Andreas Broeckmann on Mon, 7 Jun 1999 16:48:42 +0100

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Syndicate: Agre: Rethinking Networks and Communities in a Wired Society

From: Phil Agre <>
To: "Red Rock Eater News Service" <>
Subject: [RRE]Rethinking Networks and Communities in a Wired Society

  Rethinking Networks and Communities in a Wired Society

  Philip E. Agre
  Graduate School of Education and Information Studies
  University of California, Los Angeles
  Los Angeles, California  90095-1520

  Paper presented to the American Society for Information Science,
  Pasadena, May 1999.

  This is a draft.  You are welcome to forward it electronically to
  anyone for any noncommercial purpose, but please do not quote from it.

  Footnotes and references to follow.  Comments appreciated.  1750 words.

//1 Introduction

As networking information technology becomes ubiquitous, we are often
compelled to clarify concepts that have often been used uncritically.
Observe, for example, the different meanings at play in the phrases
"community network" and "network community".  "Community network"
suggests "given a (geographically localized) community, build a
network", and "network community" suggests "given a (globally
distributed) network, build a community".  Those have been the
polarities of popular and professional discourse.  In each case the
word "community" points to an ideal of overcoming social distance, and
in each case the word "network" suggests an instrument for doing so.

"Network" and "community" seem complementary: each is capable of
containing the other.  Each plays its role in an old story that is
central both to American culture and to the tradition of sociology.
According to this story, people in preindustrial societies lived
their lives in small, intimate communities, these communities were
torn apart by the industrial revolution, people in modern societies
consequently live isolated and atomized lives, and action is therefore
required to recover the intimacy of local solidary communities.  This
story, as research by sociologists such as Barry Wellman has shown,
is false in most important respects.  Communities have always suffered
from factions and conflicts that mirror those of the social structure
more broadly.  People have always traveled great distances and
built far-flung networks of kin, trade, and scholarship.  Economic
and political dealings, no matter how spread out, are still largely
embedded in social networks.  And modern people have social networks
that are no less robust than those of their premodern ancestors.
Much has changed, to be sure.  Social networks are more spread
out geographically and thus less locally dense.  The activities of
building and maintaining networks are more likely to happen in private
spaces and less in public ones.  But the problems of the new world are
hard to parse in terms of such simple contrasts to those of the old.

To bring order to contemporary discussions of these matters, it
will help to enumerate the range of meanings that now attach to
the words "community" and "network".  I will mention five of each.
Geographic communities are localized.  Communities of practice are
defined by something -- an interest or identity, perhaps -- that
their participants have in common, regardless of their location
in space.  Thus we speak of the African-American community, but
an occupational or recreational group is a community of practice as
well.  Third, Wellman suggests that a social network can be understood
as a community; this notion, unlike the others, lacks a sense of
commonality or boundary.  Fourth, a virtual community can be built
in an Internet forum, although in practice most virtual communities
areembedded in larger communities of practice whose members interact
through other media as well.  Finally, Benedict Anderson suggests
that newspapers and other media can create imagined communities for
their readers, and each of the other kinds of community can have an
imaginary aspect as well as an aspect of concrete interaction.

The word "network", for its part, can refer to a set of computers
communicating by common protocols.  It can also refer, as can
"community", to a social network.  Other meanings are more obscure.
For some economists, a network good is a good whose value to a buyer
depends in large part on the number of other people who have it.
Telephones are network goods; so are operating systems and fashionable
clothes.  Other economists speak of the networks of firms whose
sprawling alliances enabled them to engage in especially complex
production processes.  Finally, one speaks of broadcast networks,
an industry-specific concept that combines both technical and
organizational elements.

All of this, both the sociological facts and the array of concepts
with which several sorts of social scientists have tried to contend
with them, tends to undermind the simple opposition between local
and global.  Our attention is drawn toward the middle ground,
and especially to the ways in which the intrinsic properties of
information help to shape the architectures of both social networks
and technical networks, and thereby define what community might
possibly mean.  Let us begin with some of the phenomena that have
affected the development of community networks.  The earliest
community networks considerably predate widespread adoption of the
Internet, and numerous such networks predate widespread adoption of
the Web.  As a result, those early community networks required some
customized hardware and much customized software, most of which was
overtaken as the Internet spread.  In particular, many publicly
supported community networks, which offered dial-up service bundled
with the rest of their services, found themselves assailed by newly
emerging Internet service providers, who thought it unfair to be
facing government-subsidized competition.  Character-based interfaces
were likewise overtaken by graphical interfaces, and custom-built
graphical interfaces by the Web.  Newer community networks could build
their services directly on the Web; older ones had to translate.

