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Howard Rheingold - Networking the Community

Howard Rheingold - Networking the Community :: e- interviewed by Eric Kluitenberg for Scan Magazine “Community Networking,” 1993 (via nettime):

In 1993 Howard Rheingold wrote a remarkable book called The Virtual Community. In this book he gives what might best be called a personal account of the expanding culture of people communicating via computer networks. I asked him some questions about the relationship between virtual and traditional communities, most appropriately, via e-mail.

Howard Rheingold has been publishing books and articles on computer culture for many years. He is the multimedia columnist for Publish magazine and editor of Whole Earth Review. He has also been a consultant to the US office of Technology Assessment, and recently he took charge of Planet Wired a network project that will document the digital revolution with local examples, made accessible via the Net to a world-wide audience.

More than merely informative, his book The Virtual Community is above all a highly personal account of the way in which people are using computer networks as communication devices, or rather how they are engaging in Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), the term Rheingold prefers. Rheingold maintains that Computer Mediated Communication creates a new sense of community; people from around the world are linked together in public discussions, people who exchange ideas and messages, share interests and work together, outside of the constraints of geographical space and across social barriers.

In his book he provides us with a somewhat formal definition of virtual communities, which he describes as “social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace”. Rheingold has himself been actively involved in one of the early network communities in the US, The Well, based in San Francisco.

Using networking technologies within the context of traditional geographic communities produces Community Networks. I began by asking Rheingold to explain his understanding of this phenomenon.

Rheingold: “People who use computer networking, conferencing and e-mail as tools to help revitalize traditional geographic communities, are engaged in community networking. The use of computer mediated communication is a tool for the larger end of bringing together citizens, government, business, and local cultural institutions for the offline goal of building a stronger community. I have visited people who are starting up such communities in Eugene, Oregon, Boulder and Fort Collins Colorado, Oita, Japan, and they seem to have the common characteristic of optimism in the future of community, and the importance of using the best tools available.

There are hundreds of such efforts. The mailing list Communet is a very active forum for people all around the world to discuss such efforts.”

EK: The emergence and popularity of community networks may without doubt be considered a striking phenomenon. To what extent would you consider it a reflection of the break-down of traditional social structures ?

Rheingold: “We used to have places to gather informally — the town square, the cafe, the beer garden — and the time to make the kind of ’small talk’ that leads to community. Modern life, suburbs, skyscrapers, malls, fast-food outlets, long commutes on trains and in automobiles, are changing that. As we lost those places and that time in America, a hunger for community developed, and that hunger is one of the reasons virtual communities are so popular.”

EK: Could this popularity of virtual communities in the US also be regarded as a reflection of the increasing problems in the US society at large, especially in the larger urban areas?

“I agree. ‘Reflection’ is a good word. Elevators made it possible for 50.000 people to work in the Empire State Building on a single day. How is community possible in concrete hives ? Automobiles made possible a rootless society where the town hall is a skyscraper, the malt shop is a mall, and the town square is a fast food joint. It isn’t just America, of course. Kyoto and Cambridge are suffering from the same effects of multiple technologies that have taken decades to interact. Yes, there is a hunger for community that might have been better served by earlier institutions that have changed, died, transformed over the past decades; perhaps America is the alembic where the combination of population and technology gives rise to new social forms, but I know from my own observations that people in Japan and the UK have formed virtual communities similar to the ones I have observed in the US.”

EK: At the second Doors of Perception conference John Perry Barlow argued strongly against the assumption that the interest in networking technology reflects the growing tension and insecurity in the US society at large. According to him the American society has not become more insecure in the last few years, crime rates are actually dropping rather than rising. However, it appears that as the social system in the US is grossly insufficient many social problems move out onto the street. Especially the closure of public institutions for the mentally ill and ethnic violence appear to be contributing to the felt insecurity about the public space.

Rheingold: “Felt insecurity about the public space is a good phrase. Barlow might be right, that there is actually less violence than is popularly believed. But if popular beliefs are the battlegrounds for peoples minds, then indeed the feeling of insecurity is all that is necessary to render public space less useful. There are many forces, not the least of which is the ‘commodification of the public sphere’ by broadcast television, that have led to this feeling among many people. NOT among all people. There are still healthy and viable communities all over America, just as you can find huge festering patches of social rot. Talking in generalities about what is happening in America always skirts the danger of platitude, because this is a place in particular where many different things are happening at once.

