One of the curious things about living through a time of whirlwind change is that it is often difficult to understand exactly what is changing. In recent years, new technology has given us the ability to transform basic aspects of our lives: the way we converse and learn; the way we work, play and shop; even the way we participate in political and social life. Dissidents around the world use the Internet to evade censorship and get their message out. Cyber-gossips send dispatches to thousands via e-mail. Musicians bypass record companies and put their songs on the Web for fans to download directly. Day traders roil the stock market, buying securities online with the click of a mouse and selling minutes later when the price jumps.
There is a common thread underlying such developments. It is not just a change in how we compute or communicate. Rather, it is a potentially radical shift in who is in control–of information, experience and resources. The Internet is allowing individuals to make decisions that once were made by governments, corporations and the media. To an unprec-edented degree, we can decide what news and entertainment we’re exposed to and whom we socialize with. We can earn a living in new ways; we can take more control of how goods are distributed; and we can even exercise a new degree of political power. The potential for personal growth and social progress seems limitless. Yet what makes this shift in power–this control revolution–so much more authentic than those revolutions described by techno-utopian futurists is its volatility and lack of preordained outcome.
Contrary to the claims of cyber-romantics, democratic empowerment via technology is not inevitable. Institutional forces are resisting, and will continue to resist, giving up control to individuals. And some people may wield their new power carelessly, denying themselves its benefits and imperiling democratic values. Nowhere are the mixed blessings of the new individual control more evident than in the relationship of the Internet to communities–not just “virtual communities” of dispersed individuals interacting online but real, geographically based communities.
Masters of Our Own Domains
The Internet’s impact on community has everything to do with a digital phenomenon known as personalization, which is simply the ability to shape one’s experience more precisely–whether it’s social encounters, news, work or learning. Traditionally, friendships and acquaintances have been structured by physical proximity; we meet people because they are our neighbors, classmates, co-workers or colleagues in some local organization. Much of our information intake–newspapers and radio, for example–also reflects locality, and we share these media experiences and others (like national television) with those who live around us. The global reach and interactivity of the Internet, however, is challenging this. Individuals can spend more time communicating and sharing experiences with others regardless of where they live. As Internet pioneer J.C.R. Licklider wrote back in the sixties, “Life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity.”
Virtual communities are perfect for hobbyists and others with quirky or specialized interests–whether they’re fans of swing music, chemistry professors or asthma sufferers. Indeed, these associations suggest the possibility of whole new forms of social life and participation. Because individuals are judged online by what they say, virtual communities would appear to soften social barriers erected by age, race, gender and other fixed characteristics. They can be particularly valuable for people who might be reticent about face-to-face social interaction, like gay and lesbian teenagers, political dissidents and the disabled. (“Long live the Internet,” one autistic wrote in an online discussion, where “people can see the real me, not just how I interact superficially with other people.”)