|Issue No 102||13 July 2001|
1.2 Community – The Ultimate Network
Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel look at the potential for network technologies to reconnect communities.
The story of human history could be read as the story of evolutionary forces driving people to learn how to live together peacefully in larger and larger communities. In this age of individualism it is sometimes worth reminding ourselves that humans are instinctively collective. The Darwinian process of natural selection left us no choice. We pooled our resources and grouped together to form tribes or communities. By being a member of a group each individual was able to increase their chances of survival, as well as that of the group. Alone we would surely perish; but working together made sense in a hostile and unforgiving world.
Early communities consisted of small groups of people within a confined geographic area, a village and surrounding farmland perhaps. They were small enough that everybody knew everyone else, so information flowed freely because everyone spoke to everybody else. Decisions were made through discussion between certain members of the community - typically the male 'elders'. Information on what food to eat, where to get it, how to prepare it, were passed through the group. Myths and legends, which helped define the world and set moral rules that would keep the group functioning were also shared. Although very small these were the first networked communities.
Values and culture were communicated verbally and face to face. Because conversation is a two way exchange, every person who participated in the community would have a small part in shaping the culture - there was dialogue. A person dispensing a rule had to front the person expected to comply with it, often requiring an immediate explanation of the principles and reasoning. This process imposed a degree of accountability on the leadership and allowed each person to understand the basis for the decision, bringing about some degree of internal consensus. If decision makers were accessible - then a law that was unduly harsh would result in immediate feedback. This was possible because the distance between the leadership and the led was smaller.
Communities that became more secure continued to thrive and grow - from wandering tribes, to the farming communities, to larger centres of trade and commerce, to the large cities that controlled empires that fought for cultural domination over smaller groups, size was equated with strength. Like dinosaurs, size was the principle survival quality for a community at this time.
As the size of communities grew, so did the complexity of the decisions that needed to be made. It was no longer possible to underpin each decision with a person-to-person exchange. Structures evolved to deal with members of the community as abstractions, as 'subjects' or 'citizens'. These third party institutions such as the law, the state, the church and in more recent times, the media, came to be the dominant forces in the Industrial Age.
The take-up of writing allowed for the development of structured laws and government. By writing rules or laws, governmental units could become larger, and more complex. Adherence to and enforcement of a common rule-book that was maintained and distributed from the centre of government kept everyone in line, often over vast distances. At its best, the law operated to mimic the process of consensus that would naturally occur in a smaller networked community. Governments made laws, magistrates had cases brought before them with special circumstances, exceptions are granted, provided that the fundamental principles of the law can be upheld. As times and values changed, principles were modified. The problem is that this process is cumbersome, impersonal and often beyond the reach of the ordinary person. It also fails to deal with the specific facts of the individual case and must instead base itself on abstractions.
The use of writing to codify community values or laws signalled the genesis of the broadcast era: a single set of standards, broadcast from a central seat of government, to a large area. The benefit was that a community could share a set of values over a much larger geographic area and involving a much greater number of people and resources. The costly trade-off was the loss of the capacity for an individual member of a community to input in the growth of their society. That role was necessarily taken-up by a leadership elite that presided, with or (more often) without a mandate from the subjects. To the extent that societies maintained their cohesion - and sometimes, even, a sense of community, it because they have developed a set of structures to ensure that some degree of consensus is maintained.
At the time when the modern states emerged, community fault lines principally occurred along class and geographic lines. This lead to a model of parliamentary democracy based on geographic constituencies - a major step forward in ensuring proper communication within government decision making. This system allowed a society to grow larger and remain stable because it established a structured mechanism by which constituent communities could have a voice within a larger society. Although each member of the community did not get a say in the formulation of the law - they did have a representative from their area involved in the processes of government - a structured way of mimicking a network. But under this system the dialog was confined to elected representatives in the Parliament, a principle that has defined our approach to community management throughout the Industrial Age.
In a modern state, communities of interest are not just defined along geographic lines - they can form around workplace, family, educational institution, profession, social class, ethnic origin, hobbies, religion in addition to geography - thousands of unique subcultures. As communications technology improves, and the cost of communicating over distance declines, geography becomes an increasingly less important factor in defining culture.
