Isolated Individuals

As communal as the experiences he describes are, they are
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)
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The role of mass marketing and global reach in the Internet cannot be denied. It's not so much that market forces make doing wonderful things impossible (Many of you reading this make good pedagogical use of the Internet; for example, many on-line writing courses teach students to think and write critically about society and technology.), but to a large (and getting larger) extent these forces, as they have in so much of life already, will determine how most people use the Net and how they will view themselves for having done so. Mass marketing is in the business of trying to tell us what wonderful is. Consider, for example, the ad for an online service set to the theme music for the Jetsons (fast, upbeat); it shows a man showering quickly, eating a microwave breakfast while patting his dog on the head, rushing through an airport, and then, when he gets in his plane seat, starting up his lap top and checking stocks and e-mail. There's no contact with another human, though the man moves among crowds and a stewardess smiles at him; he leads a hectic life, on the go, and the computer connection becomes his respite from all things.

As a marketing mechanism the ad depicts the computer and its networkability as essential to this man's well being--how else would he find the time to tend to his wealth? The ad shows the computer helping to keep him isolated--defined as individual by his lifestlye and consumer choices--and because of those choices depicted always as apart, a man making it into the future on his own. The ad offers neither a comforting nor promising image for community.

I know we can quibble about the ad and its meaning, and other ads, of course, offer other images; this one, however, strikes me as emblematic of one of Doheny-Farina's main concerns: computer networking and mass marketing will converge, and as strong social, economic, and cultural forces that will shape how we view the Internet and ourselves, they can't be underestimated. Already the movement in some corners is anathema to most of us as teachers and scholars; it is to treat the Internet like t.v., something to be browsed and seen. But even beyond that, even if the experience becomes more interactive as part of what Doheny-Farina calls our "evolution to virtuality"(15), our inevitable move to what John Perry Barlow calls "...the last frontier and ... a permanent frontier. ...infinite and continuously changing"(quoted in Doheny-Farina, 15), is still determined by "our utter dependence on technology created, provided, and sustained by others. This is a sign not of frontier but of containment, not of our independence but of our domestication"(15).

It's important to keep in mind that as Doheny-Farina makes this critique, he does so to move to an alternative to the mass-marketing, global-reaching, technology-from-a-few-merged-sources road we are on. He notes, for example, in Chapter 4. "Seeking Public Space in a Virtual World," that who we are online, how we present ourselves and how we interact with others is determined, for most of us, by the parameters of the technologies before us. His run-down of the commands he was likely to use in MOOs offer a good illustration of this; though MOOs are environments which invite particpant programming, Doheny-Farina notes, that he, like most other MOO users, rarely take up the invite. Therefore our presentation of who we are is mediated not by place--it doesn't matter where we type from--what matters is how well we can manipulate the software. MOOs are not places, he argues, so much as the semblance of places, chimera of those elusive third places.

Chapter 4 specifically explores the uses--and limits--of MOOs as third places. MOOs can't really be third places as Ray Oldenberg defined the term, Doheny-Farina argues, because third places "exist only in comparison to [their] neighborhoods, to local work, play, and family life, to the institutions and formal rituals that encompass daily life"(72). Some online communities come closer to this than others because physical meetings of members enforce online connections, whether those meetings be The WELL's picnics in San Francisco or the common conferences that bring many of the regulars in The Netoric Project's Tuesday Cafes together.

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.

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