I was reading an article by Phil Agre today, and was struck by a thought that I wanted to develop a little bit more. So I’m writing about it. One of the things I like about Agre’s work is that he is not a technological determinist; he believes that the use of technology is dependent on the community in which it is embedded. If the culture does not have a place for the technology, it will not get used, no matter how many whiz-bang features it has. He made a comment in this particular paper that, referring to organizations such as the Christian Coalition, “Their hopes for community are resolutely geographical, and they are indifferent to attempts to recover a nostalgic sense of community online.”
The idea of community being resolutely geographical is understandable from a conservative (in the sense of those who want things to stay the same) viewpoint. As little as fifty years ago, if you grew up in a town, chances were that you would return there, work there, and raise your own family there. The community had a continuity which extended across generations. And that’s a comforting feeling of belonging. However, such a community serves its misfits poorly. If somebody didn’t mesh with the community for whatever reason, they were doomed to a lifetime of ostracism, except for the few who were able to run away or find other options.
The issue has personal relevance to me, since I grew up in a town where I never quite fit in. I always wondered why I was so weird (a question, mind you, that still hasn’t been answered). Fortunately, I went off to Boston for college and met a group of wacky folks with whom I fit in immediately, and realized I had just been in the wrong place before. And the internet has let me stay in touch with those folks over the past 14 years, even though we’re now spread all across the country. They are my hometown community in a way that the place where I grew up could never have been. Heck, it has the advantage that I can drive all the way across the country without having to stay in a hotel.
This opens up the discussion of what truly makes a community a community. Is it merely those that I happen to live near? Is it those who I share something in common with? Of course, before the rise of cheap communication over the last twenty years or so, this distinction was irrelevant. The idea of being able to form a community with people who were not geographically co-located with you was laughable. But with email and cheap long distance and even cheap airfares, the idea is no longer ridiculous. In fact, we see it every day with chat rooms, email lists, journal clubs and the like. People meet each other over the internet, and only later meet in person.
But even while these technologies make it easier to support a geographically distributed community, people are redistributing themselves to co-locate their ideological community with their geographic community. These technologies make it easier than ever to find where “people like you” are, as well as providing connections that can be drawn upon to make it easier to move there. So people move to where they feel comfortable.
A few years ago, I went to my ten year high school reunion. I hadn’t seen anybody from my high school for about nine of those years, since I spent all of my summers at MIT, and later Stanford. It was great to see everybody again, and find out how they’d changed over that time. I was surprised to find out that almost everybody had stayed in or returned to Illinois. Most of them still lived in the Chicagoland area. Some had made it as far as Iowa or Pittsburgh. They felt more comfortable in such places with “Midwestern” values. It was almost alien to me, as somebody who had left there as soon as I could, and never even considered moving back. Different cultures, different places.
We can choose which communities we want to be part of with greater freedom than ever before. With the Internet and cable and all sorts of radio stations, we can find people who share our opinions. It’s becoming more acceptable to first find a place that suits you, and then find a job, as discussed in The Rise of the Creative Class, so we are clumping into physical locations of like-minded people. It all ties together. In my rant about political extremism, I commented on the dangers of seeing only your side of the story. But it is now possible to surround yourself with like-minded people to an unprecedented extent with your choice of home and your choice of media to consume. In fact, it’s preferable, because nobody likes being different or an outcast. So us left coast liberals shake our heads and wonder how anybody could possibly vote for a moron like Bush, while folks in the Midwest wonder why those liberals don’t see the threat to our national security.
Hrm. How’d I end up ranting about politics again? Anyway. I just thought it was interesting that new technologies and cultural changes have created a nation which is slowly splitting itself apart into communities of choice. The communities you choose to be part of define who you are. And with us each having a choice of a greater number of communities than ever before, the possibilities of who you can be are endless. Now if we could only figure out how to keep communicating with those outside of our circle. But that’s a topic for another rant…