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Critiquing Online Communities

The Wired Neighborhood

Ever since science fiction writer William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace,” computer users have struggled with the notion of what exactly that “space” means. For example, as I sit at a keyboard in Idaho preparing to send my review into this “cyberspace,” I can visualize what states it might cross, but I know that it will not travel through pathways mimicking interstate highways or continental air routes. The e-mailed manuscript seems to inhabit such a non-specific, disembodied, and abstract space that I think of Gertrude Stein’s description of Oakland, Calif.-“there is no there there.”

That troubling uncertainty about the meaning of cyberspace inspired Stephen Doheny-Farina, professor of technical communications at Clarkson University, to write a curious book. The author’s thesis, plain and simple, is that global computer networks are enhancing our isolation from one another, and that the growth of virtual communities is leading us away from the kind of neighborhood activism needed to restore decaying infrastructures in our real-life communities. He proposes trying to counter this tendency through net-bound neighborhood action forums. Defining himself in his preface as neither a “techno-utopian” nor a “neo-Luddite,” he pledges to chart a middle way through computer network communications.

It seems like a promising stance. After all, many authors highly critical of the social consequences of communications technologies appear to suffer from ideological baggage. For example, consider James Brook and Ian A. Boal, editors of Resisting the Virtual Life, who see new technologies in light of their ability to maintain social injustices within capitalism. Other writers are prey to sloppy overgeneralizations, like Clifford Stoll, whose Silicon Snake Oil defines electronic communication as “illusionary contact.” As for boosters of the new technologies, they are guilty of their own styles of too-loose or too-rigid thinking. Futurist George Gilder thinks computer technology will mystically contribute to the overthrow of matter, while cyber-philosopher and scientist Nicholas Negroponte would divide the world’s population into those “wired” and those not as blessed.

But the difficulty is that while Doheny-Farina claims to neither valorize nor demonize technology, he very much personifies and scapegoats it. He writes of “powerful cultural trends” that are “seducing” us into “technological immersion.” The “seduction” motif occurs throughout this book, as do other romantically charged terms. In his opening chapter he tells us that once we begin to “divorce ourselves” from “geographical place,” we “further the dissolution of our physical communities.”

In fact, the basic assumption that on-line communication means cutting ourselves off from our neighborhoods is itself worth noting. Proof? The author offers none. Instead, he constantly reasserts his monolithic opinion that the net “does not make the home into the center of our public and private lives but eliminates the center,” and that as a result “all centers-work centers, school centers, and living centers-become less and less relevant.” It is as if the act of turning on one’s PC cancels out the freedom to explore all places other than those glowingly and symbolically present on the monitor. Indeed, for a writer who proposes on-line community activism as the chief worthy use of communications technologies, Doheny-Farina has a curiously passive view of human nature. People are depicted as helplessly drowning in waves of technological invention.

Building Up Expectations

Perhaps the most serious problem with The Wired Neighborhood lies in its failure to develop a clear and comprehensive way of talking about the qualities of computer-mediated communication and how they affect us. But this failure deserves to be shared with the scientific and business communities that reap the financial rewards of selling processes and products shrouded in mystification. The on-line industry does build up user expectations, no doubt quite unrealistically. A physician friend once told me he quickly tossed out one company’s startup disc, which was packaged in an envelope enjoining him to “go on-line and change your life now!” “I don’t have time to change my life now,” he ruefully noted. Yet how many others would find such a repeated invitation tantalizing? Since his writing so closely resembles that of a disappointed lover, I suspect Doheney-Farina once was drawn in by such a utopian prospect.

We need to step back and take a look at the language we use to describe our experience with cyberspace. What does it mean to be “wired,” to live in a “virtual” community, to be “net savvy”? “Science and technology multiply around us,” writes science fiction author J.G. Ballard. “To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.” That quote, marginalized in a field of neon-yellow ink in a recent issue of Wired, typifies the sort of statement that cries out for critical examination. Who says that we must use scientifically and technologically approved languages or become speechless? Why can’t PC users invent their own languages, or subvert the existing ones?

The truth is that this might be happening already. Wired magazine regularly publishes a glossary of emerging computer jargon, for example. Doheny-Farina also would have done well to investigate some of the recent research into the differences between face-to-face and on-line communication, like the work of social psychologists Sara Kiesler, James Siegel, and Timothy W. McGuire. Their tentative conclusions suggest that while wired communication encourages less self-regulation and more impulsive behavior than face-to-face interaction, it does lead people to try out a multitude of novel problem-solving perspectives, which could contribute to a sense of connection among users. Such insights might have helped the author think about net communication from a less strictly place-centered perspective.

They might have brought him down to earth a bit as well. Are we poor humans now so incapable of distinguishing symbolic from flesh-and-blood, face-to-face social exchanges that we require academic authorities to remind us of the uniqueness and value of real-world intimacy? I think not. As I write this review, my dog rubs up against my ankle. She needs a walk, and the “virtual” neighborhood isn’t where we will do that. The computer monitor is adjacent to my study window. I see my neighbors walking their own pets, or getting ready for the commute into work. The 15-inch monitor doesn’t block my view of the neighborhood-it supplements it. However immersed I become in what I see on my monitor, the window and dog locate me in a non-virtual world.

More significantly, really knowing one’s neighbors-whether literal neighbors or on-line neighbors-is arduous work. A better book would have developed a conceptual framework within which both face-to-face and computer-mediated relationship building could be critically explored. Such a book would have been broadly interdisciplinary, drawing upon various arts and sciences that concern themselves with communication. What can dramatic literature teach us about how various styles of self-expression convey rootedness or alienation? What can theology teach us about ways of communicating with invisible beings? How can social psychology, following the lead of Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire, develop a framework for understanding the differences between wired and unplugged communication? There may be “no there there” in cyberspace, but many on-line communicators do report a sense of emotional and intellectual bonding. Whether that will translate into the hard work of strengthening our actual neighborhoods … who can tell? I do know that it is time to turn this computer monitor off, walk the dog, and greet the neighbor who I just glimpsed through my window.

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