hierarchies, but the real miracle of microelectronics is that these extraordinarily complex hierarchies can be incorporated into individual silicon chips, with virtual supercomputer capabilities .... So hierarchies do indeed exist, but they are ubiquitously distributed, which renders them an egalitarian force. When everybody commands a supercomputer, you give the average owner of a work station the power that an industrial tycoon commanded in the industrial era, or that a TV station owner commands in the age of broadcasting. In other words, the hierarchy is in the silicon rather than in the human organization. So you have this incredible distribution of power. [Emphasis added.]

    So where the industrial tycoons and TV station owners blew it, unaccountably tempted by crass gain, the rest of us -- once we can grab power for ourselves -- will save the day. If we have intelligent and discriminating devices at our fingertips, we will use them intelligently and discriminatingly. If we can address anything we wish to anyone we wish, we will speak with a previously unwonted maturity. We're no longer going to let those TV moguls keep us down and reveling in smut.

    Gilder cites the Internet, with its distributed intelligence, as "an exciting kind of metaphor for spontaneous order." Dumb the Net down by eliminating the central, controlling intelligence, distribute that intelligence to the periphery where it is under control of a hundred million users, and wondrous patterns of human beauty will take shape within the flexible, receptive, glass palace of fiberspace.

    Yes, order arises from complexity, but it arises through complex laws, not magic. And in all social affairs the nature of the order depends upon the nature of the human being. We have discovered that we could not create a healthy order in televisionland when the task was as simple as clicking a button to register our preference for decent programming. Will we now find it easier to impose healthy order upon the Internet by redirecting our proclivities toward a vastly more diffuse and challenging task?

    We already have in the corporation (including the entertainment corporations Gilder chastises) an example of emergent, humanlike behavior arising from myriad, complex, unanalyzable interactions. Is that behavior somehow more automatically responsible than the individual entrepreneur's? Will it become so as soon as every employee has an intelligent terminal? /7/ Did the old-fashioned neighborhood gossip network, with its extensive, peer-to-peer connectivity, automatically generate reliable news?

    Wake up and smell the waste products

    It is precisely because a complex order of one sort or another will emerge from the new technologies that we must be cautious. The order is not given in advance, and is not inherent in the technology itself, which only defines a range of possibilities. The form we give to those possibilities will reflect ourselves. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the order is substantially biased in advance, because the forms of the basic technology already reflect what we have become -- and it happens that what we have become can be read in our existing, television-centered culture.

    Any thinking person has to ask: If the computer is about to merge with the television screen, is it because our society feels compelled to redeem television, or is it rather because the cultural forces behind television -- the most irresistible communication medium in history -- are extending their reach in dramatic, new ways.

    Fiberspace is a glass mirror. The only question is whether we will struggle through to what is highest in us, or instead give way to those same, subterranean, overmastering currents that seemed always to have the last say when we clicked the remote control. The latter path is as easy as remaining passive -- as easy, that is, as believing the Net is only a force for good and will therefore "take care of itself."

    It is not a matter of bewailing everyone's bad taste and trying to protect people from themselves. It's a matter of realism about the challenges ahead of us. Gilder -- mesmerized, I suspect, by glamorous formulations of chaos and complexity theory; by the naive promises of artificial intelligence; by dreams of a new, bioengineered Genesis; and by the undeniable appeal of other enticing motifs in a grand myth of automatic, evolution-driven (and now also technology-driven) Progress -- fails to reckon with this truth: the more complex and indirect the mechanisms through which human actions come to expression, the more you and I must be masters of ourselves. Putting it the other way around: the more degrees of freedom we have in expressing ourselves -- in projecting ourselves every which way into our environment -- the easier it is for the emergent social pattern to be taken over by unruly collective, or subconscious, powers -- easier, that is, unless each of us manages to be uncommonly awake.

    Far from being able to relax about what emerges from complexity, we are being asked today to take conscious responsibility in one domain after another that our ancestors could not even have named, let alone have thought about. From the environment to the rule of law among nations, from genetic engineering to virtual realities, from failing social structures to failing value systems, the message is unambiguous: "You can no longer remain unconscious where you slept before; one way or the other, you are creating your future. Wake up before you find that the devils within you have done the creating."

    Characteristically, Gilder dismisses some of these latter-day concerns with remarkable optimism: "It's utter garbage to say that our grandchildren won't live as well as we do. People who say this just don't see the technology. They live in this bizarre world of thermodynamics, where entropy rules, and we're dominated by our waste products. It is very short-sighted."

