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.


Jonathan said...

So as I understand it, your basic argument is as follows (please forgive me if I've misstated anything!):

1. Human beings traditionally lived in communities defined by physical location (place).

2. Modern technology has greatly weakened this concept (mobility, ability to insulate from surroundings, communication technology).

3. These technologies are not bad, but the consequent breakdown of physical place threatens traditional modes of life.

4. These traditional modes are "how humans were meant to live", and are meddled with at our own peril.

5. One tangible consequence is the weakening of true relationship, especially with those different from ourselves.

I think that our disagreement lies in #4. My baseline view of change is fairly neutral or even positive. This is for two reasons:

1. I don't consider "the way things were" as "the way things were meant to be."

2. I think that most change is the result of individuals making decisions for themselves, and "voting with their feet" about how they prefer to live.

I think that this is the fundamental difference in our views. I think that it has roots in epistemology, teleology, and theology.

You have definitely provided me with food for thought. Let's continue this conversation!

Ben said...

I like your "caught dead" double entendre. nice.

I guess I would concur with Jon's two reasons for disagreement, but I don't entirely disagree. Old models of community were frequently idyllic for insiders and horrific for outsiders. When community is defined by a particular group of people in a particular place, as it historically has been, the insular bubbles of community that develop are a far cry from the global unity that we are called to pursue. (You are right that healthy community life is a story of unity and diversity, but I doubt that diversity has been meaningfully practised very often.)That said, such a community enables very close relationships with its ranks. I don't fear the loss of community per se, but I do fear the loss of those relationships.

Technological tools now allow us to build closer relationships at any given distance. They can be used to strengthen local relationships or enable more distant relationships that could not otherwise exist. Some individuals choose to use that technology to span enormous distances rather than small ones. That's not necessarily bad, as long as it doesn't come at the cost of other relationships. I view it as similar to the introduction of seatbelts. People can use them for some combination of faster driving and safer driving. Certainly safer driving is a comfortable and unambiguous good, but there are a lot of benefits to speed as well.

Where I agree with you entirely, Nick, is that this technology brings a tremendous risk of atomization. On an individual level, a lack of close association with others in a place risks closing them off from any close association. On a collective level, the modern redefinition of community in accordance with interest and attributes instead of place risks simply splitting society into different broad networks that don't interact, as opposed to the former model of local communities that don't interact. It cuts on a different pattern, but it cuts nonetheless.