Technology, Community, Humanity and the Net
by Howard Rheingold
Thursday, April 29, 1999
Comments: 17 posts

Communication technologies, from alphabets to Internets, have been changing the nature of communities for nearly 10,000 years. We just did not know it until recently.

The virtual town square

Plato warned, in the allegorical tale of Thoth in Phaedrus, that recording knowledge in books would destroy the oral tradition of knowledge and pedagogy. People would lose the skill of remembering, and education would cease to be a living dialogue, where students and teachers discuss and argue the meaning of knowledge. Education, he said, would become a solitary and lifeless decoding of facts from mute objects.

Plato was probably right. Human civilization undoubtedly lost something, as well as gained something, when alphabetic writing, books and libraries supplanted bards and peripatetic scholarship.

Social critic Marshall McLuhan has noted: "Phonetically literate man, from the Greeks to the present, has been consistently aggressive with his environment. His need to translate his environment into phonetic, literate terms turns him into a conqueror and a cultural bulldozer, or leveler... . And when messages can be transported, then come the road, and armies, and empires. The empires of Alexander and the Caesars were essentially built by paper routes."

Elizabeth Eisenstein, historian of the impact of the printing press, noted that "getting the news" was a community event in pre-Gutenberg Europe. People in towns and villages would gather to hear the latest news from travelers, and often would stand around the town square and discuss it as a group. When printed broadsides became economical, people retreated to an inn or their home to do their reading.

The beginnings of the newspaper actually helped destroy a certain kind of local community, Eisenstein says. At the same time, people began to identify with other people who were not geographically adjacent. Martin Luther's ideas about reformation of the Church, for example, spread at unprecedented speed.

The new medium introduced a kind of distance between people in traditional local communities, and spanned a distance that had previously separated people who share religious or other values, but might not even speak the same language. That separation from tradition and the invention of a new, more abstract -- I'm tempted to call it "virtual" -- kind of relationship among people was made possible by the printing press.

New communities

Today, a change of a similar sort is occurring. At this point, I should disclose that I consider myself a "critical friend" of technology (a term proposed in an excellent new book, Information Ecologies, by Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O'Day).

Are virtual communities substituting as real lifelines?
Are virtual communities
substituting as real lifelines?

In general, there does not seem to be much middle ground or room for nuanced debate over technology. Technophiles tout the latest gadgetry, while technophobes proclaim impending doom. I believe that human use of tools can improve lives, but I believe we accept, use and regulate market technologies with too little thought to the consequences. Hence, I am a friend of technology, but I look at our uses of technologies with a critical eye.

Take the Internet, for example: I spend hours of my day online in a dozen different virtual communities. Technology enables me to live in the manner I desire.

Nevertheless, I have found that over the years I have come to think something is creepy about the realization that more and more people will spend more and more of their time hunched over computers screens, moving only their eyes and their fingertips for hours on end. To be sure, surfing the Net or having a profound experience online look clearly ridiculous to the outside observer. But then again, so does sex.

I used the term "virtual community" when I first started writing about social activity online in 1988, and later when I wrote a book about the phenomenon, in 1993. At that time, the common wisdom was that only antisocial geeks would use the Internet to communicate. I encountered so many instances of profoundly human communion online that I wanted to show how real people had reached beyond the computer screens that separated them and made important differences in each other's lives.

I told the stories about the family who endured their son's eight-year battle with leukemia with the support of the parenting conference on the WELL. Over the years, members of that support group raised tens of thousands of dollars for the family. We filled several pews at the memorial service. I have taken my turn sitting by the deathbed of a woman who would have died alone if it were not for the real-life presence of a virtual community.

Nowadays, hundreds of thousands of people rely on their virtual communities as a real lifeline -- people whose illness or disability prevents normal communication, people who are caregivers or who suffer from any one of hundreds of diseases, people who live in isolated areas, the only gay teenager in a small town, people trying to escape abusive relationships.

