Virtual community in real reality...

by Greg Smith, Community Involvement Unit, Newham.

This is an abridged version of a paper given to the Communities Online conference in October 1995, and published in Inventing the Future, Partnerships for Tomorrow, January 1996.


This paper begins by acknowledging some of the potential benefits of IT & telematics in the voluntary and community sector. I then explore three areas of concern around information in the community and voluntary sector, then a bit about virtual community and real reality. In case you are wondering, and if you are not now you will be by the end of this paper, I am not a technophobe, but an enthusiastic user of information technology in my professional role as researcher, networker and community developer, and in domestic life as I teach children to use computers at home and as a volunteer in our local nursery school. But all human life is not there on the Internet, and in many respects I am best described as a devout sceptic.

Possible Benefits

Of course there are potential benefits for ordinary people and for local community groups if they can find the time and resources to plug into the Information Society. If information spells power, any success in shaping and/or liberating information must be an empowering experience. Direct access by the public to useful on-line databases could in theory help people navigate in such impenetrable jungles as the social security or health service bureaucracy. Email could give many people and grass roots organisations fast cheap international and local written communication, one to one or via mailshots. Complaints and campaigns could be directed instantaneously to the top, with copies to thousands of concerned people across the world; even now it is allegedly possibly to send an Email message direct to Bill Clinton at the White House and soon to Cherri Booth at 10 Downing Street. The use of Bulletin boards, computer conferencing and other forms of electronic publishing could help relatively marginal groups get their message across. There could be other positive spin offs such as training opportunities for unemployed people in IT, better participation in the labour market for women and disabled people unable easily to travel to work.

There is also the potential for better communication across sectors, important in the context of partnerships for urban regeneration, and between departments of local and national government. In theory there is the potential for reducing the number of meetings and forests of paper documentation which no one has time to read, and behind which politicians often take cover, while accountability could be improved by easy searching for relevant key words in such texts. It is also the case that in some workplaces networked computing has led to the erosion of hierarchies and the growth of teamwork, but we need to ask whether power (any more than high salaries and share options) has really shifted from the top levels of management. We also need to note the growth of less socially responsible practices such as contracting out and "down-sizing". Nonetheless we must concede that IT could in some of these ways be a democratising force.


1) The Information Jungle

As IT proliferates information overload will be an increasing problem/temptation to the non discerning user. We technofreaks who regularly log in, know how easy it is to waste hours just "surfing the Internet," being sprayed by slightly interesting information and riding where the current takes us. Will "knowledge" or "wisdom" increase along with this surfeit of information? Is any, or all of the information found there up-to date, relevant, accurate or (dare we use the word/) true? Already too we are reaching the point where electronic junk mail could clog the system or render it unattractive. Megabytes landing in your mailbox mean that you either leave it unread or find you don't start productive work till about midday.

Who needs all this information? Well no one of course needs it all. But who needs potential access to it all? I think not the hard pressed community activist or voluntary sector worker.. With a few exceptions information is a commodity for managers and the powerful, for governments and bureaucrats. Sometimes liberating key pieces of secret information can be empowering for workers, unions or the community. But more commonly their role will be as producers and suppliers of information, talk to the voluntary sector staff who spend half their time filling in forms or questionnaires or evaluation reports, and about the pressure that puts them under and the time it diverts from personcare, face to face contact, networking and community development?

The Orwellian nightmares remain; Big brother and the panopticon discussed by Foucault are already here in the surveillance of public spaces by video camera and police helicopters. The potential horrors of linked databases in the hands of a totalitarian state, or even just an efficient bureaucracy, and the possibilities or rewriting historical documents or parliamentary decisions with a few key strokes are already available. And it does not take the imagination of a science fiction writer to think through the possibilities of organised fraud, economic sabotage, military incompetence or malignity or simply a cataclysmic cock up, in a world that has become utterly dependent on advanced global informational infrastructure. Nick Leeson and the crash of Barings may be just the pioneer. Perhaps the structures are more fragile than we think, since they in turn dependent on supplies of raw materials from all over the world and on a reliable and efficient system for the distribution and production of electricity. The Internet maybe designed to survive a nuclear attack, but can society survive an Internet attack?.

