Although it seems clears that mid-20th century predictions of the demise of community have yet to come to pass—most people continue to socially connect with others—many observers are too quick to declare that all is well. Indeed, in my recent book, I critique the tendency by some contemporary sociologists to write as if people today have never had it better when it comes to social togetherness, as if we have reached a state of communal perfection. The way that citizens do community in contemporary technological societies has been breathlessly described as a new “revolutionary social operating system” that recreates the front porch of previous generations within our digital devices. There is quite a lot to say regarding how such pronouncements fail to give recognition to the qualitative changes to social life in the digital age, changes that impact how meaningful and satisfying people find it to be. Here I will just focus on one particular way in which contemporary community life is relatively thinner than what has existed at other times and places.
After she was raped in 2013, Gina Tron’s social networks were anything but revolutionary. In addition to the trauma of the act itself, she suffered numerous indignities in the process of trying to work within the contemporary justice system to bring charges against her attacker. During such trying times, at a moment when one would most need the loving support of friends, her social network abandoned her. Friends shunned her because they were afraid of having to deal with emotional outbursts, because they worried that just hearing about the experience would be traumatic, or because they felt that they would not be able to moan melodramatically about their more mundane complaints in the presence of someone with a genuine problem.
Within the logic of networked individualism, that revolutionary social operating system extoled by some contemporary sociologists, such behavior is unsurprising. Social networks are defined not so much by commitment but by mutually advantageous social exchanges. Social atoms connect to individually trade something of value rather than because they share a common world or devotion to a common future. For members of Tron’s social network, the costs of connecting after her rape seemed to exceed the benefits; socializing in the aftermath of the event would force them to give more support than they themselves would receive.
Even the institutions that had previously centered community life—namely churches—now often function similarly to weak social networks. Many evangelical churches seem more like weekly sporting events than neighborhood centers, boasting membership rolls in the thousands and putting on elaborate multimedia spectacles in gargantuan halls that often rival contemporary pop music acts. No doubt social networks do form through such places, providing smaller scale forms of togetherness and personal support in times of need. Yet there are often firm limits to the degree of support such churches will give, limits that many people would find horrifying.
A large number of evangelical megachurches have their roots in and continue to preach prosperity theology. In this theological system, God is believed to reliably provide security and prosperity to those who are faithful and pious. A byproduct of such a view is that leaders of many, if not most, megachurches find it relatively unproblematic to personally enrich themselves with the offerings given by (often relatively impoverished) attendees, purchasing million dollar homes and expensive automobiles. Prosperity theology gives megachurch pastors a language through which they can frame such actions as anything but unethical or theologically contradictory, but rather merely a reflection and reinforcement of their own godliness.
The worst outcome of prosperity theology comes out of logically deducing its converse: If piety brings prosperity, then hardship must be the result of sin and faithlessness. Indeed, as Kate Bowler describes, one megachurch asked a long-attending member stricken with cancer to stop coming to service. The fact that his cancer persisted, despite his membership, was taken as sign of some harmful impropriety; his presence, as a result, was viewed as posing a transcendental risk to the rest of the membership. It appears that, within prosperity theology, community is to be withdrawn from members in their moments of greatest need.
However, many contemporary citizens have largely abandoned traditional religious institutions, preferring instead to worship at the altar of physical performance. CrossFit is especially noteworthy for both the zeal of its adherents and the viciousness of the charges launched by critics, who frequently describe the fitness movement as “cultlike.” Although such claims can seem somewhat exaggerated, there is some kernel of truth to them. Julie Beck, for instance, has recently noted the extreme evangelical enthusiasm of many CrossFitters.
While there is nothing problematic about developing social community via physical recreation per se—indeed, athletic clubs and bowling leagues served that purpose in the past—what caught my eye about CrossFit was how easy it was to be pushed out of the community. There is an element of exclusivity to it. Adherents like to point to disabled members as evidence that CrossFit is ostensibly for everyone. Yet for those who get injured, partly as a result of the fitness movement’s narrow emphasis on “beat the clock” weightlifting routines at the expense of careful attention to form, frequently find themselves being assigned sole responsibility for damaging their bodies. Although the environment encourages—even deifies—the pushing of limits, individual members are themselves blamed if they go too far. In any case, those suffering an injury are essentially exiled, at least temporarily; there are no “social” memberships to CrossFit: You are either there pushing limits or not there at all.