If there is something disturbing about finding community through a computer screen, we should also consider whether it is disturbing for millions of people to drive for hours in their single-passenger, internal-combustion automobiles to cities of inhuman scale, where they spend their days in front of television screens in cubicles within skyscrapers full of people who do not know each other. The rubber tire and the elevator both played their part in the construction of a technology-centric community.

In search of more information

Arguments about the changing nature of community date back at least a century, to the sociological debate over the traditional gemeinschaft communities and the gesellschaft societies emerging at that time. There is no better time than now to look closely at the ways our tools are influencing our social relationships, from e-mail to chat rooms to cell phones to SUVs. We need to begin to answer the vexing questions posed by technologies' double-edged impacts: Who will benefit? What are the downsides? How will the use of the new technology effect community, health, psychological well-being, the distribution of wealth, the environment? How can new technologies be misused, and what protections or remedies might be available to deal with negative impacts? Where are the points of leverage in influencing the way technologies are designed, deployed, marketed, regulated?

I do not know the answers, but a good beginning toward a more humane and conscious use of technology is for millions of people to become better informed "critical friends of technology."

Howard Rheingold is the author of The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. His e-mail address is

Related Links
Electric Minds, a virtual community originally developed by Rheingold and Randy Haykin, has morphed under new ownership. Rheingold now runs a community called brainstorms. The WELL is the oldest virtual community on the Internet. Salon Magazine recently announced that it plans to purchase the WELL. Emily Green of Forrester Research believes that Electric Minds will be successful but not revolutionary. Digital City New York is a new virtual community with a magazine-like touch.

Do you agree with Rheingold about the double-edged impact of technology? Which edge is likely to win? is it up toindividuals to ensure that technology is not abused?

Below are the last ten comments in chronological order.
here to view the full comment history.

[Post your comments]     [View all comments]

5/5/99 12:20:57 AM OC
As with TV, the internet has a great potential for good. I am pessimistic, however, about the future of the internet because I have seen TV become so mediocre and vulgar. I can't believe that is the true nature of man. Already indecency has invaded the net and there seems to be no way to regulate it without the violation of free speech. Maybe the hours TV and the net are available should be shortened.Don't everyone scream at once, please. It's just a thought.

5/5/99 12:25:16 PM Paul T
OC: I would never scream, too polite! I do, however, think there are some flaws in your argument. First I do agree that there is a lot that is mediocre and vulgar on TV, but, having done some reading in social history, it has always been that way. Most of the mediocre plays, music and books of bygone eras have just flat-out not survived, so it seems that things used to be better. Second, I'm not sure that you and I would agree on what is mediocre and vulgar on TV. Third, I don't expect everything I watch on TV to be of surpassing quality. Not evey novel I read is a work of eternal literature. Fourth, on your suggestion of limiting hours of access. I wonder how you would allow for people's different schedules, and whether spending four hours a day with trash is much worse than spending eight hours a day with it.

5/6/99 12:21:48 AM OC
Paul T - Oh, all right, I stand corrected. You have made many good points and my argument now is chopped liver. However, I believe that excellence like class is recognisable which is how standards were developed. Unfortunately, class has now been redefined in today's society.

5/21/99 12:57:50 AM Wolfy
The critical difference between the Internet and TV is that the Net is a many-to-many connection, like the telephone network (which has almost certainly been a boon to the creation of communities since its invention!). So even as the quantity of mediocre content on the net rises the variety (including "quality stuff", whatever your definition) increases as well. Access to millions of sites (esp. when they are uncensored) is qualitatively different from access to even 150 censored and commercially programmed channels.As for the danger of individuals forming smaller and tighter cliques, leading to further isolation and alienation, it seems to me that in general people are better off with any community, freely chosen, than if they have no one to talk to. Since what we can do on the Net is inherently limited (until true VR is available) Net interactions will always be a adjunct to interactions in "real life."