2) The Exclusion of the underclass

In the optimistic vision there is no consideration of the place of the excluded, and many people because of poverty, lack of education or simply lack of access to computers and cables will never be able to participate. The first hurdle is the initial cost of hardware and software. Even with the drop in prices of recent years private individuals need to have crossed the threshold of affluence before they can afford to purchase a personal computer. Two Thirds of the world's people are unlikely to be that rich in the foreseeable future, as their struggles are about food, land, housing, clean water and drains, even before they get round to looking for an electricity supply. In Europe and North America at least 20% of the population are in poverty, dependent on welfare benefits or in low paid irregular work. Who in this privatised world will invest in the common ownership, or community use of the means of information?

The second barrier is of course the education, training and culture gap between the information rich and the information poor. IT first of all demands high standards of literacy, in English (or one of the other main world languages). Beyond that comes computer literacy, a series of skills which exclude many people, notably the old, the immigrant and refugee, and to a large extent women who are directed by education and culture towards "softer" more human spheres of activity. It needn't necessarily be so and there are signs of change yet so far women's involvement in the information society has to this point tended to be limited to the mass production of components and hardware on the assembly lines of Asia, or to the routine production and retrieval of data on the VDU consoles of the west, in short to alienating work with attendant health hazards.

At the third level comes exclusion from information handling skills. Anyone who has begun to "surf the Internet" will recognise how difficult the process of learning to connect up, let alone to navigate through the information jungle can be, especially if you do not have access to expensive training packages or at least a friendly and patient "native" tourist guide. And because of the huge complexity for everyone (in the words of the good book) "Our knowledge now is partial". Like Local government finance, or European agricultural policy there is no one who understands it all. Of course there is no intrinsic reason to prevent a large programme of investment by government and industry in education and training, on an equal opportunities basis. Over a twenty year period a major impact could be made, although with the rapid pace of technological change, regular retraining and upgrading of skills would need to be built in. However, long term investment is notably lacking in the priorities of a government and private sector entranced by the short termism of the market economy.

3) Information as a market commodity

As the usefulness of the technology increases the commodification of information has set it. Even now on-line costs to really useful information services are prohibitive to all but high profit companies and privileged sectors of government; with the massive capital investment needed to make the "superhighway" a reality, true costs are likely to soar, subsidised access is likely to disappear, almost every service will be expected to make a financial return, and accountants are likely to restrict usage to those who can generate income. The copyrighting and protection of information sources by improved cybersecurity will undoubtedly grow. Ominously information once freely in the public domain, such as small area census data, is now only available to people or organisations who can pay large sums of money, and the liberation of information ("hacking") is in many countries a criminal offence.

As long as IT is dominated by the market any benefit to ordinary private individuals or grass roots community groups will be crumbs under the table. As far as the general public is concerned the main functions of the superhighway will be distribution of entertainment (58 channels of American trash movies, and zappit games improving each year in their search for virtual reality). While there will be a surface appearance of a cornucopia of cultural choices the products available will inevitably be constrained within the limited choices of the dominant Western mass culture. There are dangers too that all cultural and sporting activity will become spectator oriented rather than participatory, spelling danger to physical and mental health as the only exercise of the channel hopping couch potato will be to press a zapper, on average every 45 seconds.

Interactive TV and similar technologies are advocated as enabling more participation in democracy. You could register your vote from home, local and national referenda would be easy and cheap to organise. However this is far from informed participation in community affairs, and is more likely to reduce politics to the level of soap opera as fact and fiction become even more blurred.

Virtual and Real Community

IT and telematics brings contradictory forces to bear on the whole concept of community. Globalisation of the market economy, and the spread of a global culture through the diffusion of information and entertainment by the electronic media is the major force imposing a shared experience on increasing proportions of the world's population. Yet at the same time the technology brings diversity, fragmentation, invidualisation, and privatisation, especially as channels and interactive networks proliferate. But such networks are less tied to geography and neighbourhood and more tied to communities of interest. It will be easier to establish world-wide networks, but harder to bring people together for local face to face interaction. Information technology and telecommuting may have some potential for countering the growth of oil fired transportation, possibly bringing some environmental benefits in its wake.

From the direction, of cyberspace, comes an extremely optimistic view of the potential for community in postmodern society. In an article appearing (on-line) as foreword to the Dummy's guide to the Internet Mitch Kapor<> Co-founder, Electronic Frontier Foundation makes these claims.

New communities are being built today. You cannot see. You cannot visit hem, except through your keyboard. Their highways are wires and optical fibres; their language a series of ones and zeros.