In contrast to Britney Summit-Gil’s argument that community is characterized by the ease by which people can leave, I contend that thick communities are defined by the stickiness of membership. I do not mean that it is necessarily hard to leave them—they are by no means cults—but that membership is not so easily revoked, and especially not during times of need. No doubt there are advantages to thinly communal social networks. People use them to advance their career, fundraise for important causes, and build open source software. Yet we should be wary of their underlying logic of limited commitment, of limited liability, becoming the model for community writ large. If social networks are indeed revolutionary, then we should carefully examine their politics: Do they really provide us with the “liberation” we seek or just new forms of hardship? Have new masters simply taken the place of the old ones? Those are questions citizens cannot begin to intelligently consider if they are too absorbed with marveling over new technical wonders, too busy standing in awe of the strength of weak ties.
It is hard to imagine anything more damaging to the movements for livable minimum wages, greater reliance on renewable energy resources, or workplace democracy than the stubborn belief that one must be a “liberal” to support them. Indeed, the common narrative that associates energy efficiency with left-wing politics leads to absurd actions by more conservative citizens. Not only do some self-identified conservatives intentionally make their pickup trucks more polluting at high costs (e.g., “rolling coal”) but they will shun energy efficient—and money saving— lightbulbs if their packaging touts their environmental benefits. Those on the left, often do little to help the situation, themselves seemingly buying into the idea that conservatives must culturally be everything leftists are not and vice-versa. As a result, the possibility to ally for common purposes, against a common enemy (i.e., neoliberalism), is forgone.
The Germans have not let themselves be hindered by such narratives. Indeed, their movement toward embracing renewables, which now make up nearly a third of their power generation market, has been driven by a diverse political coalition. A number villages in the German conservative party (CDU) heartland now produce more green energy than they need, and conservative politicians supported the development of feed-in tariffs and voted to phase out nuclear energy. As Craig Morris and Arne Jungjohann describe, the German energy transition resonates with key conservative ideas, namely the ability of communities to self-govern and the protection of valued rural ways of life. Agrarian villages are given a new lease on life by farming energy next to crops and livestock, and enabling communities to produce their own electricity lessens the control of large corporate power utilities over energy decisions. Such themes remain latent in American conservative politics, now overshadowed by the post-Reagan dominance of “business friendly” libertarian thought styles.
Elizabeth Anderson has noticed a similar contradiction with regard to workplaces. Many conservative Americans decry what they see as overreach by federal and state governments, but tolerate outright authoritarianism at work. Tracing the history of conservative support for “free market” policies, she notes that such ideas emerged in an era when self-employment was much more feasible. Given the immense economies of scale possible with post-Industrial Revolution technologies, however, the barriers to entry for most industries are much too high for average people to own and run their own firms. As a result, free market policies no longer create the conditions for citizens to become self-reliant artisans but rather spur the centralization and monopolization of industries. Citizens, in turn, become wage laborers, working under conditions far more similar to feudalism than many people are willing to recognize.
Even Adam Smith, to whom many conservatives look for guidance on economic policy, argued that citizens would only realize the moral traits of self-reliance and discipline—values that conservatives routinely espouse—in the right contexts. In fact, he wrote of people stuck doing repetitive tasks in a factory:
“He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible to become for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging”
Advocates of economic democracy have overlooked a real opportunity to enroll conservatives in this policy area. Right leaning citizens need not be like Mike Rowe—a man who ironically garnered a following among “hard working” conservatives by merely dabbling in blue collar work—and mainly bemoan the ostensible decline in citizens’ work ethic. Conservatives could be convinced that creating policies that support self-employment and worker-owned firms would be far more effective in creating the kinds of citizenry they hope for, far better than simply shaming the unemployed for apparently being lazy. Indeed, they could become like the conservative prison managers in North Dakota (1), who are now recognizing that traditionally conservative “tough on crime” legislation is both ineffective and fiscally irresponsible—learning that upstanding citizens cannot be penalized into existence.
Another opportunity has been lost by not constructing more persuasive narratives that connect neoliberal policies with the decline of community life and the eroding well-being of the nation. Contemporary conservatives will vote for politicians who enable corporations to outsource or relocate at the first sign of better tax breaks somewhere else, while they simultaneously decry the loss of the kinds of neighborhood environments that they experienced growing up. Their support of “business friendly” policies had far different implications in the days when the CEO of General Motors would say “what is good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa.” Compare that to an Apple executive, who baldly stated: “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.”