The lesson here applies far beyond community networks, and it runs
much deeper than the inevitability of obsolescence and the march
of progress.  In each case, pioneers built heavily bundled services
because standardized platforms did not yet exist.  Once several such
bundles were in use, it became possible to abstract out one element of
the bundled functionality.  Such standardized platforms are extremely
efficient because the costs of developing, producing, acquiring,
installing, learning, maintaining, and upgrading them can be
distributed across many applications.  Bundled services might arise in
different industries or localities, but the informational efficiencies
-- economies of scale -- of standardized platforms will eventually
provide a common denominator for them all.  Community networks, like
all networked applications, would do well to plan for this dynamic,
which takes certain aspects of both power and freedom away from local
system-designers, while creating new opportunities as well.

A similar dynamic applies on the level of content.  Some information
services and discussion topics are truly local in scope, but most are
not, and the non-local services and topics will create great pressure
to blur the boundaries between the community network and the global
network.  The point is not that many services and topics are truly
global in scope, but rather that the world's innumerable communities
of practice cut across the lines of geographic locality at innumerable
angles.  A network defined in terms of a particular geographic unit,
be it a city or county or nation or continent, can only reasonably
aspire to serve needs that are defined in the same geographic terms.
Content, like architecture, will become stratified in the long run as
generalizable components are abstracted out.

This principle does not only apply to network services; it applies
to the production of goods and services more generally.  When goods
and services are produced locally for local consumption, they can
only contain a certain amount of knowledge work.  As infrastructures
and institutions allow production to be organized regionally, then
nationally, and then globally, knowledge labor can be ever more
finely divided.  It becomes possible to make a career by developing
and exercising quite specialized intellectual skills, because the
intellectual products of those skills will be embodied in boods and
services that are consumed by a great many people.  One again, the
key is the long-run process of abstracting out a common element from
a large number of complex bundles, and then distributing the cost
of that element among an even larger number of new and more clearly
modularized bundles.  The people who make their careers in this
fashion necessarily operate on a global stage.  Their skills will
be unique, or nearly so, and they will only be able to deploy their
skills effectively through social networks that are distributed

What, then, of community?  Speak of these knowledge workers,
Christopher Lasch has spoken harshly and influentially of a "revolt
of the elites", as if these global professional networks developed
purely through affiliation and choice.  Lasch, in fact, contends
that the material wealth that these practices bring is morally wrong,
and yet he does not contend with their place in the global system
of production.  Be this as it may, Lasch's reaction does bring
home the question of geographic community in a networked world.
Computer networks make both possible and necessary the elaboration
of communities of practice based in shared interests, so that the
fate of geographic community depends on the shared interesets that
are still defined in geographic terms once the abstracting forces
of globalization have taken hold.  Surely these geographically
shared interests are numerous: environmental pollution, violent crime,
services that require physical interaction, recreational activities,
and whatever it is that has so far prevented teleconferencing from
becoming widespread.  It is clear that these issues still strongly
shape who lives where, and who lives close to whom.  The question,
of course, is whether shared interests necessarily imply community in
a more substantive sense: either a shared identity or an overlapping
set of social networks within which local economic and political
activities can be embedded.

This analysis would seem to confirm the conventional idea that the
informational effects of globalization threaten the traditional values
of community.  But the progressive unbundling of community-forming
processes also threaten some of the traditional evils of community.
Social mobility has traditionally required a vertiginous leap from one
social world to another -- one complex of networks, practices, places,
identities, and official accreditations to another.  The networked
world, however, makes it much easier to maintain several identities,
and to be involved in several social worlds at once.  In particular,
computer networks make it especially easy to reach out across the
boundaries of distance and social networks to form caucuses: Latino
engineers, radical teachers, conservative lawyers, peace-activist
physicians, Christian students, and so on.  The Internet is one great
laboratory of hybrid identity-formation, as unsettling as this will
inevitably seem, and we should embrace it for this.

The central tension between the concepts of community and network,
perhaps, is that communities are supposed to define us, where networks
are not.  Communities are supposed to have boundaries and meanings;
they are supposed to correlate with languages and identities, and
to be the sites of collective cognition and solidary action.  The
antirationalist traditions of left and right both celebrate them for
this reason, and view the boundlessness of networks as disruptive, or
at best as a tool for recovering communitarian values.  But none of
these conceptual associations is quite true.  Communities have always
been more complicated than that, and it is precisely those intrinsic
complexities that networks greatly amplify.  The design of community
networks can support positive values in this complicated world, but
only so long as the designers understand what they are getting into.

//* References

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin
and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition, London: Verso, 1991.

Gernot Grabher, ed, The Embedded Firm: On the Socioeconomics of
Industrial Networks, London: Routledge, 1993.

Michael L. Katz and Carl Shapiro, Systems competition and network
effects, Journal of Economic Perspectives 8(2), 1994, pages 93-115.

Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of
Democracy, New York: Norton, 1996.

Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the
Electronic Frontier, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993.

Douglas Schuler, New Community Networks: Wired for Change, Reading,
MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996.

Barry Wellman, ed, Networks in the Global Village: Life in
Contemporary Communities, Boulder: Westview, 1999.


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