Community and American Technology


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Slides to go with my lecture on virtual community as an on-going concern in American intellectual life. Tracks the concern from its beginning in Jeffersonian Republicanism to its manifestations in the technological euophorias that accompanied the popularization of a range of technologies (boat canals, railway, telegram, telephone, wireless, automobile, radio, internet, and web 2.0).

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  • Left: I’On Village, a New Urbanist community in South Carolina Right top: Rachel Carson Elementary School, a neighborhood school in Kentlands, Montgomery County, Maryland Right bottom: A traditional shopping street with retail on the ground floor and offices above
  • Right: A new pedestrian shopping street in Bethesda, Maryland, where a private company has developed street retail and office near mass transit Left: Dense multifamily housing that is not New Urbanist: it is single-use, on a pedestrian-unfriendly street
  • Community and American Technology

    1. 1. Rich, interpersonal, face-to-face communities in which political and social issues are debated within a geographically constrained public sphere characterized by social solidarity. Group of people who are social interdependent, live in a common territory, have a common history and shared values, participate together in various activities, have high degree of solidarity. What is Community?
    2. 2. “ all communities larger than primordial villages … are imagined . Communities are to be distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.” He also argues that it is important to consider the 'imagined community' when consuming media products, as every product has its own imagined community involved. So what then is the imagined community of the internet?
    3. 3. In the past 15 years, computer-mediated communication has generated a great deal of interest and enthusiasm in both the popular and academic press. <ul><li>can offer companionship and belonging </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Danial Burstein and David Kline, Road Warriors: Dreams and Nightmares along the Information Highway (1993) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>provide electronically mediated relationships that actually turn the earth into a single global community </li></ul><ul><ul><li>William E. Halal, “The Information Technology Revolution,” Futurist (1992) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>play the role that the city has traditionally played as a 'space' for commercial, social, and civic life. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>“ Humanizing the Information Superhighway,” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine (1995) </li></ul></ul>Computer-Mediated Communication ... <ul><li>are pioneer communities </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Michael Vlahos, Progress and Freedom Foundation </li></ul></ul>
    4. 4. Within this literature, a strong claim is being made about the nature of our social world: it doesn't work. Computer networks thus appear to be moral instruments , because they seem to offer a solution to a set of problems that are moral and political, namely, rootlessness, lack of community, loneliness, isolation, the lack of public spaces, and an inability to contribute to public policy discussion.
    5. 5. In much of this literature, computer-mediated communication is praised for re turning, re building, and for re vitalizing. This yearning for a future that seemingly recreates the past makes the virtual community ideal a redemptive and regenerative ideal. It purports to rejuvenate the bonds of community, returning us to a sociability we once seemed to have, but now lost. Online communities ... <ul><li>might help revitalize the public sphere. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Howard Rheingold, Virtual Communities (1993) </li></ul></ul>will permit the revitalization of society. Susan Leigh Star, The Cultures of Computing (1995) <ul><li>will reconnect them with the institutions that shape their daily lives. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Jon Katz, &quot;The Digital Citizen,&quot; Wired (1997) </li></ul></ul>
    6. 6. Thus what makes the social commentary on computerized virtual communities so remarkable is not its originality but its utter lack of originality. The virtual community idea is not a new one. In fact, it is a moral ideal that has been attached to at least seven other technologies in the last 180 years of American history.
    7. 7. _____ tend to elevate, to extend and increase knowledge as well as business, and in our country especially, they will unite us more closely as a people, and bind us together as a common brotherhood. Boat Canals (1815-1820s) ______ will turn the country into one big community. _______ will introduce an epoch of neighborship without propinquity. ___________ will restore a sense of community in an increasingly anticommunal world. The Internet (1994) Telephone (1880s) With the help of the ________, we are turning the country into one big community. It will not be long ere the whole surface of this country will be channeled by a knowledge of all that is occurring throughout the land; making, in fact, one neighborhood of the whole country. _________ are the iron bands that will bind the various sections of this country together by a community of interest. Railroad (1840s) Telegraph (1850s) Automobile (1890s-1900s) Radio (1920s) ______ will restore a sense of community. Wireless (1900s-1910s)
    8. 8. With each technology, it was claimed that they would re-create—it was always re – the virtues of lost community life while maintaining and even strengthening the scope of individual freedom. Thus the way to approach the literature on computerized virtual communities is not to ask whether its true or not; instead we need to understand why the same moral hopes continue to be invested in certain types of technologies. That is, we have to understand the imagined community of online communities.
    9. 9. While other countries have experienced periods of enthusiasm for the technologies mentioned earlier, it was principally in the United States that the moral tropes of freedom and community were consistently attached to these technologies. The language of the virtual community and its underlying political concerns are thus not surprisingly rooted in the American past.
    10. 10. What then is this American past? What is this fruitful soil within which the virtual community ideal grew? The rhetorical shape as well as the substantive moral content of the virtual community ideal grew directly out of Jeffersonian Republicanism , which was the majoritarian ideology in America between the 1790s and the 1840s. This ideology was a transitional moral language that attempted to harmonize the older civic republican language of the American revolution with the emerging vocabulary of rights-based liberalism .
