Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Communities and Networks

I wonder if the word "community" has become abused.

I am no etymologist, but I believe the original notion of the word refers both to a place and to the people who live in that place. My hometown of Phoenixville and those who live there constitute a community.

People in a community have in common that which pertains to their place, including a particular history and particular ways of life foisted upon them by their shared circumstance. Beyond that commonality, people in a community differ in many ways, but in the traditional sense they are more or less stuck with each other, and they must learn to get along. Healthy community life is a story of unity and diversity, running in both directions.

I fear this concept is more or less antiquated. One reason is that people are not tied as much to one place as they used to be. To give a simple example, my father was born in and died in Phoenixville Hospital. Rest assured, I will not be caught dead in my birthplace of Silver Spring, MD.

Along with this increased mobility, in many places there is no there to begin with, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein. In large swaths of the country (including Silver Spring, MD) people are to get where they are going quickly in hermetically sealed containers, with destinations more or less indistinguishable from one another. People in such places are not forced into life with one another, and there are few distinguishing features around which they could build a distinct local identity anyway.

That it is very difficult in the midst of such social forces to keep from becoming alienated from one another and from nature, few will dispute. Indeed, a proliferation of technologies have stepped into the void. Such technologies promise to help us stay connected to those whom we love but who are far off, as well as to forge new and enriching connections.

Whatever the worth of these substitutes, it is important to main the distinction between them and this same idea of a community. They are not communities but networks; not agglomerations of disparate people in a particular place, but organizations of unified people in no particular place. To confuse them as such is to overlook fundamental truths about how human beings are meant to live.

Networks are suitable for organizing people for collective action, for communication about the mission of the group, and to some extent for the exchange of ideas. But they fail utterly at providing meaningful human connection. To take the most basic human relationship, friendship cannot be sustained across a mere network. Through a network it may be kept in stasis for a time, but if a connection is meaningful it will always converge toward life shared in person.

I doubt that these points about networks are very controversial, and yet as the exponentially advancing tide of technological growth drives us into ever more atomized existence, I do not see many making the hard life choices that could make for healthy life in a community. To be honest, I am not even sure how people could do so, short of dropping off of the grid and moving into an agricultural commune. I am by no means exempt from this criticism. I spend in excess of forty hours per week in front of a computer with people with whom I have no stake outside of the workplace, and I spend scarecly four hours per week collectively with those with whom I ostensibly have the closest connections.

Networks are not bad things. In general, I would say they are very good. But they are not communities, nor can they substitute for them. If we intend to preserve a civilization in which people can have meaningful life together, we will have to work very hard, and I suspect we will not receive much help from technology or from the voices of the world.