The Wired Neighborhood belongs tothe burgeoning genre of books exploring the social and political ramifications of electronic networks. Here Stephen Doheny-Farina, an associate professor at Clarkson University in upstate New York, takes issue with some of the claims made by online enthusiasts about the democratic potential of the new technologies, particularly the view that cyberspace will play an important role in knitting together the diverse communities of the future in a sort of "electronic neighborhood" bound together not by geography but by shared interests.
Doheny-Farina maintains that once we begin to divorce ourselves from real places through our participation in virtual worlds, we accelerate the breakdown of community life. For all the benefits of telecommuting, attending virtual universities, voting from home, etc., these innovations ultimately disconnect us from our communities. "The dominant image in the age of the net will be the nomad," he writes. "If one has no need to be anyplace, one has no place."
Doheny-Farina also stresses that virtual communities eliminate many of the essential features of real communities, such as the unplanned encounter — the chance meetings between people that promote a sense of neighborliness and familiarity — as well as the confrontation with people whose lifestyles and values differ from our own. Virtual communities tend to be utopian, Doheny-Farina notes — they are communities of interest, education, tastes, beliefs, and skills. As a result, he writes, "much of the net is a Byzantine amalgamation of fragmented, isolating, solipsistic enclaves of interest based on a collectivity of assent."
Despite his general skepticism about the promises of on-line communities, Doheny-Farina speaks out in favor of local community networks and the "civic networking" movement. He describes the movement as "limited, focused, carefully applied efforts that attempt not to move us into cyberspace but to use communication technologies to help reintegrate people within their placed communities." The civic networking movement combines communitarian ideals with the new technologies to link community institutions, foster greater access to public information and officeholders, develop forums where citizens can interact and discuss local issues, as well as provide a variety of public services.
Doheny-Farina surveys the expanding literature on civic networking and describes a number of actual community networks. While generally optimistic about their possibilities, he finds that they face a number of daunting challenges in the years ahead. Chief among these is the fact that many — perhaps most — participants of community networks are not interested in local information or in participating in local discussions on-line. Their main interest is in using them as local on-ramps to the information highway.
Doheny-Farina finds the greatest promise in the idea of a wired neighborhood. The so-called Neigh-Net, he says, "can provide a number of services, none of which are spectacular but all of which involve the essential functions of daily living." These include welcoming new neighbors, marketing services, working together on local issues, publicizing neighborhood events, and finding neighbors with shared interests.
Copyright 1997 by Scott London. All rights reserved.