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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 w