The Convivial Society, No. 4

Community


"Society can be destroyed when further growth of mass production renders the milieu hostile, when it extinguishes the free use of the natural abilities of society’s members, when it isolates people from each other and locks them into a man-made shell, when it undermines the texture of community by promoting extreme social polarization and splintering specialization, or when cancerous acceleration enforces social change at a rate that rules out legal, cultural, and political precedents as formal guidelines to present behavior. " 

— Ivan Illich, Tools For Conviviality (1973)


I've lost track of how many times Mark Zuckerberg has invoked the idea of community over the past few weeks. Last November, Alexis Madrigal had counted more than 150 uses of community in Zuckerberg's public comments. I imagine the figure has doubled since then. 

It's hard to know what one ought to make of Zuckerberg's community talk. Naturally, I'm tempted by a reflexive cynicism: community talk is just cover for commercial self-interest. "I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit," Marlow deadpans in Heart of Darkness when his aunt gushes about the civilizing work he would be doing in Africa. But it is also plausible that Zuckerberg believes his own community talk. In fact, many close and keen observers of Facebook and Zuckerberg seem to think that this is more likely the case (see links below). If so, his community talk is both more interesting and more pernicious; "connecting people" takes on an ideological cast. Naturally, it is also possible that a fervently held ideology can conveniently coexist with commercial self-interest. 

Facebook's stated mission of building a global community echoes the utopian aspirations that coalesced around the early commercial internet in the mid-90s. It also resonates with McLuhan's famous formulation, "the global village." Of course, McLuhan was not fool enough to believe that a global village would necessarily be a place of harmony and cooperation. But such a belief did animate many of those involved in the emergence of the digital global village and is, apparently, still alive and well in certain quarters. Indeed, that new media would usher in an age of cooperation and mutual respect is an idea that has been widely associated with the advent of new communication technologies going back at least as far as the telegraph. It seems that none of these visionaries ever took into consideration the possibility that the moral frailties of human nature would only be amplified by their new technologies.  

The idea that connecting people through new technologies entailed the creation of a community and that such a community would be a necessarily good community was, in no small measure, sold to the public by those with a commercial interest in such technologies. But it also seems to be the case that the public bought into this vision to varying degrees. And it is not hard to see why. The rise of communication technologies from the mid-19th century through today has roughly coincided with the dissolution and degradation of the traditional communities, broken and often cruel though they may have been, that provided individuals with a relatively integrated experience of place and self. In 1953, the sociologist Robert Nisbett could write of the "quest for community" as the "dominant social tendency of the twentieth century." Framing a new technology as a source of community, in other words, trades on an unfulfilled desire for community. 

More recently, however, I've come to think that community is a yuppie word. Let me explain. I'm borrowing the formulation from Bob Dylan, who, when asked if he was happy on the occasion of his 50th birthday, after a long pause responded, "these are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. It's not happiness or unhappiness, it's either blessed or unblessed." I suppose one either takes his meaning or not. It occurred to me that Dylan's sentiment worked well with how the word community tends to get thrown around, especially by someone with a new technology to sell. It's just another commodity or accoutrement of the self. 

There's another problem, too. I once heard someone observe that only sociologists talk about community. No one who is actually in a community calls it a community. They call it what it is: a synagogue, a family, a neighborhood, a school, a sorority, etc. Or you don't call it anything at all for the same reason that a fish wouldn't talk about water, the reality is too pervasive to notice and name. If it names anything at all, it names an absence, a felt need, and object of desire. Unfortunately, it might also be the sort of thing, like happiness, that will almost certainly not be found when one sets out deliberately to search for it. What we find, if we find anything at all, will probably not be exactly like what we hoped to discover. A pursuit of community in this manner is burdened with a self-consciousness that may undermine the possibility of achieving the desired state of affairs. On this score, social media does not exactly help. 

To express wariness of community talk, whatever its sources, is not, however, to dismiss the importance, indeed, the necessity of the thing we desire when we talk about community. That thing, let us call it Community with a capital in order to distinguish it, is vital and people suffer and die for the lack of it. At its best, Community sustains us and supplies the context for our flourishing in the fullness of our humanity. Apart from it we are less than what we could be. Community, in its most satisfying forms involves the whole person, including the body. It nurtures us as individuals precisely by directing our attention and our care outward toward those to whom we are bound. And bound is the right word. In a Community, we are bound by ties of obligation and responsibility. To be in a community is to have the self spun out into the world rather than in upon itself. 

