No substitute for the real thing

There has been an undeniable erosion of community attachments in the United States in the past few decades. Champions of technology - a group I call the techno-utopians - believe the Internet can reverse that decline through "electronic neighborhoods," where people form the same kinds of social bonds they once formed in physical neighborhoods.

Can technology help to restore community? I believe it can, but not for the reason given by the techno-utopians.

Cybercommunity is a concept that has caught on in the tech world. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, defines a community as "neighbors helping neighbors," and contends that companies like Amazon.com foster community by allowing people to swap ideas and product reviews online. Steve Case, the CEO of America Online, argues that AOL is more than a money-making enterprise; it is a catalyst for the restoration of community.

These claims are met with understandable skepticism. In a recent book, Stephen Doheny-Farina writes, "The society of the Net isolates individuals.

"Once we begin to divorce ourselves from geographic space and start investing ourselves in virtual geographies, we further the dissolution of our physical communities."

Mr. Doheny-Farina's premise is that authentic community requires a physical sense of place, and of belonging. How can you call 1,000 people sitting alone in their computer rooms typing away a community?

Who is right? To find out, I've been visiting various Web sites and online gathering places that promise "relationships" and "community," and I must confess these concepts take on a strange new meaning on the Web. First, there are commercial sites like Amazon and eBay, where people exchange information about their purchases. The Net undeniably has made markets more efficient, but it's hard to describe these capitalist transactions as constituting community.

Then I visited "multiuser dungeons" and online games such as "Ultima Online," where thousands of players take on virtual identities, live in virtual homes, hold virtual jobs, and even marry and have virtual families, all while performing feats like killing dragons and one another.

Many people find these games addictive, spending hours a day living out a virtual existence as a dragon slayer or a captain on an interplanetary voyage.

Even so, this is not community. The reason is given by sociologist Robert Nisbet, who writes that community is a set of relationships characterized by personal intimacy, emotional depth, moral commitment, social cohesion, and continuity in time. This is a demanding list of criteria, but Professor Nisbet seems right in pointing out that traditional communities absorb the whole person, not just a particular role or interest.

The Web fosters voluntary associations among people who have a specialized interest. People who study Persian poetry or play chess, people in wheelchairs, and people who listen to Jim Croce, can through the Web find others who share their passions. Techno-utopian Virginia Postrel argues that in this respect, cybercommunities are better than real communities because they allow us to choose our affiliations.

But the argument for chosen affiliations cuts both ways. "Voluntary associations" tend to restrict our associations to those who are most like us.

C.S. Lewis once said one of the great benefits of involuntary communities - including the family - is that they enable us to discover the virtues of people whom we might never have chosen to hang out with.

Mr. Lewis's point is repeatedly confirmed through experience: The annoying fellow who happens to be your neighbor or your brother turns out to be very loyal or deep-thinking or empathetic in relating to old people. A life primarily shaped by voluntary associations is one that cuts itself off from the broader range of human experiences.

So, my conclusion is that, while the relationships we develop on the Web may be useful or entertaining, they are generally too thin and ephemeral to constitute genuine community. The Web can supplement physical community but it cannot replace it.

But while real community can't be sustained through the Web, this technology has created a paradoxical effect. Because more of us can work out of our homes, we can choose our ideal communities and spend more time in them.

Until a year ago, my family lived in Washington, D.C. We had to live there because I am a research scholar at a research institute based in the nation's capital. Washington is an exciting place to be if you care about politics, but it is a transient place, perfect for single people. I didn't feel it was a healthy place to raise a family. But for years, there was no reasonable prospect of moving because of my work.

Now, because of the research capacity of the Web, and because of other communications technologies like faxes and e-mail, I can live anywhere. Recently, our family moved to a more family-oriented neighborhood in San Diego. Our new setting is closer to nature, and more conducive to forming social and civic bonds.

Physicist Freeman Dyson writes that "the typical English village today is not primarily engaged in farming." Hidden inside the homes with thatched roofs are high-tech firms. The residents have rebuilt the dilapidated church, Dyson says, and the church bells ring again. Here, I believe, is a model that will eventually be replicated widely in the West.

The old economy pulled us away from the village and toward the city, where the jobs were, but now we are seeing a reversal of the pattern. Slowly but surely, technology is making the lasting connections afforded by the village viable again.

Dinesh D'Souza is a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the forthcoming book, 'The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence' (Free Press).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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