6/7/99 4:24:59 PM Lew Welsh
Mr. Rheingold,I have read VC, and it was, for its time, quite interesting. I appreciate your style (I also enjoyed _Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind_ -- a real steal at a remaindered price). But this essay just rehashes the old material without explaining how different pieces of chat software change the interaction. For example, do avatars put up a fictive self and mask the person, or by the very nature of the mask, do they offer a place from which to be more authentic? Under what circumstances do discussion boards work better (define those values however you choose) than irc? Asynchronous or synchronous? or should we even try to decide? are those the only choices of presence?

6/17/99 1:55:34 AM Josh Eagan
I have always had mixed reactions about the amount of community based relations on the web. It seems to me that although such communities as the Welll may have their benefits to some people, I think that any action that helps to eliminate actual contact and physical interaction with another human is ultimately alienating. At some point in time technology must slow down. How much farther can we take VR before the real world is less interesting than the VR world. What I am trying to say is that simply, some things are better in real life. Interaction is one of them. Ten years ago the only true way to meet someone was by, well, meeting them. Now with singles' lines and dating services on the Net, who needs to go out and mingle? For that matter with the increasing number of chat sites and such, will cybersex replace sex? I know it is stupid, but I use it to show a point. Communities are fine online, but they were built in real life and their is a certain human need to be a part of something. There are probably fifty people living within a 2 block radius of everyone reading this, how many of those people do you know? But how many people have you met chatting or in a newsgroup. Its scary to say but I think I know more on the Net. Maybe we should just attempt to be social in real life and use the Net less for communitive purposes. Maybe than American communities would not have as many problems.

6/17/99 10:07:57 AM Miranda Ragin
I think that virtual communities are a good resource for some who feel alienated by the pangs of real life, however, I do believe that we all need human contact to keep us sane. Those who depend on the computer screen to fulfill something within eventually end up with something more missing -- social cohesiveness. We want to promote web surfing, and connecting with others online, but we don't want it to go as far as a future of being locked up in the house with no 'human' contact.

6/17/99 11:18:04 AM Brooke Reeves
I guess I may be rehashing the same point here, but I agree with the misgivings of the previous posters. How real is a 'virtual town square'? How often are exchanges in a chat room really valuable, new or meaningful? The content flowing back and forth in many chat sites seems to be seriously lacking in substance. If the goal is creating a superficial connection to someone, anyone, then the virtual environment seems to succeed. But a 'town square'? I just don't see the same level of discourse going on online. Perhaps I am not looking in the right place.

6/17/99 12:14:10 PM Shanty Jojo
I am basically agreeing with what Josh is saying. I do believe that it is very hard to have a life on virtual reality. It is just a way of spending time. It is not the real world. No matter what you do there is no way to actually live a real life on virtual reality. I believe individuals can get aquatinted with someone online, but to really know that person just based on online chats and emails I really donít think that is possible. From my own experience when you get to know someone online, there are some things you donít bother to understand about that person. But when you meet that person in the Real world, you do understand those missing links. I Donít believe a virtual town square can ever be real. I have my doubts on how much one can trust another just based on online relationship.

7/23/99 3:17:17 PM Sugarcube
We're all alone.I'm a woman of the web, wow. I have been surfing for the last 6 months after I got my pentium II notebook, and I've created a little universe of my own in the Net. I have a homepage, make that two, and a forum to meet new people and friends.We've been posting messages about how the Net will develop, and what dating someone online entails.Intimacy is debatable. I've shared jokes, witty reparte, or heated debate with people I've never seen, people who I have no idea where they live, or what their physical minute, or their voices sound like. It doesn't bother me. It will bother me if I had preconceptions what I want them to look like or sound like or the way they live. It's cool. I don't have to judge. And in a way, the Net has freed us from the tyranny of our bodies. Women, especially, should find it gratifying that a guy will talk to you in depth on any subject matter regardless of the way you look. ;-)