    Gilder is right, to the extent that our waste products are not the first concern. The first concern is the state of mind that allowed us to treat Nature as a toxic waste disposal site, and then to view ourselves as having exhibited nothing more than a technical defect. That the polluting stance itself may entail great suffering for both mankind and the earth; that the inner ugliness and loss of meaning from which this stance arises may lead to crises quite apart from the externally poisonous ones -- such possibilities apparently do not occur to Gilder.

    Making contact

    It is a useful exercise to look at how intelligence has been impressed upon the machinery of communication, and then to ask yourself what social functions this automated intelligence is filling in for. There is, for example, the extremely subtle intelligence of the many layers of digital switching hardware and software upon which the Net is built. One consequence of this is captured in a well-known observation: "The Net treats censorship like a malfunction, and routes around it." That is, issues of propriety, formerly decided by competing values and opinions within a community, are now turned over to an automatic mechanism.

    Looking more directly at the switching machinery itself, we can say that it enables each of us, in the most remarkably efficient manner, to make contact with individuals and groups around the world. But what does making contact really mean?

    It all depends. As an intermediate case, the telephone can help us see the range of possibilities. Telephones, too, are based on impressive switching technology, and they allow me to call almost anyone I wish. But telephoning retains at least some of the human significance of making contact -- as expressed, for example, in that "loaded" initial moment when I must declare myself to someone I have called out of the blue. Such a moment tends to mobilize the character -- the presence -- of the two personalities involved, whether they happen to be rude or considerate, shy or daring, clever or dull. Even so, the telephone conversants will likely remain far less fully engaged than they would in a face-to-face meeting.

    With the Net's intelligence, however, I can direct my message to a single stranger, or to a thousand at once, with scarcely so much as an interruption of my reveries. It is not that the Net forces such detachment; it doesn't. But the Net is more than willing to assume the whole burden of making contact, if I am willing to leave it at that. I am free to skip the loaded moment altogether. One mailbox gets in touch with another. To make anything more of the movement toward contact -- to bring more of myself to it -- I must consciously exert myself where, in face-to-face encounter, the effort occurred more naturally and could be more fully expressed.

    Nothing requires this effort of me. In fact, I can't help feeling a bit uneasy in talking about the sort of inner work one might do when preparing to fire off an email message to someone else. It seems slightly affected. /8/ What, after all, is such work? But if the answer has become hazy for me, it is because the immediate realities of personal exchange have become hazy. I have been losing sight of the various aspects of myself called up by the human being before me -- the insecurity and invitation to rashness when I must think and respond "on my feet" (very different in quality from the rashness of Net flaming); the need to be receptive to every unexpected signal from the other, and to recognize something of myself reflected in it; my immediate like or dislike of traits extraneous or relevant; the obscure promptings of will from hidden places within me, perhaps too sudden to disguise; the various defenses of an ego that must present itself on all fronts rather than through words that have wholly detached themselves from me; and, above all, the underlying moral and esthetic coloring of each moment, the respect or disregard for the delicate conditions in which words of wisdom may thrive, the extraordinary challenge in honoring the other person's autonomy and potential.

    The list could go on. But it all does seem a little pretentious as I type the words here onto my screen, and that is what worries me. When someone stands in front of me, the issues are much more immediate -- I do not need to "recall" them from quite the same distance, or with quite the same affectation.

    Shielding ourselves from intrusion

    The alternative, of course, is simply to put such issues out of mind. To all appearances, Gilder does this when he attempts to soothe the prevailing fears about invasion of privacy. He tells us that "what is really an invasion of privacy is a telemarketer who gets you out of bed or the shower. They don't have any idea who you are, no notion of what you want." Those who possess a thorough database of information about you, on the other hand, can "call you and try to solve your problem. That is much less of an invasion than [is] an intrusion by a company that doesn't know anything about you."

    The idea is that we should be glad when companies have more complete information about us, because then they can serve our needs better. Gilder will doubtless have a harder time selling this view than he will some of his others. More important, however, than his conclusion are the premises underlying it:

    So a lot of the so-called invasion of privacy will be a positive experience for most people. Computer communications can be sorted through, and you can keep what you want and kill what you don't. Increasingly, as your communication is channeled through computers, you will increase your control over it. It's the dumb terminal, the phone, which is the model of the violation. It violates your time and attention because it's dumb. If you have a really smart terminal that can sort through the communications and identify them, you can reject anything you don't want. /9/

    The truth in this, setting aside the larger contention about privacy, is in the difference between the phone and the Net's intelligent terminals. If the Net saves us from unwanted intrusions, it is because it easily saves us from the other person altogether. Making contact becomes a matter of software "that can sort through the communications." What Gilder calls our "control" over these communications is -- as in all efforts to control others -- a matter of shielding ourselves from people.