The question that remains is whether or not that thing we seek can be found online. Or, whether it is useful to think of Facebook, or any other social media platform, as a community. Consider, for example, that the root from which we derive our word community reminds us that a community is bound together by what the hold in common, by their common wealth. But what exactly do we hold in common with every other user of a social media platform? For that matter, what exactly do we hold in common with those who are our Friends or Followers? What is our common wealth? 

I have no interest in the denying the obvious fact that genuine and valuable human interactions occur online and through Facebook everyday. I'm certain that some have found a measure of companionship, joy, and solace as a result of these interactions. But do these interactions amount to a community? Or, to put it another way, what definition of community is being assumed when Facebook is called a community? 

It seems clear to me that connection does not imply the existence of community much less Community. It also seems clear that while we may speak of Facebook as a platform that can theoretically help support certain kinds of communities, it is meaningless to call the network as a whole a community. Moreover, if the only fellowship we knew was a fellowship mediated through a social network such as Facebook, then our experience would be impoverished. But I don't imagine that there are many people who explicitly and consciously choose to use Facebook as a substitute for fully embodied experiences of community. 

There are also important questions to consider about how we are formed by our use of social media, given the design and architecture of the respective platforms, and what this does to our capacity to experience community on the platform or find Community beyond it. Chiefly, I'm thinking about how social media tends to turn our gaze inward. The platforms foreground for its users the experience of being a self that is always in the midst of performing for an audience, and at a consequential remove from the immediacy of a face-to-face encounter. Moreover, it seems to me that the experience of community ordinarily presumes a degree of self-forgetfulness. Self-forgetfulness is not something social media tends to encourage. 

Belonging is a critical aspect of the most satisfying kind of community. But belonging is an interesting word. When we speak of belonging to a community, we ordinarily mean to say that we associate with the community, that we count ourselves among its members. We might also mean that we are at home in the community, that we belong in the sense that we are accepted. But the word also implies that we belong to the community in the sense that the community has a claim on us. I think this last sense of belonging is critical; the most satisfying and fulfilling experiences of community presuppose this kind of claim upon our lives and we will, ultimately, be better for it, but it is also the case that we tend to mightily resist such a claim because we value our autonomy too much. As is often the case, we haven't quite counted the cost of what we say we want. 

We should consider, as well, that communities can be both sustained and undermined by the tools and systems we introduce into the life of the community. It is possible for us to so value community that we submit our technological choices to the well-being of the community and that we do so collectively. The Amish are, of course, a fine example of this. My point is not to suggest that we emulate the specific choices that the Amish make. Rather what we ought to emulate is their willingness to subordinate their use of technology to the larger purpose of seeking the good of the community. To be fair, it is true that they are able to do this, in part, because of the scale of their communities. 

Finally, I'll briefly note the work of Albert Borgmann, who reminds us that to be for community does not mean that we are against technology, per se. Borgmann has been a champion of communities of celebration centered on focal things and focal practices: in short, things (not devices) that have a commanding presence, that focus our attention and draw us out of ourselves. All of that requires a good deal of unpacking. I did a bit of that here. I'll wrap up this section with a line from Borgmann's Crossing the Postmodern Divide. "There is an interlacing of communities of celebration," Borgmann writes, "that provides for a community of communities rather than a society of sects." A good final word for this section, I think. 
 


News and Resources

"Quantifying humans and habitats turns them into 'whats': into biometric entities and Streetscores. This ontological reduction inevitably leads to impoverished notions of city planning, citizenship, and civic action." Shannon Mattern in "Databodies in Codespace." You can listen to more of Prof. Mattern here

"Still, there was no mistaking the implications of the incident: All human relations are a matter of record, ready to be revealed by a clever algorithm." On Peter Thiel's Palantir. "An intelligence platform designed for the global War on Terror was weaponized against ordinary Americans at home." Relatedly, Chinese authorities identify a man wanted for "economic crimes" in a crowd of 60,000 people with AI-enhanced surveillance. 