Yet these communities of cyberspace are as real and vibrant as any you could find on a globe or in an atlas. Those are real people on the other sides of those monitors. And freed from physical limitations, these people are developing new types of cohesive and effective communities - ones which are defined more by common interest and purpose than by an accident of geography, ones on which what really counts is what you say and think and feel, not how you look or talk or how old you are.

As such, the types of social relations and communities which can be built on these media share these characteristics. Computer networks encourage the active participation of individuals rather than the passive non-participation induced by television narcosis.

The new forums atop computer networks are the great levellers and reducers of organizational hierarchy. Each user has, at least in theory, access to every other user, and an equal chance to be heard. Given these characteristics, networks hold tremendous potential to enrich our collective cultural, political, and social lives and enhance democratic values everywhere.

Switching from the concerns of modernity, such as rational science, individual autonomy, and democracy but in keeping with the spirit of post modernity and the New Age the article ends with a quotation from the Buddha.

"As a net is made up of a series of ties, so everything in this world is connected by a series of ties. If anyone thinks that the mesh of a net is an independent, isolated thing, he is mistaken. It is called a net because it is made up of a series of interconnected meshes, and each mesh has its place and responsibility in relation to other meshes."

Similar views have been expressed in the C4 TV Programme, "Visions of Heaven & Hell" on 7/2/95 and in a book by Rheingold entitled "The Virtual Community".

It seems to me that this is an naively over-optimistic view of the development of communities.

The possibilities of global networking by telematics push to an extreme one of the fundamental questions about the nature of community. Is it possible to have a sense of community without a sense of place, without anchoring it in locality and/or personal face to face interaction?

Rheingold relates the now famous story of the father who used the WELL bulletin board when his daughter contracted leukaemia. He searched everywhere for information about the best treatments, and was inundated with both useful advice and messages of what could best be described as "prayer support". Happily the girl got quality treatment recovered. That's great, although one might need to ask other questions about the availability or rationing of such treatments in the NHS in the U.K.

In contrast last month my two year old daughter had to be admitted to our local hospital as an emergency at 11 o'clock at night. In the end it was nothing too serious but a wise precaution and after two days she was fine again. But that was not the time to use the Internet. Instead, we had our next door neighbour, Jenny. She had already been with us two hours while we waited for the GP to visit. Then without being asked she took in our son for the night while we went to hospital. We know we are privileged as a family to be part of a local community network where such behaviour is normal. It is of course built out of thousands of daily acts of mutual co-operation and reciprocity, formal and informal childminding arrangements, sharing cars for supermarket trips, looking after cats and rabbits when families are on holiday, going to boring parties and school meetings and tolerating through thin walls the incompatible musical tastes of one's neighbours. But such community is possible even in the fragmented society of East London and at times is vital for sanity and survival. And it can't yet be found on the internet.

There's a down side too. Kapor glosses over the tendency of communities, indeed their function, to build boundaries and barriers. A totally open network will always find it hard to develop internal solidarity, since so much of this depends upon building a distinct identity by comparison with other groups, even by conflict with a common enemy. In East London we struggle with that at all the levels of racism. That is why traditional community (Gemeinschaft) was strongest in working class neighbourhoods of mining villages, and single industry towns, where engagement in class struggle and collaboration in ameliorating poverty bred deep solidarity,(as well as arguably less desirable features such as rejection of incomers, conservatism, male dominance and rigid informal social control).

In the Information society while relationships of communication will grow in number, they are almost certainly going to remain at the level of network association(Gessellschaft), transitory and instrumental, only in some cases such as interactive bulletin boards and cyberconferences developing into communities of interest, clubs or organisations. Anonymity and pseudonyms on many bulletin boards and chat lines, not to mention the dungeons of fantasy games are the extreme case. Inherently they are incapable of building "real" community (Gemeinschaft), which(like "real ale") is largely the construct of our nostalgia, though equally pleasant and intoxicating. Kapor's "vibrant real (but virtual) communities" are little more than occasional linkages between narcissistic individuals, tinged with nostalgia for the hippy communes of the late 1960's. Indeed a key factor in traditional community was that what an individual "thinks and feels" is subordinate to "how you look, how you talk, how old you are" and to where you work and who are your kin.

It is of course an contested question as to whether the replacement of gemeinschaft by gesselschaft (or the changing balance between them) is a good or bad thing>) That is the heart of the political debates between communitarians on the one hand and liberal or radical individualists on the other.

