The Threat of Global Forces

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.
If you want to return to this quote in the front page of this review, feel free to click here.

[ Or You Can Jumb Down to the Menu. ]

I find this much to be true in my experiences on-line. People who congregate around a geography of ideas rather than land, which is what the Internet invites, tend to sort through and enter into enclaves where people will generally agree with their point of view and assumptions. For example, one reason I join lists is to find people who like to discuss the same things I care about. Some people join lists because there is no person locally they can discuss things with.

So there are good reasons for making use of the global, for establishing connections to people who aren't living locally. For example, on many of the lists I belong to, members will send a message which says something along the lines of

Here at our university we are in the process of rethinking our writing program's structure. I've been asked by my department chair to learn what other programs have done. Could members send me off list any documents or advice; I'd be happy to summarize for them for the group.
The global Net can be used to aid local projects. Indeed, Doheny-Farina's listing of local community networks and agencies which promote local access works along the same lines. So his argument is not that one should be local only, but that in order to preserve a sense of local community, a local Net which reflects a community's needs and identity must be established by people in the community.

Doheny-Farina's concern about the fragility of establishing community networks which enhance public decision-making extends not just to the Byzantine nature of the Net and the tendency of people to fall into groups where little disagreement exists, but includes also the increasingly graphic--and in some ways more passive ala WebTV (keyboard is extra, default is clicking and viewing)--nature of the Internet. Citing the way television advertising and campaigning has changed the nature of presidential campaigns, Doheny-Farina notes that, "Deliberative rhetoric is defeated every time by image, and the net will soon be the image deliverer par excellence"(79). This analysis comes from Chapter 5, "Seeking Public Space on the Internet," and many of its claims echo Postman, Birkerts, and Stoll. Doheny-Farina's concern, however, is not based on the technology per se, but on the nature of globalization which Internet technology fosters. He carefully explicates how, despite appearances and Net lore, the Internet is gradually becoming more centralized. Or, as he puts it, "At the center of this globalized individual is a devastating paradox: the perfect consumer is one who believes that he or she has individual tastes and individual rights but whose desires can be satisfied by mass-marketed products"(80). The Net may be accessible from many nodes, and it may have no central authority running it, but if people gravitate towards one type of use, and if their access is mediated by commercial interests, which, like television exist primarily to rent a users attention to advertisers, then the Net's interactive capabilities will be underused, misused, or potentially worse, manipulated.

A central question of Doheny-Farina's thesis, one he gets at most clearly in Chapter 5, is "Can something be both anarchic and democratic?"(76). His answer to the question is grounded in part by his interpretation of Laura Gurak's analysis of the "case of Lotus MarketPlace." Doheny-Farina focuses on the study's evidence that the protest against Lotus MarketPlace did not originate from some grassroots computer users concerns, but from a coordinated campaign by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), a group to which Doheny-Farina belongs. In Doheny-Farina's reading, CPSR and The Wall Street Journal, which ran a story on CPSR's concerns that Lotus MarketPlace infringed on a users privacy, a story widely distributed on the Internet at the time, precipitated the e-mail protest against Lotus's product. His main concern is that there was no deliberative debate, that once the story was out, the reaction to it was mostly emotional and that Lotus did not respond adequately in online forums which discussed the product.

Doheny-Farina's standards about what constitutes democratic debate are rooted in the classical notion of deliberative rhetoric. In the Lotus MarketPlace example, the rhetoric, he notes, was largely emotive (77), an extension into the Net of the type of rhetoric now in place in much of our democratic discourse. It is this inclination of the Net to mimic, and thus further--through its movement away from words to graphics and its valuation of speed-of-response over timely consideration--the type of discussions we see going on now in our civic life that concerns Doheny-Farina. He doesn't seek to solve this by going back to some pre-electronic age, but urges community networks as a possible stay against this erosion that global networks are speeding up.

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
Return to the Front Page of "A Thoughtful Contrarian"
Considering the page 7 quote.
Considering the page 37 quote.
Considering the pages 54-55 quote.
Considering the page 123 quote.