Yet fights for a higher minimum wage and proposals to limit the destructively competitive processes where nations and cities try to lure businesses away from each other with tax breaks get framed as anti-American, even though they are poised to reestablish part of the social reality that conservatives actually value. Communities cannot prosper when torn asunder by economic disruptions; what is best for a multinational corporation is often not what is best for nation like the United States. It is a tragedy that many leftists overlook these narratives and focus narrowly on appeals to egalitarianism, a moral language that political psychologists have found (unsurprisingly) to resonate only with other leftists.
The resulting inability to form alliances with conservatives over key economic and energy issues allows libertarian-inspired neoliberalism to drive conservative politics in the United States, even though libertarianism is as incompatible with conservativism as it is with egalitarianism. Libertarianism, by idealizing impersonal market forces, upholds an individualist vision of society that is incommensurable with communal self-governance and the kinds of market interventions that would enable more people to be self-employed or establish cooperative businesses. By insisting that one should “defer” to the supposedly objective market in nearly all spheres of life, libertarianism threatens to commodify the spaces that both leftists and conservatives find sacred: pristine wilderness, private life, etc.
There are real challenges, however, to more often realizing political coalitions between progressives and conservatives, namely divisions over traditionalist ideas regarding gender and sexuality. Yet even this is a recent development. As Nadine Hubbs shows, the idea that poor rural and blue collar people are invariably more intolerant than urban elites is a modern construction. Indeed, studies in rural Sweden and elsewhere have uncovered a surprising degree of acceptance for non-hetereosexual people, though rural queer people invariably understand and express their sexuality differently than urban gays. Hence, even for this issue, the problem lies not in rural conservatism per se but with the way contemporary rural conservatism in America has been culturally valenced. The extension of communal acceptance has been deemphasized in order to uphold consistency with contemporary narratives that present a stark urban-rural binary, wherein non-cis, non-hetereosexual behaviors and identities are presumed to be only compatible with urban living. Yet the practice, and hence the narrative, of rural blue collar tolerance could be revitalized.
However, the preoccupation of some progressives with maintaining a stark cultural distinction with rural America prevents progressive-conservative coalitions from coming together to realize mutually beneficial policy changes. I know that I have been guilty of that. Growing up with left-wing proclivities, I was guilty of much of what Nadine Hubbs criticizes about middle-class Americans: I made fun of “rednecks” and never, ever admitted to liking country music. My preoccupation with proving that I was really an “enlightened” member of the middle class, despite being a child of working class parents and only one generation removed from the farm, only prevented me from recognizing that I potentially had more in common with rednecks politically than I ever would with the corporate-friendly “centrist” politicians at the helm of both major parties. No doubt there is work to be done to undo all that has made many rural areas into havens for xenophobic, racist, and homophobic bigotry; but that work is no different than what could and should be done to encourage poor, conservative whites to recognize what a 2016 SNL sketch so poignantly illustrated: that they have far more in common with people of color than they realize.
1. A big oversight in the “work ethic” narrative is that it fails to recognize that slacking workers are often acting rationally. If one is faced with few avenues for advancement and is instantly replaced when suffering an illness or personal difficulties, why work hard? What white collar observers like Rowe might see as laziness could be considered an adaptation to wage labor. In such contexts, working hard can be reasonably seen as not the key to success but rather a product of being a chump. A person would be merely harming their own well-being in order to make someone else rich. This same discourse in the age of feudalism would have involved chiding peasants for taking too many holidays.
Andrew Potter’s recent Maclean’s article claiming that Quebec is suffering from a pathological degree of social malaise has certainly raised eyebrows. Indeed, he has recently resigned from one of his posts at McGill University in response to public outcry—and no doubt the Quebec University’s administrations view of the matter. I won’t delve into the question regarding perceived damage to academic freedom that this resignation may or may not represent; rather, I take issue with the way in which Potter charts Quebec’s purported social decline—seeing it as reflective of a widespread failure to grasp the diverse character of social community.
On the one hand, some of the statistics Potter cites to support his case are alarming, especially those regarding the relatively small size of social networks and volunteering rates in Quebec. On the other hand, Quebec is noteworthy in terms of having one of the highest rates of happiness/social well-being in Canada. At a minimum, this apparent discrepancy is something that needs explained. One would, of course, scarcely imagine that a province suffering from widespread social malaise would be simultaneously happy.