There are many many communities. Virtual communities are indeed intriguing, very intriguing, of harbingers of what might be coming, but they aren’t the only exiting communitarian movements happening in America or elsewhere.

EK: Do virtual communities offer a viable alternative to the traditional public space ?

Rheingold: “I believe they can help revitalize public space, make it more easily accessible, less easily manipulable, but that is not all the same thing as being an alternative in the sense of pretending to replace public space of the three-dimensional kind.”

EK: You have written quite extensively in The Virtual Community about how networking technology might help to reduce the gap between citizens and government (exemplified with The White House going on-line under the Clinton Administration), enabling both to enter into a more extensive discussion about policy issues. Could this also work in a more local context, for instance at the level of individual municipalities ?

Rheingold: “Recently I’ve been meeting the people who are making the Freenets and other community networks possible. There must be several hundred different experiments underway. Ask me again in two years and we’ll see what progress these experiments have made. The very fact that the citizens of Fort Collins are taking up the experiment means that this is indeed a populist grassroots movement. Whether these small bands of activists can enlist a critical mass of community support — politically, economically, and culturally — remains to be seen.”

EK: The French theorist Paul Virilio has defended the thesis that the technologization of defence has lead to an instrumentalization of perception that has accelerated the process of action and re-action in combat situations to a point where they take place in a time-frame that is inaccessible to human perception.

Is there a threat that information technology will accelerate the political and social debates in a similar way, where action and reaction to events have to take place in a time-frame that leaves no room for democratic reflection ?

Rheingold: “Yes. I have a very specific idea of how new communication technologies can help revitalize democratic institutions - by giving ordinary citizens the means of talking directly with one another, without the mediation of the mass-media - but I fear that many misinterpret the idea of “electronic democracy” as meaning a combination of televised town-hall meetings and voting by telephone. This is not democracy, but is closer to the dangerous kind of plebiscite that Hitler used so well. There is a reason for electing representatives, deliberating on issues. Cutting down the time in that feedback loop could be disastrous.”

EK: With CNN we already see these things happening, where political leaders are pressed to take a position on political developments almost immediately as they unfold.

The events around the Gulf War and its real-time coverage by global media have lead Virilio to muse that they pose a threat to democracy, since democracy pre-supposes reflection and sharing of powers. Democracy in real-time, he says, is impossible.

Rheingold: “I agree strongly. Virtual communities are best as ways for people to debate and discuss, not as ways to make instant decisions.”

EK: Is this technology bringing civilians and their governments closer together, or is there rather the danger that as local and national government become accessible through new communication technologies, decision makers will become increasingly pressured by the public opinion, and will try to shut themselves off from these channels ? Will the actual policy and decision making process then be concealed even further from the public sphere?

Rheingold: “Again, the point is not so much communicating with high-ranking decision makers, although there is some potential in that, but for citizens to have a new way to communicate, debate, and organize with other citizens.

These words were written two hundred years ago by James Madison: “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prelude to a farce or tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

EK: As these new communications technologies are global in their reach, do you think they will enhance a globalization of culture, or would you rather expect them to strengthen the ties with and awareness of the local surroundings. Which direction would you, personally, consider more desirable ?

Rheingold: “Both directions. If the global monoculture looks like a parking lot, tastes like McDonalds, and sounds like elevator music, we’re gong to be sorry we paved over the temple grounds, forgot how to cook the old foods, neglected our indigenous cultures in favor of a shiny, chrome-and-formica version. We need to resist the MTV-ization of all cultures everywhere, and desktop video, desktop audio, homebrew BBSs, Fidonets, etcetera, can help people create their own culture and broadcast it to like minded souls, instead of remaining the passive consumers of the culture that is sold to them via the mass media.”

Howard Rheingold, “The Virtual Community - Homestedaing on the Electronic Frontier”, Addison-Wesley, Reading (Mass.), 1993, p.5.

Source: This conversation was conducted by e-mail for SCAN Magazine ‘94, published by SCAN, expertise centre for computer graphics, animation & multimedia, Groningen, December 1994.


Dec 8, 20:16
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