William J. Mitchell, Professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences and Head of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, writes in ME++ about the increasing interconnectivity of technology and physical matter in modern-day life. Once two entirely distinct and separate realms, bits (of information) and atoms (of physical matter) have since merged in such a way that it seems each depends on the other, in a sort of symbiosis, for progression. Occurrences in the physical world are often the direct effect or causes of happenings in cyberspace. For example, a computer command physically typed in by an operator can cause a mechanical robot arm to move. Mitchell attempts to describe the vast and intricate new interface of the world, which he might describe as a unification of physical and cyberspace as something marked by boundaries and networks in his first chapter. He asserts that the physical and electronic boundaries or limits that connect or separate people or groups from one another create many networks, webs that connect people to each other.
Sociologists would use more technical language to make much the same point as Moore's. They would say that I -- like most urbanities today -- get companionship, aid, support, and social control from a few strong social ties and many weak ones. These ties, which might manifest themselves, for example, as the entries in my cellphone and email directories, establish social networks. In the past, such networks would mostly have been maintained by face-to-face contact within a contiguous locality -- a compact, place-based community. Today, they are maintained through a complex mix of local face-to-face interactions, travel, mail systems, synchronous electronic contact through telephones and video links, and asynchronous electronic contact through email and similar media. They are far less dense, and they extend around the world, coming to earth at multiple, scattered, and unstable locations. As Barry Wellman has crisply summarized, "People in networked societies live and work in multiple sets of they deal with are overlapped relationships, cycling among different networks. Many of the people and the related social networks are sparsely knit, or physically dispersed and do not know one another." [Mitchell 16-17]
1. As Mitchell argues in this passage, communities are becoming far more disperse and expansive. People connect to each other via the Internet and other media that does not require face-to-face interaction. In class we discussed the idea that every advantage comes with disadvantages, so what effects does this greater connectivity and larger community have on a personal and social level? That is to say, is mankind becoming progressively "inhuman," more superficial, artificial, or cybernetic as relationships become more technologically based? Or is mankind becoming more intimate; for example, many people, writers especially, find it easier to express themselves through physical writing as opposed to face-to-face conversation?
2. As I read about communities based on electronic media, one college-based community immediately occurred to me: www.thefacebook.com, a sort of hybrid of business networking, class or dorm networking, and even personals networking supposedly based on real life social webs. However, while Facebook's ideal is to create a network based on physical relationships, reflecting a community you know in your real life, not just in the online world, many people add "friends" to their network even if they have never met. What does this say about the social aspect of these expanded communities? What significance is there when an online community that tries to be rooted in physicality fails, and instead turns into another medium people use to try to appear popular? What purpose is there to an expanded community if it is not even real?
3. What social factors or changes does this new, stretched community have? Are people using technology to hide insecurities? For example, consider the idea of people entering numerous cellphone entries, or buddies on AOL Instant Messenger, people they have never talked to or only have far-stretched relationships (such as going to the same college, but have never met or talked before). Do people try to expand their individual community or networks through these "false" entries in order to appear more popular to whoever might stumble across his or her phonebook or buddy list? If so, what effect does this have on the integrity of our networks and communities?
4. Technology, no doubt, has made it easier and faster to keep in touch and connect with people. It has gotten to the point that even real time is achievable; i.e. cellphone, instant messaging. Even email is relatively fast compared to past methods such as snail mail. However, what does this new technology do to more "traditional" or older methods of communication? For example, does it make letter writing (snail mail style) more special? Is there some kind of counterbalancing technology creates between the "new" and "old." Does technology actually keep older modes of communication from phasing out by making them more intimate or special?
Mitchell, William J. Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
Last modified 1 February 2005