The Loka Institute

Making research, and science & technology responsive to democratically-decided social and environmental concerns


Loka News

Nov 1 : The new Loka Institute website launches.



An Excerpt from

Democracy and Technology

by Richard E. Sclove

New York: Guilford Press, 1995
pp. 79-81, 108, cites omitted


Virtual Community?

Contemporary technological reporting is rife with notions of electronic communities in which people interact across regions or entire continents. Could such "virtual communities" eventually replace geographically localized social relations? There are reasons to suspect that, as the foundation for a democratic society, virtual communities will remain seriously deficient.

For example, electronic communication filters out and alters much of the nuance, warmth, contextuality, and so on that seem important to fully human, morally engaged interaction. That is one reason many Japanese and European executives persist in considering face-to-face encounter essential to their business dealings and why many engineers, too, prefer face-to-face interaction and find it essential to their creativity.

Even hypothetical new media (e.g., advanced "virtual realities"), conveying a dimensionally richer sensory display, are unlikely to prove fully satisfactory substitutes for face-to- face interaction. Electronic media decompose holistic experience into analytically distinct sensory dimensions and then transmit the latter. At the receiving end, people can resynthesize the resulting parts into a coherent experience, but the new whole is invariably different and, in some fundamental sense less, than the original. (In terms of Michael Polanyi's philosophy, part of what is lost is that the original whole was partially constituted by a context that was essentially tacit, open-textured, and nonspecifiable. Hence, when one analytically or technically decomposes a whole into parts, invariably some of the context essential to the original whole is omitted.)

Second, there is evidence that screen-based technologies (such as TV and computer monitors) are prone to induce democratically unpromising psychopathologies, ranging from escapism to passivity, obsession, confusing watching with doing, withdrawal from other forms of social engagement, or distancing >from moral consequences.

Third, a strength--but also a drawback--to a virtual community is that any member can exit instantly. Indeed, an entire virtual community can atrophy or perish in the wink of an eye. To the extent that membership in virtual communities proves less stable than that obtaining in other forms of democratic community, or that social relations prove less thick (i.e., less embedded in a context saturated in shared meaning and history), there could be adverse consequences for individual psychological and moral development. In the words of psychologist Robert Kegan:

"Long-term relationships and life in a community of considerable duration may be essential if we are not to lose ourselves, if we are to be able to recollect ourselves. They may be essential to the human coherence of our lives, a coherence which is not found from looking into the faces of those who relieve us because they know nothing of us when we were less than ourselves, but from looking into the faces of those who relieve us because they reflect our history in their faces, faces which we can look into finally without anger or shame, and which look back at us with love." [From The Evolving Self (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 218).]

Fourth, no matter with whom we communicate nor how far our imaginations fly, our bodies--and hence many material interdependencies with other people--always remain locally situated. Thus it seems morally hazardous to commune with far- flung tele-mates, if that means growing indifferent to physical neighbors. It is not encouraging to observe just such indifference in California's Silicon Valley, one of the world's most "highly wired" regions.

Lastly, one function of democratic community is to provide a social foundation for self-governance and individual political empowerment. This suggests that community boundaries ought normally to remain roughly contiguous with the territorial boundaries defining formal political accountability and agency. Yet the criterion of local self-governance is breached if involvement in spatially dispersed social networks grows to subvert a collective capacity to govern the locales people physically inhabit. And the criterion of egalitarian empowerment is breached if coveys of technorich cronies are empowered to telelobby senators, while technopoor neighbors are excluded from the circuit.

Telecommunications enthusiasts, such as contemporary boosters of a national information superhighway, sometimes respond that should a mismatch arise between bonds of social affiliation, which could increasingly become nonterritorial, versus current political jurisdictions, "political systems can change." However, that answer provides none of the necessary specifics. It also fails, for example, to grapple with the U.S. Constitution's requirement that amendments garner the support of a majority of elected federal or state legislators. How readily do legislators normally accede to voting away their own offices? In short, at a minimum one would confront a profound transition dilemma.

If the prospect of telecommunity replacing spatially localized community ought to evoke skepticism or opposition, one can nevertheless remain open to the possibility of democratically managing the evolution of telecommunications systems in ways that instead supplement more traditional forms of democratic community. Caution is in order. However, the benefits can potentially include combatting local parochialism; helping to establish individual memberships in a diverse range of communities, associations, and social movements; empowering isolated or marginalized groups; and facilitating transcommunity and intersocietal understanding, coordination, and accountability.

Systems designed to support such uses--especially without subverting local community--are unlikely to emerge without concerted democratic struggle. For instance, one transnational corporation first supported, then clandestinely monitored, and finally terminated a successful, productivity-enhancing internal computer conferencing system. Senior managers had discovered that subordinates, including women executives previously isolated >from one another, were spending coffee-break time on the system discussing and criticizing company policy. Moreover, even seemingly benign systems require ongoing scrutiny for social effects that may only emerge gradually as a system evolves....