    On the Net, the kind of control Gilder welcomes is unavoidable, lest we be drowned. We have no choice. I said above that the Net doesn't actually force our detachment. That wasn't quite true, for in a way it does. The more we form society around the Net, the greater the percentage of our daily business we cannot help transacting without making personal contact. How much of the personal is there in a credit-card transaction? We don't really have to do with the people we have to do with. They are largely extraneous to the main transaction, and carry out a mechanical function. Or, rather, the main transaction has itself become a mechanical function.

    This, then, is what I am saying must be countered by a new, conscious, and inner striving. For my part, I hardly know how to begin. And yet, the movement to dissolve society and reconstitute it on the Net moves forward at a ferocious pace. My pessimism becomes most acute when, as in Gilder's case, the problem -- let alone its extremity -- is not even acknowledged.

    A fragmentation of community ?

    There seems to be a great difficulty in holding onto the truth -- as obvious as it is -- that ease and flexibility of switching do not constitute ease and depth in making human contact. Certainly the connectivity makes communication "easier," but it achieves this precisely by rendering contact more incidental, more shallow.

    I suspect that every major technical advance in communication since the invention of writing has marked the path away from community rather than toward it. /10/ Community is, in the first instance, something to be salvaged from information technology, not furthered by it. There is surely a case to be made (and many have made it) that the telephone, automobile, radio, and television have all contributed to social fragmentation, personal isolation, and alienation from both self and other.

    In any event, one of the Net's attractions is avowedly its natural susceptibility to being shivered into innumerable, separate, relatively homogenous groups. The fact that you can find a forum for virtually any topic you might be interested in, however obscure, implies fragmentation as its reverse side. There may be advantages to this "principle of infinite cleaving," but the cultivation of community is not one of them.

    To establish community in any deep sense is much more a matter of coming to terms with differences than merely matching up similarities. But it is not clear that the Net encourages our coming to terms with each other in this sense at all. If that were the real possibility opened up by the Net, we would hardly be excited about it, since most of us already have vastly more opportunities to interact with the people on our block, in the office, at church, and in our volunteer associations than we could take advantage of in a hundred years. Exactly what is the new thing we're celebrating?

    Powers of heart and soul

    Historically there have been any number of village societies in which the physical means of communication were evenly distributed in the form of a common airspace. Each person was physically enabled to communicate with all the others. I am aware of no evidence that this equality of access predisposed such villages any more to democratic forms of community than to other forms.

    The fact is that the qualities of community -- whatever its form -- are, in essence, soul qualities. They can only be expressions of our own inner life. The view that a technology can be "democratizing and leveling" testifies to a radical alienation from everything that constitutes both the inner life and culture.

    It is highly disturbing to hear technology debated as if the forms we need for building community were somehow inherent in the technology itself. When we take such a stance, we confirm that we have lost sight of our own creative responsibility for the substance of community. In that case, the technology truly will become the remaining substance of community -- for we will have given up everything in the human being that cannot be embedded within the machine.

    All this, I hope, will make clear why I find the following statement so unsettling. It is a clause taken from the opening line of a proposed "Charter of Communication Interdependence of the global nongovernmental movements for peace, human rights, and environmental preservation," and it refers to the creation of various electronic networks, such as the PeaceNet.

    WHEN IN THE COURSE OF HUMAN EVENTS it becomes possible to dissolve the communication frontiers that have divided peoples one from another.... /11/

    What hope is there for peace and human rights when I conceive the barriers separating me from my fellows to be mere obstructions on a network technology diagram rather than the powers of darkness shadowing my own heart?


    1. Net announcement posted by Strangelove Press (mstrange@fonorola.net) on November 18, 1993.

    2. For purposes of discussion, I will take "community" in the broadest possible sense as "the meaning we find through our life together."

    3. Rheingold, 1993: 131.

    4. From a contribution to the "irvc-l" list (irvc-l@byrd.mu.wvnet.edu), 19 October 1993.

    5. From a contribution to the "irvc-l" list (irvc-l@byrd.mu.wvnet.edu), 9 October 1993.

    6. Quotations in this section are from Gilder, 1993a, and Gilder, 1993b.

    7. For discussion of this issue, see chapter 8, "Things That Run by Themselves."

    8. I discuss some related issues in PART THREE. See, in particular, chapter 18, "And the Word Became Mechanical."

    9. Gilder, 1994: 47.

    10. This has to do with the relation between accuracy of communication and fullness of meaning, discussed in chapter 23, "Can We Transcend Computation?" Technical improvements, almost by definition, facilitate accuracy rather than the expression of meaning.

    11. Frederick, 1992.

    Steve Talbott :: The Future Does Not Compute, Chapter 6

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