Cyberlibertarian Myths and the Prospects for Community

(Andrew) #1

As is generally true of ideologies, this framework of thought serves to both illuminate and obscure. It certainly illuminates the desires and intentions of those who see themselves on the cutting edge of world-historical change in Silicon Valley, Seattle and other high tech centers. More specifically, it illuminates what are ultimately power fantasies that involve radical self-tranformation and the reinvention of society in directions assumed to be entirely favorable. But this ideology obfuscates a great many basic changes that underlie the creation of new practices, relations and institutions as digital technology and social life are increasingly woven together.

The combined emphasis upon radical individualism, enthusiasm for free market economy, disdain for the role of government, and enthusiasm for the power of business firms places the cyberlibertarian perspective strongly within the context of right wing political thought… It is interesting to speculate about how it happened that prominent views about computing and society have become associated with a political agenda of the far right.

Let us take the topic of community, for example. Here one finds a tradition of social, religious and political speculation of more than two thousand years, a tradition that includes writings from Old and New Testaments, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Proudhon, Kropotkin, and a many other sources. For more recent points of reference, one can turn to a wealth of scholarly studies of historical and contemporary communities in Weber, Durkheim, Tonnies, and countless other modern sociologists about how living communities actually work. For the cyberlibertarians, of course, none of this matters. Visions of community found in the literature of philosophy, history and social science are not significant points of reference. If they were, the notions of “community” often used to discuss what is happening on the Net would likely have a much different complexion.

Among libertarian cyberspace enthusiasts what is important about human relations on the Internet are warm and fuzzy experiences of connection that arise in computer mediated forums. Along with feeling free and empowered by the new media, we can also be closely in touch with other people. Indeed, this is a crucial aspect of previous renderings of ideas about community, part of the story that always bears watching. It is, however, only one dimension of the experience of community and of theoretical concepts employed to focus inquiries into the matter. But along with a sense of belonging, historical communities have carried a strong sense of obligation, imposing demands, sometimes highly stringent ones, upon their members. You know you are in a community when the phone rings and someone informs you that it is your turn to assume the burden, devoting months of your time to a chore the group deems necessary, organizing this year’s fund raiser, for example. Unfortunately, most writings about on-line relationships blithely ignore the obligations, responsibilities, constraints, and mounds of sheer work that real communities involve. Are there any Usenet Newsgroups with names like alt.politics.duty? Don’t hold your breath.

The hollowness and banality of cyberlibertarian conceptions of community are also reflected in their frequent assertions that the goal is finding people in the world who are very much like you, enjoying them for their similarity. In the context of actual communities, of course, that is a highly problematic assumption. Even intentional communities that begin with fairly homogeneous populations and commitment to a core of shared ideals must eventually confront serious differences and conflicts among their members. Among political theorists who have written about the matter, the troubling question of how to balance the desires of the individual with the needs of the group is usually understood to be the key to any useful grasp of community life.

As the picture clarifies, what appears is diversity achieved through segregation. Away from the racial and class conflicts that afflict the cities, sheltered in a comfortable cyberniche of one’s social peers, the Third Wave society offers electronic equivalents of the gated communities and architectural barriers that offer the well-to-do freedom from troubles associated with urban underclass. Indeed, many proponents of the on-line world, openly celebrate the abandonment of older cities in favor of the “wired” exurban enclaves. For George Gilder the new promised land is to be found in such homogeneous and untroubled locations as Provo, Utah.

By comparison, the urban communities of the industrial past were laboratories of social diversity, seeking ways for people of vocations, ethnic backgrounds, income levels, and social interests to mediate their differences and to stake out some areas of shared commitment. There were successes and failures in these attempts. But the geographical confines of urban space and the needs of social organization required that an effort be made to find constructive ways of living together. Is the promise of networked computing that people (or at least the wealthy) will now be released from this task?

The shallowness evident in cyberlibertarian conceptions of community are echoed in their views of other key themes in social and political thought. Their imaginings of on-line democracy, for example, seldom taken note of even the most elementary findings of political scientists from Aristotle to Hannah Arendt. Were they to do so, they might acknowledge that only a mere sliver of a minority is likely to be involved in politics on the Internet for the foreseeable future, a fact that calls into question the supposedly “democratic” character of the new media. But again, the focus of these writings is never community, democracy, equality, or citizenship in the world at large sense, only faint echoes of these matters in the on-line realm.

Screenshot-2018-1-15 Cyberlibertarian Myths and the Prospects for Community