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|My first introduction to communitarianism, the political philosophy
which emphasizes the primacy of geographically-defined local communities in
the policy-making process, was Benjamin Barber's book Strong Democracy.
While it's unlikely that the U.S. will ever revert to town meetings to solve
all local issues, Stephen Doheny- Farina's The Wired Neighborhood
makes a strong case for ensuring computer networks strengthen local
As I said in a review of New Community Networks: Wired for Change, I prefer that authors state their point of view at the beginning of the work so there's no room for misunderstanding as the analysis progresses. Doheny-Farina obliges, arguing early on that:
Of particular concern to the author is how the Net draws individuals away from local concerns, substituting global issues on citizens' agendas. What's more, according to Doheny-Farina, information systems are incapable of establishing a "third place" (as opposed to home and work) where community members may socialize and discuss the shape and direction of their living space. MUDs and MOOs, which do allow intense and meaningful interaction, don't qualify as "third places" in the author's scheme as they do not embody the physical qualities of the communities represented by the space's users.
Subsequent chapters cover ground familiar to readers of Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute or Roszak's The Cult of Information, such as information technologies' impact on the workplace and the American education system. Doheny-Farina's three-chapter section on these issues, entitled "The Nomadic Individual", is particularly well done. On the educational front, where Roszak and Talbott point out the intellectual baggage that computers bring to the classroom, Doheny-Farina emphasizes how computerization would affect a school's curriculum. Sure, a student could get up at three in the morning to study algebra, but the lesson itself would have been prepared by a software firm, probably one outside the student's school district. The teacher would take on decreasing importance as the instruction process became increasingly automated, "deskilling" a profession with a profound impact on how children are socialized into local communities.
The author's take on telecommuting is also well-reasoned and persuasively written. His review of Xerox PARC's active badge system, where employees wear badges which allow any other worker to know where anyone else('s badge) is within the complex, is dead-on within the framework he's presented. While some individuals take advantage of their right not to be part of the active badging system, the default is to have an active badge. In Doheny-Farina's view this "enforced" sense of "community" is not consistent with the communitarian approach he advocates. Instead, the badging scenario is a question of power, where conformity is imposed by fiat rather than arrived at through deliberation and the will of the community.
The Wired Neighborhood is a good book, the best of the "cautionary" Internet-related literature I've read so far. Its one drawback is the author's idyllic representation of the community as a cure for social ills caused by computerization. Early on Doheny- Farina refers to a 1950s text lamenting the trend toward individualism in America and how it would lead to the downfall of communities but, in my mind, fails to make a compelling case as to how things have gotten worse since then; i.e., we're still isolated from our suburban neighbors, just as we were then.
I'd recommend The Wired Neighborhood to anyone exploring information technology's impact on communities, though readers should bring plenty of questions to the table as they contemplate and discuss the book with members of their own community, be it wired or physical.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.