Does Communications Technology Add Or Subtract From Community?
While virtual communities may not substitute satisfactorily for a robust physically proximate community, does information and communications technology weaken community or strengthen it? In general, the evidence seems to be that, if anything, it strengthens it.
For example, the internet and social media clearly allow mass demonstrations to be organised quickly when many people are angry or resentful. The Arab Spring, a series of protests that rolled across the countries of the Middle East starting in late 2010, was a movement that relied on the internet and social media for mobilisation. It has been followed by many others - as I write, an impromptu nationwide strike by Brazilian truckers, which has brought the nation to a standstill, was organized on WhatsApp. Technology can create temporary and largely spontaneous mass engagement. It enables easy affiliations and temporary commitments. However, the failure of many of these movements to generate sustained political reforms suggests that organisations of the committed, such as political parties or mobilised communities, are needed to keep people engaged and pushing for real change.
A combination of technology and commitment may work even better. Communications technology can allow a core group of the committed to continue staying in touch with the more loosely affiliated, even when separated by some distance. Technology can offer those on the periphery a greater sense of participation, allowing them to innovate and propose new directions. If the committed channel the energies of the merely affiliated effectively, they can create powerful social or political movements such as the recent #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault. Nevertheless, the dominant narratives on the advent of new communications technology are that they either turn people inward, making them spend more time on private leisure activities within the home and less on sociable or public activities, or they create a whole new form of distant virtual community, which again detracts from the physically proximate community. To examine the validity of these narratives, in the late 1990s researchers Keith Hampton and Andrew Wellman studied a new development in a Toronto suburb. They called it Netville to disguise the actual location. Around 60 per cent of the homes were wired to high-speed internet with videophones, an online jukebox, online health services, local discussion forums, and a variety of other entertainment and educational applications. Due to some glitch, the rest of the homes were not wired, which gave the researchers an ideal experiment to measure the effects of connectivity.
They found that relative to the residents who had not been connected, the wired residents recognised three times as many neighbours, talked to those neighbours twice as often, made four times as many phone calls to neighbours, and communicated further with them by email. As one member said, 'I have noticed a closeness you don't see in many communities.' Essentially, the local network allowed easy introductions, quick organisation of events like barbecues, and rapid response to emergencies like missing pets. The wired net lowered the cost of traversing physical barriers like shut doors. Indeed, the wired neighbours organised to petition the developer to rectify defects in his construction, and to continue the high-speed access to the network when the trial ended. The developer was forced to acquiesce to their demands to some extent, though not entirely. Consequently, dissatisfied residents successfully petitioned the town to stop him from working on a second development. The researchers concluded that 'based on his experience with Netville, the developer acknowledged that he would never build another wired neighbourhood.' The network did seem to increase people power in this case, much to the discomfiture of the developer! The point is that new communications technologies offer opportunities to create, strengthen, and maintain real-world ties. My children keep in much closer contact with their school and college friends and even acquaintances than my generation ever managed to. Technology certainly has the power to strengthen the proximate community.
Excerpted with permission of HarperCollins from 'The Third Pillar' by Raghuram Rajan. Order your copy here.
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