TITLE: Electronic Communities and Dancing Animals AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 03, 2007 4:47 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I volunteered to help with a local 5K/10K race this morning. When I arrived at my spot along the course, I had half an hour to fill before the race began, and 45 minutes or so before the first runners would reach me. At first I considered taking a short nap but feared I'd sleep too long. Not much help to the runners in that! So I picked up Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country, which was in my front seat on its way back to the library. (I wrote a recent article motivated by something else I read in this last book of Vonnegut's.) I opened the book to Page 61, and my eyes fell immediately to:
Electronic communities build nothing. You end up with nothing. We are dancing animals.
This passage follows a wonderful story about how Kurt mails his manuscripts, daily coming into contact with international voices and a flamboyant postal employee on whom he has a crush. I've heard this sentiment before, in many different contexts and from many different people, but fundamentally I disagree with the claim. Let me tell you about two stories of this sort that stick in my mind, and my reactions at the time. A decade or so ago, the famed philosopher and AI critic Hubert Dreyfus came to our campus to deliver a lecture as part of an endowed lecture series in the humanities. Had I been blogging at that time, I surely would have written a long review of this talk! Instead, all I have a notebook on my bookshelf full of pages and pages of notes. (Perhaps one of these days...) Dreyfus claimed that the Internet was leading to a disintegration of society by creating barriers to people connecting in the real world. Electronic communication was supplanting face-to-face communication but giving us only an illusion of a real connection; in fact, we were isolating ourselves from one another. In the question-and-answer session that followed, I offered a counterargument. Back in the mid-1980s I became quite involved in several Usenet newsgroups, both for research and entertainment. In the basketball and football newsgroups, I found intelligent, informed, well-rounded people with who to discuss sports at a deeper level than I could with anyone in my local physical world. These groups became an important part of my day. But as the number of people with Internet access exploded, especially on college campuses, the signal-to-noise ratio in the newsgroups fell precipitously. Eventually, a core group of the old posters moved much of discussion off-group to a private mailing list, and ultimately I was invited to join them. This mailing list continues to this day, taking on and losing members as lives change and opportunities arise. We still discuss sports and politics, pop culture and world affairs. It is a community as real to me as most others, and I consider some of the folks there to be good friends whom I'm lucky to have come to know. Members of the basketball group get together in person annually for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, and wherever we travel for business or pleasure we are likely to be in the neighborhood of a friend we can join for a meal and a little face-to-face communication. Like any real community, there are folks in the group whom I like a lot and others with whom I've made little or no personal connection. On-line we have good moments and disagreements and occasional hurt feelings, like any other community of people. The second story I remember most is from Vonnegut himself, when he, too, visited my campus back when. At one of the sessions I attended, someone asked him about the fate of books in the Digital Age. Vonnegut was certain that books would continue on in much their current form, because there was something special about the feel of a book in one's hands, the touch of paper on the skin, the smell of the print and binding. Even then I recall disagreeing with this -- not because I don't also feel that something special in the feel of a book in my hands or the touch of the paper on my skin. A book is an artifact of history, an invention of technology. Technology changes, and no matter how personally we experience a particular technology's outward appearance, it is more likely to be different in a few years than to be the same. My Usenet newsgroup story seems to contradict Dreyfus's thesis, but he held that, because we took it upon ourselves to meet in person, my story actually supported it. To me that seemed a too convenient way for him to dismiss the key point: our sports list is essentially an electronic community, one whose primary existence is virtual. Were the Internet to disappear tomorrow, some of the personal connections we've made would live on, but the community would die. And keep in mind that I am old guy... Today's youth grow up in a very different world of technology than we did. One of the specific sessions I regret missing by missing OOPSLA was the keynote by Jim Purbrick and Mark Lentczner on Second Life, a new sort of virtual world that may well revolutionize the idea of electronic community not only for personal interaction but for professional, corporate, and economic interaction as well. As an example, OOPSLA itself had an island in Second Life as a way to promote interaction among attendees before and during the conference. The trend in the world these days is toward more electronic interaction, not less, and new kinds that support wider channels of communication and richer texture in the interchange. There are risks in this trend, to be sure. Who among us hasn't heard the already classic joke about the guy who needs a first life before he can have a Second Life? But I think that this trend is just another step in the evolution of human community. We'll find ways to minimize the risks while maximizing the benefits. The next generation will be better prepared for this task than old fogies like me. All that said, I am sympathetic to the sentiment that Vonnegut expressed in the passage quoted above, because I think underlying the sentiment is the core of a truth about being human. He expresses his take on that truth in the book, too, for as I turned the page of the book I read:
We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different.
I know this beauty, and I'm sure you do. We are physical beings. The ability and desire to make and share ideas distinguish us from the rest of the world, but still we are dancing animals. There seems in us an innate need to do, not just think, to move and see and touch and smell and hear. Perhaps this innate trait is why I love to run. But I am also aware that some folks can't run, or for whatever reason cannot sense our physical world in the same way. Yet many who can't still try to go out and do. At my marathon last weekend, I saw men who had lost use of their legs -- or lost their legs altogether -- making their way over 26.2 tough miles in wheelchairs. The long uphill stretches at the beginning of the course made their success seem impossible, because every time they released their wheels to grab for the next pull forward they lost a little ground. Yet they persevered. These runners' desire to achieve in the face of challenge made my own difficulties seem small. I suspect that these runners' desire to complete the marathon had as much to do with a sense of loss as with their innate nature as physical beings. And I think that this accounts for Vonnegut's and others' sentiment about the insufficiency of electronic communities: a sense of loss as they watch the world around evolve quickly into something very different from the world in which they grew. Living in the physical world is clearly an important part of being human. But it seems to be neither necessary nor sufficient as a condition. Like Vonnegut, I grew up in a world of books. To me, there is still something special about the feel of a book in my hands, the touch of paper on my skin, the smell of the print and binding of a new book the first time I open it. But these are not necessary parts of the world; they are artifacts of history. The sensual feel of a book will change, and humanity will survive, perhaps none they worse for it. I can't say that face-to-face communities are merely an artifact of history, soon to pass, but I see no reason to believe that the electronic communities we build now -- we do build them, and they so seem to last, at least on the short time scale we have for judging them -- cannot augment our face-to-face communities in valuable ways. I think that they will allow us to create forms of community that were not available to us before, and thus enrich human experience, not diminish it. While we are indeed dancing animals, as Vonnegut describes us, we are also playing animals and creative animals and thinking animals. And, at our core, we are connection-making animals, between ideas and between people. Anything that helps us to make more, different, and better connections has a good chance of surviving in some form as we move into the future. Whether dinosaurs like Vonnegut or I can survive there, I don't know! -----