Potter, moreover, draws heavily on Robert Putnam’s concept of social capital, which posits that certain social and political activities help build the civic foundation for well-functioning democratic societies. Being familiar with Putnam's work—it has inspired my own research into the character of contemporary community life--I think that Andrew Potter has taken some liberties with it. Sure volunteering may be low, but Quebecers are known for being politically active, which is another contributor to and reflection of social capital. At the same time, Potter seems to conflate social capital with level of conformance to a non-Quebecer's idea of law and order. He argues that the colorful pants worn by police as a sign of corrosion of “social cohesion and trust in institutions.” While I am not an expert on Quebecois culture, it is hard not to see this as reflecting an English-Canadians cultural bias. Indeed, the impulse to denigrate protest and collective bargaining disproportionately afflicts Anglophones. For those less afflicted, the camo pants might evoke a feeling of solidarity. Left-wing Americans, for the sake of comparison, rarely decry the blocking of streets and highways during protests as the demise of social cohesion.
That is not the only place where Potter could have been more sensitive to how cultural differences make social issues much more complex than one might initially think. He cites, for instance, the fact that far fewer Quebecers express the belief that “most people can be trusted.” As a social scientist Potter should be able to readily acknowledge that cultural differences can have a big impact on survey data. It is often claimed—on the basis of survey research--that Asian countries are much less happy than those in the West. However, once one recognizes the fact that readily labeling oneself as happy conflicts with Asian expectations for modesty, such interpretations of the survey data soon seem dubious. Given that Quebec’s rates of happiness and high marks in other dimensions of social capital, one wonders if individually low levels of trust simply reflects a cultural hesitancy to seem too trusting or gullible.
Some of the confusion in Potter’s piece may be the result of not explicitly acknowledging different scales of analysis. Quebec is unique compared to other provinces in terms of its social policy (i.e., L'economie sociale): heavily subsidized daycare, generous support of cooperatives, high labor participation, etc. In many ways its citizens are more communitarian than people elsewhere, but more at the level of the province than locality or nation, more via official politics than through non-governmental volunteering. Maybe they don't quite have the ideal mixture by some accounts, but it seems hyperbolic to argue that the whole society is in a state of alienated malaise.
In any case, both the controversy over Potter’s article and its analytical limitations are suggestive of the need for far better understandings of what community is. The term often evokes a fuzzy, warm feeling in some people, and worries about suppression of individuality in others. At the same time, few people seem aware of what exactly what they mean by the word: using it to describe racial groups (e.g., the black community), and online forum, and physical places—even though none of these things seem to be communal in even slightly the same way. Community is a multi-scalar, multi-dimensional, and highly diversified phenomenon. The sooner people recognize that, the sooner we can start to have more productive public conversation about what might be missing in contemporary forms of togetherness and how we might collectively realize more fulfilling alternatives.
Repost from TechnoScience as if People Mattered
Opponents of regulatory changes that could mean the end of “net neutrality” or proposed legislation like the SOPA/PIPA acts of 2012 regularly contend that these policies would “break the Internet” in some significant way. They prophesize that such measures will lead to an Internet rotten to the core by political censorship or one less generative of creativity. Those on the other side, in response, turn out their own expert analysis meant to assure citizens that the intangible goods purportedly offered by the Internet – such as greater democracy or “innovation” writ large – are not really being undermined at all. In the continuous back and forth between these opposing sides, rarely is the question of whether or not “breaking” the contemporary Internet is actually undesirable given much thought or analysis. It is presumed rather than demonstrated that the current Web “works.” What reasons might we have to consider letting ISPs and content creators lead public policy toward a “broken” Net? Is the contemporary Internet really all that worth saving?
To begin, there are grounds for wondering if the Internet has really been that much of a boon to democracy. Certainly critics like Hindman andMorozov – who point out how infrequently political concerns occupy web surfers, how most content production is dominated by a few elites, and that the Internet has had an ambivalent role in promoting enhanced democracy in totalitarian regimes – would likely warn against overestimating the actual democratic utility of contemporary digital networks. Arab Spring notwithstanding, the Internet seems to play as big a role in entertainment, “clicktivism” and commerce driven pacification of populations as their liberation. Though undoubtedly useful for activists needing a tool for organizing popular action across space and time, the Web is also a major vehicle for the “bread and circuses” (i.e., Amazon purchases and Netflix marathons) that too frequently aid citizen passivity. Moreover, as Jodi Dean points out, those championing the ostensible democratic properties of digital networks frequently overstate the political gains afforded by certain means for public communicative self-expression becoming “democratized.” Just because the Average Joe (or Jane) can now publish their own blog does not necessary mean that they have any more influence on public policy than before.