"If, as Zuckerberg stated before Congress, some sort of 'community standards' apply, what constitutes a 'community'?" Siva Vaidhyanathan asks this and other pointed questions in "Techno-Fundamentalism Can't Save You, Mark Zuckerberg." More from Vaidhyanathan in a Q&A on Facebook's business model

"Thirteen years and 2 billion people into this adventure, Zuckerberg is signaling that he’s evolving, with the implication that Facebook, as he built it, is not yet up to the task of undergirding real communities." Alexis Madrigal on Mark Zuckerberg's theory of community from last November. 

In "CRISPR Makes It Clear: The US Needs a Biology Strategy, and Fast," Amy Webb considers the risks associated with the gene-editing technology, CRISPR, and concludes, "First, government officials must recognize biology as a technology platform." Perhaps that is more like doubling down on the underlying problem.

"Software engineers continue to treat safety and ethics as specialities, rather than the foundations of all design ..." Yonatan Zunger in "Computer Science Faces An Ethics Crisis."

"We’ve long since stopped calling that sphere 'the real world,' as if it were somehow separate from the virtual, computational one that intersects with and undergirds it," Ian Bogost writes, "Maybe that was a mistake."

"But what technology can replace personal privacy or the coherence of a family or a community?" Wendell Berry asked in his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, "It All Turns On Affection," "What technology can undo the collateral damages of an inhuman rate of technological change?" 
 


Re-framings

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind:

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.” 

__________________

Wendell Berry in "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community" (not available online from what I can tell, I'm happy to pass along a PDF if you'd like it): 

“A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests.  But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness.  If it hopes to continue long as a community, it will wish to – and will have to – encourage respect for all its members, human and natural.  It will encourage respect for all stations and occupations.  Such a community has the power – not invariably but as a rule – to enforce decency without litigation.  It has the power, that is, to influence behavior.  And it exercises this power not by coercion or violence but by teaching the young and by preserving stories and songs that tell (among other things) what works and what does not work in a given place.”

__________________

An excerpt from O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, emphasis mine: 

“You see,” he went on calmly, “measured by your standards here, I'm a failure. I couldn't buy even one of your cornfields. I've enjoyed a great many things, but I've got nothing to show for it all.”

“But you show for it yourself, Carl. I'd rather have had your freedom than my land.”

Carl shook his head mournfully. “Freedom so often means that one isn't needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theaters. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.”

Alexandra was silent. She sat looking at the silver spot the moon made on the surface of the pond down in the pasture. He knew that she understood what he meant. At last she said slowly, “And yet I would rather have Emil grow up like that than like his two brothers. We pay a high rent, too, though we pay differently. We grow hard and heavy here. We don't move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff. If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if there were not something beside this, I wouldn't feel that it was much worth while to work. No, I would rather have Emil like you than like them. I felt that as soon as you came.”


Recently Published

In addition to the posts linked below from the blog, I also compiled much of what I've written over the past few years on technology, ethics, and politics into an ebook, Do Artifacts Have Ethics?: Technology, Politics, and the Moral Life. It is available through Amazon here. For those who would rather have nothing to do with Amazon, you can pick it up here

Vows of Digital Poverty
Facebook's Mr. Kurtz
Ivan Illich on Survival In Justice
Beyond the Trolley Car: The Moral Pedagogy of Ethical Tools
The Interrupted Self


This fourth installment of The Convivial Society has been some time in coming. In part, this was due to the usual press of schedule, tyranny of the urgent, eternal vigilance required to prevent toddler and infant from inflicting great harm on one another, etc. In this case, though, it was also due to the nature of the theme I chose to address. I've been thinking on and off about community for most of my adult life. This has not necessarily translated into any deep or creative insights. But it does mean that the topic has taken on a multiplicity of dimensions for me and I've come to see that a host of factors come into play when one thinks about community, especially in relation to technology. So it's taken awhile to crank this one out and I'm sure that I'll be unhappy with it as soon as I've hit Send. 

A modest trickle of new subscribers continue to sign up. Welcome aboard! As always, I hope you find this useful and somehow different from the typical feeds of information that we are likely to encounter. I'm aiming for something that is a bit more deliberate and enduring, occasionally thought provoking, and also engaged with the past as well as the present. (I don't usually have these run to 3000+ words!) Your feedback is always welcome. If you reply to this email, I'll get it in my Inbox. If you know anyone who might enjoy reading, pass along a link

Cheers,

Michael