Historically a single community of interest might cover every aspect of an individual's persona, nowadays a person would identify with many groups each from different spheres of their life. Each of these communities of interest or subcultures has its own distinct perspective. These groups have developed around various areas of human activity, work, leisure, ethnicity, education. As society became more complex they have multiplied.
Although it is tempting to romanticise simple communities of the past because everybody knew everyone else, the trade-off for this was the enforcement of conformity. Closed systems tend to turn in on themselves and the chance of finding a kindred spirit - out of all the people on earth - in your own village has to be a long shot. Today's society allows a much wider range of associations, allowing an individual to pursue a broader range of interests and activities - greater diversity.
As communities became larger and more complex a proxy for the structured geographic representative model for the parliament was extended to cover the sub-cultures within society. In this way the central government was surrounded by a set of institutional structures representing the various communities of interest. Governments would use institutions to build a network to facilitate the flow of information to and from communities of interest. Key institutions were the gatekeepers controlling the flow of information to and from that sector - making them enormously powerful. They are analogous to the broadcast "backbone" connecting up the smaller subcultures, once the only mechanism by which information could flow between groups and across the society .
While the institutions have served their functions adequately, the constant process of abstracting individuals has taken its toll. At some point along this abstract line, the community has become too big. With the rise of the mass media, the very processes of cultural activity and conversation has been turned into commodity: current affairs, elite sport, soap operas, infotainment. People exist only to the extent that they consume this fare. People sit in their homes at night, glued to the TV, where a homogenised product, usually of US-origins, is broadcast to fill the gaps where community once existed. All different receivers in different rooms, only connected by the great transmitter, the mass media. At a time of rising prosperity, the weight of isolation and lonelineneess has never been greater.
But, as the authors of the excellent anti-marketing treatise the 'Cluetrain Maifesto' point out, it's time to come out of hiding and rediscover the world - the Internet turns us all into transmitters AND receivers. And the two equal a conversation. And conversation allow people to share knowledge and work together and build and be better than the sum of their constituent parts. Conversation allows us to rebuild community - which is what we decided we needed to survive in the first place. Meanwhile, the power of those that formerly controlled the flow of nearly all information diminishes. And so we can see a way that our society can start recovering some of the positive characteristics of the original networked community - without the disadvantages of being small.
With the onset of the Information Age we just may be able to maintain a diverse, large society with internal cohesion. We will have the communications infrastructure and a cultural commitment to support it. Indeed, attempts to control this flow will inevitably be futile. The problem we now have is one of cultural change. Those who control the structures and institutions are so immersed in the structures and ways of the past that can't see the paradigm shift that has occurred around them. Many are maintaining the fantasy that the world is the same as the one they grew up in. But at the end of the day, they are defying gravity.
Interview: Jolly Green Giant
Senator Bob Brown on the upcoming federal poll, balances of power and what the Greens can teach the trade union movement.
Workplace: Call Centre Takeover
Theresa Davison brings us this real-life story from the coal face of the call centre industry.
E-Change: 1.2 Community – The Ultimate Network
Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel look at the potential for network technologies to reconnect communities.
International: Child's Play
Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA has recently entered a new alliance with the Child Labour Schools Company to support a project for child labourers in India.
History: Flowers to the Rebels Faded
With the departure of our own Wobbly, a look at the development of the Wobblies in Australia and their view of Labor politicians and the work ethic seems timely.
East Timor: A Dirty Little War
In this extract from his new book, John Martinkus recounts the scenes in Dili immediately following the independence ballot.
Satire: Telstra Share Failure Ends City-Bush Divide: Everybody Screwed Equally
Communications Minister Richard Alston today claimed that the government had fulfilled its promise to ensure that the bush was not disproportionately disadvantaged by Telstra's privatisation.
Review: Cheesy Management
Currently climbing Australian best-seller lists is the 'life-changing' motivational book 'Who Moved My Cheese?' Rowan Cahill has a nibble but doesn't like the taste.
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