Howard Rheingold’s Virtual Community

Review of The Virtual Community, Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier A William Patrick Book/Addison Wesley, ISBN-0-201-60870-7, English text, 325 pp., $22.95

Slowly but surely, the `personal’ computer is losing its image of autistic machine. One no longer needs to stare into the abyss of one’s own hard disk and can enter into social relationships that go beyond the functional use of technology. It is these kind of virtual communities that Howard Rheingold describes as social aggregations that merge from the Net when enough people carry on those discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace. As an illustration, the book opens with an endearing example: the parenting conference on The Well, where parents ask advice about sick children and empathize with the suffering of strangers several thousand kilometers away. To Rheingold, computer-mediated communication (CMC) is a sign of the return of the social.

As people in the US hold civil society in low esteem, but also are frightened by the reintroduction of tribal social relations, they prefer the magic formula `community’. Rheingold recognizes that there is something wrong with this, but does not delve any deeper into this crucial conceptual problem. The `Gemeinschaft’ has a long tradition in sociology, right up to and including the rap-debates about black nationalism. For Rheingold, the situation is still apparently open: Perhaps cyberspace is one of the informal public places where people can rebuild the aspects of community that were lost when the malt shop became a mall. Or perhaps cyberspace is precisely the wrong place to look for the rebirth of community, offering not a tool for conviviality but a life-denying simulacrum of real passion and commitment to one another. The book ends on a more somber note and Rheingold simply concludes that citizens must arm themselves with knowledge. What happens next is largely up to us. What this precisely means to us remains unclear.

As opposed to Virtual Reality, Rheingold did not need to visit pioneers and laboratories to render the inside story of the Net. Rheingold was already in it with both feet, and as a prominent member of The Well, he was a formative force in the development of CMC. But the status of eye witness and participant also has its disadvantages. The mixture of autobiographical remembrance, encounters and popular scientific study cannot be called successful in this case. The audience that Rheingold is writing for has simply become too large and too diffuse. It is not clear whether The Virtual Community is meant as a manual for the not yet connected and newcomers or a first history of their new medium for the millions of users (as was the case in Virtual Reality). Rheingold’s contribution to the discussion of how the Net must develop has been pushed into the background, while he must have a pronounced opinion about it. Now that the net has expanded beyond our capacity to monitor its growth and political discussion about the information superhighway has reached its hyperstage, the old medium of the book seems to be devoted to documentation of history. In this regard, Rheingold is a formidable chronicler. After describing the creation of The Well, he describes the accidental history of the Net, from ARPANET (56,000 bps), via NSFNET (1.5 million bps), to the gigabit rate of the present NREN testbed. In the chapter `Grassroots Groupminds’, he describes the original ancestors of today’s CMC, like Murray Turoff’s EMISARI and EIES (1976), the creation of UUCP in 1977 and Usenet in 1979 with its capacity for individual posting, developing rapidly into the well-known alt, soc, misc, comp and sci newsgroups, with their FAQs. Then he sketches the creation of BBS culture, with the launch of the micro computer program called MODEM; MODEM of 1977; the file transfer protocol XMODEM in 1979, still in use today, the first BBS (called CBBS in Chicago; 1978), resulting in the creation of Fidonet in December, 1983, that allows the exchange of information between various mailboxes.

Welcome to the wild side of cyberspace culture, where magic is real and identity is a fluid. MUDs and MOOs, communication addiction, gender flipping and the regulation of online behavior are trimmed for moral and academic exercises that we’ll certainly hear much more about. Pretending to be somebody else is an apparently inseparable part of the virtual communities, a whole new ball game. The net’s field of play has expanded from its beginnings in England in 1980 into a world unto itself. Rheingold cannot take a comprehensive view of this (no one can), and limits himself to some of his own adventures. Because I already have enough identities, communicate abundantly and don’t like games, I’ll probably never understand what motivates the Mudders. Rheingold also keeps a certain distance: I know that the questions are broad ones, addressing key ambivalences.

Rheingold uses CMC in Japan and France as examples of the fact that the global development of the Net is not uniform and does not automatically result in Internet. Japanese do not answer letters or telephone calls and won’t suddenly begin spontaneous communication on the Net. Debate is not a part of the culture, litigation is rare, group therapy doesn’t work well, according to Joichi Ito. People are waiting until the Net has acquired a more visual character and Japanese communication aesthetics can be sold world-wide. The successful French Minitel from 1985 is struggling with the law that states that the first is also the first to become last: it is now hopelessly obsolete. Protection of national language and culture is a reason for many countries to build up a net of their own and might neatly disturb the dream of global cyberspace. In conclusion, we are introduced to projects like Dave Hughes’ educational network, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Public Electronic Network in Santa Monica and the Freenets, which the Amsterdam Digital City was derived from.

Significantly, the last chapter is entitled: `Disinformocracy’. The great weakness of the idea of the electronic democracy is that it can more easily be commodified than explained. Using the social criticism like Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and Habermas’ definition of `public sphere’, the net is described in terms of the modern capitalist consumer society (as an `ultimate prison’!). After a wild and anarchistic phase, we are now threatened with the `selling of democracy’. Rheingold believes in the possibility to influence the outcome, which is precisely why online activists should delve into the criticisms that have been levelled against them. He wants to unite the Parisian critique and Californian practice. I believe we should invite them to the table and help them see the flaws in our dreams, the bugs in our designs. It’s best to continue to listen to those who understand the limits, even as we continue to explore the technologies’ positive capabilities. Media theoreticians and `hyper realists’ are depicted here as ignorant culture pessimists, or sociologists that provide constructive critique about side effects (that should be printed on the packaging). I wouldn’t advise Rheingold to sit down at one table with these people. Theory must first learn the hard and software, before it can produce a fundamental (fatal?) critique of the network. That may be expected from Laurel, Haraway and Ronell and not from Paris. Unlike the Europeans, they will be able to unite philosophical criticism and political electronic practice.

translation: jim boekbinder