All of us, in one way or another, are in the conversation about the relationship between electronic technology and community. Does the technology build community and relationships or become a substitute for them? Does the internet act as a catalyst to get me out of my house or become a way to burrow further into it?
These questions arose in a panel discussion I attended at a day-long Boot Camp on community building sponsored by the Craigslist Foundation.
To conclude the conference there was a diverse panel of committed community people. There was a hotel entrepreneur, a social activist, the head of a library and museum association, a futurist, the founder of Craigslist, and my partner in crime, John McKnight.
One hour into the panel I realized that the whole discussion had been about the web and technology. Most on the panel celebrated the way the internet connects us. The movement towards timely hyper-local news made easy by our friends through social media. Ways to use the web to find which neighbor can loan you a chain saw. How caring for our children and other functions of a neighborhood are facilitated by the internet.
The message in what this group chose to talk about was that technology was the future of community. This became interesting. What does it mean if the future is ultimately associated with technology? Not only the future of community, but the future of everything? In a way, the technology discussion has captured the future.
What I question is not the value of technology, but the attention and importance we give to it. It has certain implications. Marshall Berman, in his book When All That is Solid Melts into Air, talks about the deal that Faust, an early symbol of modern people, made with the devil. Faust wants to develop a property and needs the land owned by two elderly people who won’t sell. Frustrated, he asks Mephisto (the devil, not the shoemaker) to take care of this couple. Mephisto gets the job done, but the method he uses shocks Faust. He had not reckoned that his development project would cost the lives of this couple.
The devil laughs at him and it becomes clear, in Berman’s words, “Faust has been pretending not only to others but to himself that he could create a new world with clean hands.” Later, Berman comments on what is behind Faust’s drive for development: his longing for the new and innovative world. Partly it may be the drive for power, but he says, “there is another motive … that springs not merely from Faust’s personality, but from a collective, impersonal drive that seems to be endemic to modernization: the drive to create a homogeneous environment, a totally modernized space, in which the look and feel of the old world have disappeared without a trace.”
Finally, Berman concludes, the “the very process of development, even as it transforms a wasteland into a thriving physical and social space, recreates the wasteland inside the developer himself. This is how the tragedy of development occurs.”
Technology is today’s landscape of development. It is a celebration of speed and ease and quick transactions. It offers the power of finding out anything in an instant. It promises to take us anywhere, anytime. It reduces transaction time to zero. The romantic’s ultimate convenience tool. It eliminates boredom. What is not to love and be mesmerized by?
The concern, however, when technology becomes the future and especially the future of community, is that we become an extension of the technology. We, internally, organize our selves around transaction time and ease. If something takes time, is hard to reach, not at our fingertips — literally, with the computer and handheld devices — we lose interest. We mistake social media for a conversation. We create within ourselves and with our neighbors a virtual world, and we call it community as a form of reassurance that the isolating effects of hours on a machine are a good thing.
Community building is about neighborhood building. A neighborhood is about face-to-face associational life. It is about street life. It is about a local economy. It is about our children having the freedom to walk more than a block from their home and still be known and protected by a network of adults who decide to care about all children. Community is about reducing isolation and caring about those on the margin.
All this requires time. Patience. Tolerance for those not like us. It involves interaction, not transaction.
Technology can be an aid to community building, but by its nature it cannot achieve what is required. It is simply a time saver and a great way to send information out and take information in. When the tool dominates our conversation and absorbs our attention, and we think it is the future, then we become a participant in the homogenization called progress. We risk being treated as that old couple that the developers (software developers now) begin to see as an obstacle to full engagement in cyberspace and “the future.” And last I heard, Mephisto (the devil, not the shoemaker) is still for hire.