Comments on Introduction to The Virtual Community

A few weeks ago, I read the introduction to Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community and compiled some interesting quotes in a draft blog. Today, I revisit those quotes and comment on them.

“The odds are always good that big power and big money will find a way to control access to virtual communities; big power and big money always found ways to control new communications media when they emerged in the past. The Net is still out of control in fundamental ways, but it might not stay that way for long.”

So true. These days, it is clear that “big power and big money” are trying to cease control of something that they cannot understand, and have been doing so since Rheingold first experimented with WELL. In particular, attempts to control how ideas are shared online seem desperate and impotent. As Mr. Universe says, “You can’t stop the signal.” As much of a technophobe as I seem to be, I am in the camp of folks who think that technologies grow and change organically through use (hey, like genres and other tools, right?).

“Although spatial imagery and a sense of place help convey the experience of dwelling in a virtual community, biological imagery is often more appropriate to describe the way cyberculture changes. In terms of the way the whole system is propagating and evolving, think of cyberspace as a social petri dish, the Net as the agar medium, and virtual communities, in all their diversity, as the colonies of microorganisms that grow in petri dishes. Each of the small colonies of microorganisms–the communities on the Net–is a social experiment that nobody planned but that is happening nevertheless.”

Hey, didn’t I just say something about “growing and changing organically”?

“Panopticon was the name for an ultimately effective prison, seriously proposed in eighteenth-century Britain by Jeremy Bentham. A combination of architecture and optics makes it possible in Bentham’s scheme for a single guard to see every prisoner, and for no prisoner to see anything else; the effect is that all prisoners act as if they were under surveillance at all times. Contemporary social critic Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, claimed that the machinery of the worldwide communications network constitutes a kind of camouflaged Panopticon; citizens of the world brought into their homes, along with each other, the prying ears of the state. The cables that bring information into our homes today are technically capable of bringing information out of our homes, instantly transmitted to interested others. Tomorrow’s version of Panoptic machinery could make very effective use of the same communications infrastructure that enables one-room schoolhouses in Montana to communicate with MIT professors, and enables citizens to disseminate news and organize resistance to totalitarian rule. With so much of our intimate data and more and more of our private behavior moving into cyberspace, the potential for totalitarian abuse of that information web is significant and the cautions of the critics are worth a careful hearing.”

Right, so this is one of my other concerns about big power and big money: this Orwellian sense that we’re all being convinced to watch each other and suspect each other, monitoring, not for our own safety, but truly on behalf of something big and sinister. (My tendencies toward reading conspiracy theory through the believing lens showing much here?)

“We can’t do this solely as dispassionate observers, although there is certainly a strong need for the detached assessment of social science. Community is a matter of emotions as well as a thing of reason and data. Some of the most important learning will always have to be done by jumping into one corner or another of cyberspace, living there, and getting up to your elbows in the problems that virtual communities face.”

That’s interesting–although I would lean toward learning about virtual communities through ethnographic research rather than research that looks like social psychology. I’m just not sold on the idea that we learn so much through numbers and “detached assessment.” (Sorry.)

“Technical bridges are connecting the grassroots part of the network with the military-industrial parts of the network. The programmers who built the Net in the first place, the scholars who have been using it to exchange knowledge, the scientists who have been using it for research, are being joined by all those hobbyists with their bedroom and garage BBSs.”

It’s really interesting to see the ways in which these sometimes conflicting efforts are reflected in the Internet we know today.