Virtual Vermont

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 interest 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).
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This quote comes the end of chapter three, "Virtual Vermont: The Rise of the Global and the Decline of the Local," the chapter I read first when the book arrived. I work in Vermont and lived for some time in its Northeast Kingdom and I was drawn to the chapter because it addressed my geographical place, and spoke about a place I've called home. The chapter mattered most to me because of where I live.

The chapter does two things well. One, it illustrates how far global economies reach into local ones, using as an example farm stands which import, from out of state, fruits and vegetables. In these instances the farm becomes part of the decor, an iconic image that markets the idea of 'Made in Vermont.' Doheny-Farina also notes the changing nature of many small towns--the absence of public spaces for public discourses.

Josh Farber asks...
...Does it seem to you that Steven Doheny-Farina is writing from a position of nostalgia - i.e. does SDF seem to think that we can RECOVER the ideal geographically-based culture through using the internet to circumvent the highly mediated life which we now live? Follow and add to the dialogue

That is, Doheny-Farina doesn't romanticize local neighborhoods; he acknowledges what's been lost, or what may have never been, except through the nostalgic haze of television. (He notes a Good Morning Amercia profile of a Vermont artist which dissolved from a video image of an actual church steeple into a picture the artist had done of a church steeple to emphasize the artist's connections to his roots in Vermont. Meanwhile, Doheny-Farina adds, both the artist and the camera had left out of their frames a mini-mart/gas station franchised by a multi-national oil company, and the Wal-Mart tentacles creeping into the state, and strip malls with their chain restaurants and Hall-Mark franchises.) The reach of markets and large, centralized economic forces emerge again and again as a theme. The chapter on "Virtual Vermont," which begins with an image of someone buying cider from one of the farm's homepage makes clear that computer networks didn't cause this globalization, but that left unquestioned and without alternative network models, they will certainly accelerate the pace.

He also notes the myth of the monolithic community, even in a state such as Vermont, where minority populations are low, well below, I believe, ten percent for the entire state. Except perhaps for annual town meetings, where the agenda centers on setting a town's spending priorities, there is hardly ever a moment--a time and place--set aside for "the common public" to debate "the common good" (54). Doheny-Farina goes on to make an important observation about the nature of public discourse, about how and why people come together. Most debates, when they occur, happen because a special-interest seeks some change--parents who want a change at the school, a business seeking a tax break--that affect others. He writes:

Here, as in most places, our sense of community arises out of interest-group interactions like these. Local community is the aggregation of enclaves of interest and occurs, most significantly, where those enclaves intersect. And accordingly, much of what we may think of as public discourse occurs in private lives. Few clear lines between public and private exist in such communities. (54)

That is, Doheny-Farina's call to resist merely falling into the Net's easy globalization, its long reach, its ability to take one anywhere, his call against letting computer networks be transformed into just another extension of corporate-marketing, consumer-grabbing, time-sucking pasttime like television, is not a call for some return to an imagined idyllic past nor is it a call to some easily managed utopia. Herein lies the integrity of his argument. He seeks to recognize how public discourse and communities do work, how they are being changed by global forces, and looks to see how the technologies of the Internet can be used to foster local communities in the face of those realities and forces. The argument in this book is not so much against the technology, as it is against the political and ethical forces dominating the shape and future of the technology, a dominance achieved in large part by salesmanship and utopic claims. Doheny-Farina reverses the flow; he questions the utopian claims and shows how the same technologies which many proponents promise will somehow deliver us, can, and in his view are likely to, make our lives worse unless we act to appropriate those technologies for local good.

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