Second, the image of the Internet as a bottom-up, decentralized and people-powered technology of liberation, for all intents and purposes, seems to be more myth than reality. From the physical infrastructure and the standardization of protocols to the provision of content through websites like Google and Facebook, the Internet is highly centralized and very often already steered by the interests of large corporations. Media scholars Robert McChesney and John Nichols, for instance, contend that the Internet has been one of the greatest drivers of economic monopoly in history. Likewise the depiction of the movement against measures that threaten net neutrality as strictly the bottom-up voice of the people is similarly a figment of collective imagination. That this opposition has any political traction has more to do with the fact that content providers like Netflix and others having a major financial stake in a non-tiered Internet than the bubbling over of popular democratic ferment. Purveyors of bandwidth hungry services profit greatly from a neutral net at the expense of ISPs, who, in turn, are looking for a bigger piece of the pie for themselves.
Third, as Ethan Zuckerman has recently pointed out in an article for the Atlantic, the entrenched status-quo business model of the Internet is advertising. Getting an edge over the competition in advertising requires more effectively surveilling users. We have unintelligently steered ourselves to a Net that financially depends on users’ surfing and social activities being constantly tracked, monitored and analyzed. Users’ provision of “free cultural labor” to companies like Google and Facebook drives the contemporary Internet. The fact that the current Web depends so intimately on advertising, moreover, fuels “clickbait” journalism (think Upworthy), malware and high levels of economic centralization. Facebook’s acquiring of Instagram, as Zuckerman reminds us, was motivated by the company’s desire to maintain its demographic reach of advertising data points and targets. Size, and thereby access to big data, generally wins the day in an ad-driven Internet.
Finally, for those of us who wish contemporary technological civilization offered more frequent opportunities for realizing vibrant face-to-face community, the Internet is more often “good enough” than a godsend. A Facebook homefeed or Netflix marathon provides a minimally satisfying substitute for the social connection and storytelling that occurred within local pubs, cafés and other civic institutions, spaces that centered community life at other times and places. Consider one stay-at-home mom’s recent blogging about the loneliness of contemporary motherhood, loneliness that she describes as persisting despite the much hyped connection offered by Facebook and other social networks. She recounts driving to Target just to feel the presence of other people, seeing fellow mothers but ultimately lacking the nerve to say what she feels: “Are you lonely too?… Can we be friends? Am I freaking you out? I don’t care. HOLD ME.” Digitally mediated contact and networked social “meetups” are means to social intimacy that many of us accept reluctantly. They are, at best, anodynes for the pain caused by all the barriers standing in the way of embodied communality: suburbia, gasoline prices, six-dollar pints of beer, and the fact that too many of us long ago became habituated to being homebodies and public-space introverts.
The fact that the contemporary Web has these strikes against it, of course, does not necessarily mean that is better to break it than reform it. That claim hinges on the degree to which these facets of the Internet are entrenched and likely to strongly resist change. Are thin democracy, weak community and corporate dominance already obdurate features of the Net? Has the technology gained so much sociotechnical momentum that it seems unreasonable to expect anything better out of it? If the answer to these questions is “Yes,” then citizens have good reason for believing that the most desirable avenue for “moving forward” is the abandonment of the contemporary Internet.
I am not first to suggest this course of action. A former champion of the Internet, Douglas Rushkoff , now advocates its abandonment in order to focus on building alternatives through mesh-network technologies. Mesh-networks are potentially advantageous in that surveillance is more difficult, they are structurally decentralized and appear to offer better opportunities for collective control and governance. Experimental community mesh networks are already up and running in Spain, Germany and Greece. If properly steered, they could be an integral part of the development of more substantively democratic and communitarian Internets. If that is truly the case, then resources currently being dedicated to fighting for net neutrality might be put to better use supporting experimentation with and the building of mesh-network alternatives to the current Internet. Letting ISPs have their way in the net neutrality debate, therefore, could prove to be a good thing. Users frustrated by increasing fees and choppy Netflix feeds are going to be more likely to be interested in Web alternatives than those with near perfect service. For the case of the Internet and improved democracy/community, perhaps letting things get worse is the only way they will ever get any better.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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