    11. 11. In traditional Civic Republicanism , the political order is grounded on and protected by individuals who have the virtuous character that enables them to prioritize the greater good of the community over their private interests.
    12. 12. Early republican theorists such as Aristotle and Montesquieu argued that this character could only be created within a geographically-small civic community. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that the public spiritedness and community-good focus necessary for republican democracy could be created and maintained not by close geographic proximity, but by its opposite, geographically-dispersed individuals.
    13. 13. To repeat, Jeffersonian Republicanism posited that community can be created by geographically-dispersed individuals. In fact, some Jeffersonian Republicans went even further and argued that geographic dispersal is the best way to create community. This was truly a ground-breaking innovation in thinking about community and politics.
    14. 14. Why then did Jefferson and other republican leaders of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century believe that community required dispersal? Part of the answer lies in the inherent self-reliance of the frontier experience, as well as in the explicit methodological individualism of Madison’s Constitution. Compare villages founded roughly at the same time (mid-17th century) in England and New England. Note the separation of the American houses.
    15. 15. Another reason for the belief that geographic separation was the route to public good lies in the antipathy to cities shared by almost all Jeffersonian Republican writers. <ul><li>The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1784) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and liberties of man. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Jefferson, letter (1800) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>The life of the husbandman is ... the best basis of public liberty </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Madison, National Gazette (1792) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>The mansions of wretchedness are tenanted from the distresses and vice of overgrown cities. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Madison, National Gazette (1792) </li></ul></ul>
    16. 16. Yet despite these antipathies, America of the early to mid-nineteenth century rapidly urbanized. As fewer and fewer Americans were agrarian farmers, republican thinkers searched for a social glue that would replace agrarian-created civic virtue that was necessary for democracy in Jeffersonian Republican theory.
    17. 17. The opening of the Eire Canal in 1817, the first steam locomotive tests in 1830, and the success of Morse’s telegraph in 1844 were greeted by the press, social commentators, and the general populace with language that clearly suggested that some thought that technology might be the social glue required by an urbanizing and industrializing continent-sized republic. And as community-based public spaces began to retreat further and further away, the idea that community and its public space could be recreated via technology continued as a beacon of hope within a steadily individualizing America.
    18. 18. One of the most prominently-voiced beliefs of the mid-nineteenth century was that if city and country life could be brought together , then perhaps republican democracy could survive. The new transportation technologies of canals, autobuses, railroads, trolleys, and then the automobile seemed to make possible the achievement of this middle ground between city and country.
    19. 19. From the 1820s to the 1910s, enthusiasts for these technologies claimed that they would allow citizens to have the freedom and independence of rural freeholders in that they could live in a country or suburban home bounded by privacy-giving trees and nature. They would then be geographically (and morally) separated from the vice of the city and factory. Yet through the wonders of the newest transportation technology they would still be able to commute and thus enjoy the benefits of the city; they could work, play, socialize and, of course, partake in political debates about the public good … in theory.
    20. 20. But as the history of suburbanization has shown, these middle places were a disappointment as far as community life was concerned. Rather than revitalizing the public sphere, suburbs eviscerated it. Suburbs became gated communities in which citizens have turned their back on people from other communities. Rather than rekindle civic and community spirit, virtual communities of transportation accelerated the movement towards private concerns.
    21. 21. Communications technologies also generated the same hopes as transportation technologies. Just as with the new transportation technologies, these communications technologies seemed to permit the reconciliation between town and country. Just like with the transportation technologies, the telegram, telephone, and radio inspired hope for a better future. These technologies, it was believed, would allow citizens in the periphery to communicate easily with those in the city.
    22. 22. Unfortunately, however, communications technologies privatized the virtual community to a much greater extent than did the transportation technologies. With the railway, for instance, individuals had to venture forth from one’s dwelling. But with communications technology, the community experience can be completely enjoyed in the safety and exclusivity of one’s own house.
    23. 23. It should be stressed that the problem is not the technology in itself, but the particular type of moral expectations that Americans tend to have when visualizing a technology’s social consequences. Clearly the persistence of this hope in American thought is evidence of a desire for a richer social life than they (we?) currently experience.
    24. 24. This desire can be seen in many other incarnations: in communitarianism in political thought …
    25. 25. … and in the New Urbanism movement in urban planning
    26. 26. Across North America, and around the world, an urban design movement called New Urbanism is slowly changing the way some cities and towns are built.
    27. 27. New urbanist developments are walkable neighborhoods , rather than large, single-use places with streets hostile to pedestrians.
    28. 28. Response to a Problem Since World War II, cities have been spreading ever-outward. Strip malls, parking lots, highways, and housing tracts have sprawled over the landscape.
    29. 29. Perhaps the main problem with the virtual community ideal is its root in Jeffersonian Republicanism, in the belief that the social ethos of community can best be created by individuals who are geographically-dispersed, or that public-spiritedness requires the independence of mind generated by isolation.