It finally got cold enough in Fairbanks — three degrees Fahrenheit this morning — that I decided to forego riding my bike to work and to take the bus instead. Truth be told, I don’t mind the cold or the dark so much as all the damned dressing and undressing. Lazy, I guess.
Riding the bus this morning gave me the pleasure of reading for twenty-five minutes on the way to work, something I haven’t done since April. (Readers may recall that I extolled this virtue of bus-ridership in June.) Right now I’m reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (New York: Penguin, 2008), in which the author considers the new kinds of social action made possible by computer (and specifically Internet) technology. For example, Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”, is minimally managed (though Shirky makes it clear that it is managed). Yet it amounts to an encyclopedia of vast scope and variety — and usually improving quality — because of the existence of countless volunteers whose contributions range from small to great, and who are motivated largely by good will. (Ego also plays a role.)
Shirky observes that political and social actions are easier to coordinate now because of the tools available. It’s not that the desire to form political and social groups was absent before, but potential participants were always constrained by the cost. “What cost?” you ask. Well, the cost of printing, for one. Before the printing press, anyone in the West who was not a scribe worked pretty much on a word-of-mouth basis. After the press’s invention, written knowledge could be spread much farther and much faster, but that power was still restricted to those who owned a press. Now, with e-mail, cell phones, text messaging, wikis, and blogs, transmission of information has become accessible to all. Not only that, but the previous publication model — even with e-mail — was “one to many” communication; that is, one person (or an organized collective) could push a message out to a single person or to the masses. Now, however, we have the chance for “many to many” communication: blogs and wikis allow a limitless number of people to contribute to a given conversation.
Another cost Shirky discusses is the time and human effort required for social action. Consider that, twenty years ago, if you saw an article in the newspaper you thought friends might be interested in and you wanted to share it, you would have to:
- possibly cut the article out,
- get to a photocopy machine and print enough copies to send to everyone,
- put each copy in an envelope, perhaps with an explanatory note (which you remembered to write ahead of time and copy also, right?),
- seal, stamp, and address each one, and
- drop the lot in a mailbox.
Then, if any of your friends wished to share the article, they would have to do the same. None of these steps is laborious, but together they amounted to enough work that most of the time we were inclined not to bother.
Today, most U.S. newspapers are online. Not only can their content be cut and pasted into an e-mail, but the newspapers themselves usually have gadgets already in place on the page to allow you to share the story in a number of ways. (The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner offers readers the chance to print the story, e-mail the story, leave comments about the story, and share the story with your choice of Digg, Delicious, Facebook, Mixx, Reddit, and StumbleUpon.) Or, you could just link to the story and post an excerpt on your blog.
Online tools exist not only to share information, but to organize participants into groups of common interest. While these tools still require managers at the head, middle managers — and they are legion in the face-to-face world — have been nearly cut out of online organizations. Collective action is much easier now, because the costs in equipment and time have been drastically reduced. If you wish to join a common-interest group, or if you wish to form one yourself, nothing is stopping you.
That’s where I wonder if there’s a dark side.
If nothing, not even time, stops you from joining or forming a new interest group — if all the costs have been removed — then what is the incentive to continue working with the existing, often difficult, community that you already have? Yes, yes, the incentive is supposed to be that you get some kind of reward from all your negotiation and all the time you’ve spent together. But how many of us regularly embrace something more difficult with more abstract benefits when we could have something less difficult that seems to meet our needs? For example, if sex were free, easy, and without consequence (as I believe most “free love” practitioners have found it is not), how many of us would embrace the more difficult task of building stable families?
If we are always perfectly free to choose those with whom we interact, or to create our own groups if our exact desires are not met, then aren’t we more likely to spend time with online “communities” that we could have spent working out difficulties in our local communities, in the face-to-face world?