I want to spend a few hundred words today, considering the geographic dimensions of digitally augmented/mediated social action. I am not only talking about GPS-enabled smartphone apps (Foursquare, Geocaching, SeeClickFix, etc.) but also the sorts of practices and habits– the kind that most people barely notice– that make up one’s daily Internet usage. Just as there are different car cultures in different parts of the United States (and the rest of the world), are there different “Interent Cultures” based on geographic region? Does where you connect, have any impact on how you connect? In some respects, yes– speed, availability, and stability of a connection matters; nations put up firewalls to prevent their citizens from accessing dangerous ideas; and you wouldn’t (or can’t) do the same things on your work computer that you could do on your home computer. All of this leads to a common provocation: can we utilize the properties of scale, place, and community to create radically new kinds of augmented realities. Can communities utilize a shared Internet connection to deal with local issues? Can we deliberately work against the individualist ethic of the Internet to revitalize public life?William J. Mitchell, Professor of Architecture and Media Arts at MIT, opens his book, Me++, with a description of the large apparatus that allowed Marconi to send the first wireless telegraph message:
Here, Guglielmo Marconi built four 210-foot towers, spun a spiderweb of wires in the sky, cranked up a kerosene engine to drive a 20,000-volt power supply, and ran a spark-gap rotor that could be heard for miles.
He then compares this massive machine with the cell phone in his pocket:
A century later, global wireless systems brough me to the spot and kept me effortlessly in touch as I stood there. In my hand I held an inexpensive transmitter and receiver that was immeasurably more sophisticated than Marconi’s immense construction,… I pulled off the cover (no doubt voiding the warranty) to reveal a palm-sized, previously made architectural model; the powerhouse had shrunk to a matchbook-scaled battery, the transmission house now resided on a chip, and the antenna tower was just a couple of inches long.
When a technology makes the critical jump from architectural or furniture piece to handheld device (and there are lots of them- clock towers to watches; communal beer bowls to individual beer bottles; libraries to Web of Science accessed on an iPad) it has a lasting effect on the social relations of its users. It means shared resources become individual possessions or subscribed services, and activities that were once socially or communally experienced are now personal. It might also mean that public goods become private commodities. But before anyone decries the loss of community, consider the benefits of indoor plumbing (versus communal latrines or wells) or the non-competitive consumption of electronic articles (versus waiting for a book to be returned to the library). We may also consider revisiting the social construction of technology to help us understand why the Internet behaves like it does and why we decided to go small in the first place. In other words, we can retrace our steps and make new decisions about how we innovate and what sorts of values and politics we want our technology to embody.
The computer was not always meant to be personal. It was a mainframe, something that you bought time on and shared with lots of other people. It was more like a clock tower than a pocket watch. More like a town’s well than a kitchen faucet. The technological determinist would argue that as innovation shrinks the size of technology, the social relations change and adapt. The social constructivist recognized that, implicit in this argument, is the idea that technology is external to social relations: that the process of design, research, and innovation are free from the emotions, values, politics, and economics that govern the rest of human action. What really goes on, according to the social constructivist, is much more interesting and complicated. Certain values win out over others, powerful actors shape the technology to their liking, and markets shape the supply and demand of the technology and its constituent parts.
Jacques Ellul called the over-arching logic and method of technological innovation, technique. Technique pre-supposed the machine, although the machine was also its ultimate expression. Doug Hill, on this blog, has done an excellent job of identifying some of the most important parts of Ellul:
The belief that humans can no longer control the technologies they’ve unleashed – that technique has become autonomous – is also central to his thought. “Wherever a technical factor exists,” he said, “it results, almost inevitably, in mechanization: technique transforms everything it touches into a machine.”
Along the way technique’s drive toward completion does provide certain comforts, Ellul acknowledged, but overall its devastation of what really matters – the human spirit – is complete. “Technique demands for its development malleable human ensembles,” he said. “…The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created.”
I am not convinced, however, that technique has become wholly autonomous. Societies can awaken from what Langdon Winner called the technological somnambulism of the modern era. We can recognize the role of the machine in our everyday lives and, having developed that understanding, become reflexive in regards to our use of that technology. Communities can identify the values they share, (caring, reciprocity, fairness, independence) and look to the past to find configurations that foster those values. They can also speculate and test out brand new configurations, patterns, and assemblages that take advantage of new information and technological achievements. This can mean recognizing the social and environmental destruction perpetrated by electronics manufactures and resolving to hack, recycle, and appropriate instead of buying new. New products can be built for durability not planned obsolescence. The treadmill of capitalist production and consumption works against these efforts, but that does not make it a sisyphean task.
I am interested in using local networks to enhance the communitarian aspects of shared hardware and software. For example, would if one’s online experience was colored and mediated not by an individual’s device, but by the community within which they live? What would the network architecture look like? What would social networking look like? Would we begin to see local flavors of Internet culture? Would these local networks become the basis for community dispute resolution, or the sites of time-shifted farmers markets? Of course, all of these things can be done today, on our individualist, location-agnostic Internet, but a thoroughly communitarian Internet would make these sorts of applications obvious and primary. The best way to describe this is through a very simple example: Imagine being excited to see what the Internet looks and feels like in a new town.
I offer the communitarian web as a provocation. We typically consider the homogeneity of the Internet as one of its greatest features. No matter where you connect, you are going to experience a similar Internet. Some sites change slightly when they notice you’re connecting from a different country, but the Internet is generally agnostic when it comes to place. The characteristics of homogeneity and agnosticism are deeply connected to the individuality embedded within the network. The atomic unit of the Internet is the single user, but there are benefits to shared experiences that we do not actively seek out or choose. Its the same reason why universities and towns might still opt for bell tower chimes even though everyone has access to individual time pieces. The community-centric network should sound inefficient or even ridiculous. It is meant to work against the all-encompassing logic of technique and bring to the fore, a new set of priorities.