Tearing apart the patchwork quilt of society

In their latest newsletter (PDF), my friends at AB417 lay a smackdown on the Internet:

There is no such thing as a cyber community. At best, there already exists a community that perhaps can be enhanced through an online connection. The problem is not the intranet (sic), but a society that sees it fit to spend time in a den in front of a box watching people that they have never met instead of having coffee with a neighbor.

And then they ask the question:

Is this due to design or demand?

My answer is: The design has fulfilled our demand.

Families and communities alike are patchwork quilts — collages of people knitted together not by choice or common interests, but by the happenstance of blood or proximity. The mix of people we happen to find in our homes and towns is where we can find our greatest opportunity for love and friendship, and also hatred and hard feelings.

When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” the simple answer was whoever happens to be nearby. But neighbors can sometimes be unlovable. If you have a neighbor who is not easy to love, the old solution — in fact, the only one short of calling the police — was for you to look to your heart and seek a new attitude. Now, thanks to our modern mindset and wealth, you can instead look to your wallet and seek a new neighborhood.

Trying to flee from, instead of deal with, people in our families and communities has led to innumerable social problems. Exclusive suburbs, adultery, 80-hour work weeks, school busing and the generation gap, although not morally equivalent, all try to rearrange our natural living arrangements into something that allows us to avoid certain uncomfortable people or situations. They’re all attempts to tear apart the fabric of our patchwork quilts and rearrange our individual swatch with other swatches that we think we’ll prefer.

And then the Internet steps into this environment. It is no wonder that “social” Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace are so popular. They say they are “social,” but what they really do is drive a wedge between where you are and who you are.

So we cannot simply blame the Internet for our social situation. It has merely accelerated the splintering of American society that has been happening — and that we’ve wanted to happen — for decades.

— Jon Swerens. Photo by Thant Zin Myint on Flickr

AB417’s essay is on the continuation page.

Here is AB417’s complete essay:

The intranet has been praised for creating so-called online communities. Millions of teenagers spend hours each day sending messages through online social networks and literal companies have been created out of the cyber fabric with no face-to-face communication. But are these real communities?

The preface of this organization is that there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. A community is a network of people with shared experiences. However, the actual quality of those experiences is of utmost importance. The most durable networks are the ones that share experiences that bind the members together, most notably, the family, but also live interaction that truly connects people. In online chat blogs there are no such experiences – it is a product disguised as a community.

In so far as the intranet can enhance already existing communities, such as using email to connect family members, it has been a positive force on the social fabric. And certainly I would never argue that the intranet has hurt this country – it has allowed us to do and see things never thought possible. But sites such as YouTube and Facebook have essentially catered in a poor substitute for community. College kids who are sitting in perhaps the mecca of communal opportunity choose to spend two hours looking at pictures on Facebook as opposed to actually creating pictures through experience.

There is no such thing as a cyber community. At best, there already exists a community that perhaps can be enhanced through an online connection. The problem is not the intranet, but a society that sees it fit to spend time in a den in front of a box watching people that they have never met instead of having coffee with a neighbor. Is this due to design or demand? I cannot answer, yet I do feel that these so-called online communities don’t seem to be taking over real communities in as much as they are filling a vacuum where communities used to exist.

What do you think? Tell us what you think by sending your thoughts to www.submissions@AB417.org with subject “Just A Thought.”

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  1. The one difference I immediately see between what we would define as a traditional “community” and these internet affiliations exist in the branding of such systems. Over time “community” has always been defined with words like “our,” “we,” and ,”us.” Now we see things like “MYspace” or YOU-tube. I think in some ways that is where the disconnect lies. A vast majority of the internet dialogue it really nothing more than exposing first-person narratives… like letting someone read your diary (hence the blog-boom). But in some little way that just doesn’t seem the same to me. In many ways it just feels as though the medium has taken the inclusion or collectiveness out of the conversation and turned it into a compilation of one-person discussion(s).

    Than again… I am writing this on a blog ; )

  2. I agree with you, Jon. We have created a world where interaction with people different from yourself is optional – and increasingly opted out. There has always been economic and social stratification, but it seems much easier now for us to ignore the occasionally pesky realities of other people. We don’t have to learn how to get along: affluence just lets us buy our way out. Why learn how to get along with a sibling when you have your own room? Why learn how to get along with a neighbor when you can either close yourself up in the house or simply move?

    Part of the reason I love the neighborhood where I live, by Northside High School, is that for whatever reason people are actually outside (at least during good weather!) The neighbor kids play together and in doing so learn how to get along with other people. The adults and the kids talk to each other, and we know our neigbors, at least by first name. I don’t know every single thing about my neighbors, and don’t particularly want to, but I know them enough to feel some common interest with them. To me, that is what community is all about.

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