With electronic relationships being impersonal and at a distance it will be hard (though not necessarily impossible)to establish shared cultural norms of behaviour. Already the internet suffers from "flaming" where angry obscenities are traded across the world. Mutual social control is indeed one universal feature of face to face communities and the self regulation possible on the internet is weak in comparison. Within limits it is no bad thing, and certainly preferable to centralised coercion or censorship. Although the prophets of cyberspace argue that the internet has a "life force" of its own which is intrinsically democratic and liberating there is in fact always a possibility for a small group of powerful interests to achieve near monopoly control, or at least blocking mechanisms within cyberspace technology. The origins of the Internet in the US military industrial complex, and the bid for software standardisation by such multinationals as MicroSoft should make us suspicious of the exaggerated claims of cyber anarchists.

Whatever benefits may be found in the information society, revival of "community" is not one of them. At least not community as the traditional nostalgic, and incontrovertibly good product of our imaginations. However the production and dissemination of such images, is a notable feature of our age and is linked with the development of IT, especially interactive multimedia and Virtual Reality. Interestingly we are already seeing the marketing by the leisure industry of "virtual community" in the shape of theme parks, industrial museums and the like, where customers are sold for the duration of their visit, environments that evoke nostalgia, and vicarious and temporary Gemeinschaft. In the slate caverns of North Wales, in the Jorvik Centre at York, in the Ragged School Museum in East London, the visitor from post modern times can step back to any number of pretend worlds, and in them participate to greater or lesser degree in the life of the community. Many such places are the relics of disappeared industries, ex-miners, ex-fishermen and ex-mill girls have been retrained as tourist guides.

Even in the science fiction (becoming fact!) world of virtual reality, where it may soon be possible to send 3D visual images, a hug, and even engage in virtual (hardly virtuous!) sex over the information superhighway, it is likely that people will still need to, and prefer to meet, not to mention make love, in the flesh (sic). Even if teleworking, teleshopping, teleleisure (in homes surrounded by video cameras and security fences and patrolled by rottweilers) become the norm, it is inevitable that for the foreseeable future people will live, play and be educated, go to pubs and churches and go for walks in neighbourhoods. It will be harder but still not impossible to distinguish real life from the fantasy of "pretend land". Inevitably people living in urban neighbourhoods, small towns or village centres will meet neighbours face to face, talk with them, discover common interests and some sense of local community will persist. It will of course happen most to those who can tear themselves away from the VDU and abandon the use of the motor car. That of course is a matter of choice and values. One of the common laments of rural teleworkers is that they no longer interact with real people, although there is a certain irony that their flight from the city was motivated by images of the supposed harmony and mutual support of rural gemeinschaft. Yet they find they have neither the time, the social skills or geographical proximity to build strong relationships with their neighbours.

In the not so foreseeable future who knows whether the technology will lose its glamour, the socio-economic system supporting the cyberworld will collapse or a cataclysm will end the world as we know it? The present and the future could be very fragile indeed.


Telematics and the information society is here to stay. In themselves the technologies are neither wholly evil or wholly good. What matters is how, and on whose behalf they are used. They like all technologies are the subject of ethical decisions, and susceptible to political control. It is vital therefore to have strong, informed and value based policies by which we can help shape the future.

The rapid changes brought about by information technology present a crisis which is both a challenge and an opportunity in the inter-related worlds of community work and politics. Fundamentally the information society and postmodernism are about privatisation, individualism, fragmentation, and a culture without history that recognises no values or truth beyond money. "In an age of consumerism God has been replaced by the supermarket" writes Ferrarotti. In contrast religion, community work and politics is about building a common life, about integrating people into a body, about collaboration and concern between neighbours and about enduring values of justice and truth.

In real communities in real reality what is needed? I would suggest that there are at least two things that local communities, socially excluded groups and the voluntary sector need more than IT. On the one hand we need social and economic justice, which implies a massive redistribution of resources. Secondly we need empowerment through a new culture of community responsibility, participation and local control. We have to be pessimistic about the first, given the overwhelming dominance of global capitalism, and a change of government or improved IT is not going to make that much difference. There is perhaps more hope for the latter in the political climate of the times and some possibilities for IT to help. But I expect it will be marginal at best and that there is more hope to be found in the emergence of off line communities of resistance, where people ignore the internet and get on with the business of real life.

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