At Long Last, A Thoughtful Contrarian

Review by Nick Carbone, Writing Instructor, Marlboro College

The Wired Neighborhood
by Stephen Doheny-Farina
Yale University Press
240 pp. 5 1/2 X 8 1/4, ISBN 0-300-06765-8, $25.00

After Clifford Stoll's curmudgeonism, after Neil Postman's Cassandra warnings, after Sven Birkert's elegies, Stephen Doheny-Farina's book refreshes the debate about cyberspace. Not because he necessarily counters these other critics (He borrows from them.), but because in his critique of cyberspace and our readiness to embrace it, he makes a much more compelling argument about how to respond to the computer evolution. The movement to computer technology cannot be stopped; therefore, he argues, we should establish computer networks which enhance and help maintain our local, physical neighborhoods. We cannot rely on electronic democracy and civility to form merely because we have computers and computer networks; at the same time, we cannot ignore the role computer networks can play--if people work at it--to help solve local problems. What's unique about Doheny-Farina's argument is not so much his refusal to accept computer networks without question, but his acknowledgment that the movement he calls for, a "wired communitarian movement" that values local neighborhoods and the people who live in them, is no easy thing to create and sustain.

The Wired Neighborhood is also reviewed by Leslie Regan-Shade in the February 1997 Computer Mediated Communication Magazine, an issue devoted to community and what it means to be Netizen.

Doheny-Farina's critical perspective is enhanced by his position online. He's taught courses using MOOs; he's been to MediaMOO and the Tuesday Cafes; he's a regular contributor to Computer Mediated Communication Magazine's (CMCM) "Last Link" columns, from which many of his chapters have evolved. The chapters that do evolve from these columns benefit directly from having been published originally online; in the book, the thinking is fuller than it appears in the original columns, benefiting both from time and the responses to the columns sent in by CMCM readers. Doheny-Farina skillfully includes excerpts, and considers the points raised, from writers who disagree with his arguments. He doesn't reject the points raised out of hand; instead, he restates his own argument with greater complexity and degrees of refinement for having had considered those letters. His perspective is also enhanced by his ability to step back from those online experiences, to comtemplate off line; his writing about the online world and what it will bring is informed by his sense of geographical place. What this book does so well is combine his online sensibilities and critiques with his feeling for the places he's lived in the physical world.

The book opens not with a depiction of cyberspace, but a cold night in upper New York State.

The storm door slammed, rattling its window and echoing across the frozen yard. As soon as the door left my hand, we knew how cold it had gotten that evening. The gauge was the automatic door closer--the hydraulic tube and shaft designed to enable aluminum storm doors to glide to a close. We had long since discoverd that this closer ceased to operate whenever the temperature dropped below zero degrees Fahrenheit.(3)

This is an important beginning because it sets the tone for the book, for the author's voice and the writing which follows. The book's language wraps its thoughts not in academic jargon, though Doheny-Farina is a fine academic, nor in techno-geek speak, but in an evocative and accurate vocabulary which makes accessible and clear what could easily have been, in lesser hands, confounding descriptions of social forces, theoretical positions, computer interfaces and virtual environments. The book is an essay about the need to balance our physical and local worlds--our neighborhoods--with cyberspace. So it begins appropriately enough with a description of Doheny-Farina's attending a movie at the one theater in his small town. This is followed shortly by a wry anecdote about seeing The China Syndrome in a Pennsylvania theater, while only miles away, the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant was in the early stages of what everyone at the time feared would be a meltdown. The anecdotes--grounded as they are with geographical detail--are used to make a larger point about "communal experiences made rich by place, the particular physical, geographic locations in which they occur" (6).

It's at this point that Doheny-Farina lays out one of his first concerns. As communal as the experiences he describes are, they are, he writes,

insignificant compared with the powerful forces of electronic communication and electronic media that both individuate and globalize--forces that work to isolate individuals by exalting individuality, while making those indviduals dependent on mass markets and globalized communications networks.(7)
This marks, for my reading, the first part of Doheny-Farina's argument. There are other places in the text which stand out for me as key cars on his train of thought, and I'd like to break with review tradition and list them all here.

On page 37, at the end of chapter 2, "Immersive Virtualists and Wired Communitarians," Doheny-Farina writes:

The hope that the incredible powers of global computer networks can create new virtual communities, more useful and healthier than the old geographic ones, is thus misplaced. The net seduces us and further removes us from our localities--unless we take charge of it with specific, community-based, local agendas. These agendas are currently under development in many communities through the community network movement. If we do not, as communities, as a society, support this movement, we risk the further disappearance of local communities within globalized virtual collectives of alienated and entertained individuals.

On pages 54-55, at the end of chapter 3, "Virtual Vermont: The Rise of the Global and the Decline of the Local," which describes how Vermont farmers are reducing the use of their fields and importing more fruits and vegetables for sale in their roadside stands, Doheny-Farina writes:

The net can either enhance communities by enabling a new kind of local public space or it can undermine communities by pulling people away from local enclaves and toward global, virtual ones. The second trend is in ascendancy. Much of the net is a Byzantine amalgamation of fragmented, isolating, solipsistic enclaves of interst based on a collectivity of assent (regardless of the minor dissents--"flames"--that occur within them; indeed, the much-discussed phenomenon of flaming is merely a symptom of the lack of real community amid this impoverished thing called a virtual community).

On page 123, the third page of chapter 9, "The Communitarian Vision," which explores what makes a community and offers descriptions of community nets, Doheny-Farina writes:

My argument thus far--that the net, in connecting everyone, furthers our isolation by abstracting us from place and virtualizing human relations--will have no effect on the pace of technological development. Recall [David] Porush's Law: "Participating in the newest communications technologies becomes compulsory if you want to remain part of the culture." Now I shall posit Steve's First Corollary to Porush's Law: "If you want to enhance the culture, steer your participation in the net toward ways that better integrate you and others into your local geophysical communities." (Steve's Second Corollary: "Be wary of the seductions tendered by the immersive virtualists.") Given the inevitability of the net, the most fruitful path is to participate in it in ways that benefit our localities.

In the pages that follow from this page, I'll flesh out my response to these quotes, to Doheny-Farina's argument and will explain why I think he is in many ways correct in his judgments. However, if you're in a hurry, know this. Stephen Doheny-Farina has written one of the best, most evocative, and thoughtful critiques of the Internet and how it will--or can--affect our daily lives and where and how we live.

Who knows what mischief, mishap, and deadlinks will arise? We don't. The links you see here aren't of our making; they were in place as of 1 March 1997. If they come up 404, apologies in advance.

Review Menu for The Wired Neighborhood
Considering the page 7 quote.
Considering the page 37 quote.
Considering the pages 54-55 quote.
Considering the page 123 quote.

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