The Wired Neighborhood
Author: Stephen Doheny-Farina
Publisher: New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997
Review Published: December 1998
Stephen Doheny-Farina investigates the question whether the celebratory claims about the liberating effects of electronic technologies misinterpret or wrongly value certain aspects of the "virtual communities" that they create. He suggests that they often fail to consider the conditions of more traditional (or, as Doheny-Farina would say, "real") communities. This is certainly an important issue, and he is right to point out this large blindspot ignored by "the cheerleaders of the information age" (ix).
The Wired Neighborhood is divided into four sections. The first three, "Lost in the Solitude of My Virtual Heart," "The Globalized Individual," and "The Nomadic Individual," discuss various electronic technologies and their uses. Doheny-Farina criticizes the current fascination with these innovations and argues that they often fail to deliver on their promise of new community. The fourth section, "The Wired Neighborhood," describes and assesses the activity on community networks or local electronic bulletin board systems, as opposed to the World Wide Web or the Internet. This section is quite interesting in itself because its perspective and focus are so different from those of most discussions about electronic communication.
Doheny-Farina's thesis is a simple one. He states it in his introduction when he writes "I argue that we do not need electronic neighborhoods; we need geophysical neighborhoods, in all their integrity" (xi). Although Doheny-Farina (rightly) criticizes some of the more extravagant characterizations of virtual reality technologies, his more considered analyses suggest not antipathy but ambivalence for the opportunities created by computers. Furthermore, Doheny-Farina's points sometimes seem to suggest a different, often more interesting, position; within his critique of various technologies is the proposal that we should construct our virtual communities and online experiences to draw us closer to rather than alienate us from our geophysical neighborhoods. Yet Doheny-Farina continually insists on the polemic position: "the net, in connecting everyone, furthers our isolation by abstracting us from place and virtualizing human relations" (123). There is, finally, no formal attempt to resolve the anti-technology perspective of most of the book with the desired goal of employing technology to revitalize communities described in the last section.
The first section assesses the concept of virtual reality with passing references to MUD, MOO, the WELL, and various other technologies. Doheny-Farina's reticence to embrace the "reality" of these realms is often understandable, and at times his misgivings seem legitimate. For instance, he writes, "In immersing ourselves in the electronic net, we are ignoring our real, dying communities" (8) The fear that existence in virtual reality may replace physical life is as old as the terms and concepts themselves; for instance, in William Gibson's Neuromancer, Case appears dead when he "jacks in." Although cyberpunk fans celebrate this notion of exchanging physical life for a virtual one it is not unusual for critics to question it. In Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle writes, "it is sobering that the personal computer revolution, once conceptualized as a tool to rebuild community, now tends to concentrate on building community inside a machine. If the politics of virtuality means democracy online and apathy offline, there is reason for concern" (244).
Such a concern would seem entirely appropriate if there were some reason to believe that online activity actually replaces RL (real life). But Doheny-Farina, like most other critics who refuse to embrace virtual reality, never attempts to explain how (or to what extent) this might occur as if fictional or anecdotal accounts of this phenomenon were coherent and comprehensive. Indeed, this failure to argue directly for points and to present legitimate evidence here is representative of the author's strategy throughout the book. The biggest problem with Doheny-Farina's thesis is not its position -- indeed, I would welcome a strong critique, whether of electronic technologies, their uses, or characterizations of them -- but the fact that it stands largely unqualified and unsupported. Doheny-Farina attributes causal responsibility to technologies. In numerous places he asserts that our physical communities are dissolving because of the fascination with electronic realms. He presents, however, no evidence beyond an unspoken exercise of the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy.
The second section assesses the notion of virtual community and considers whether electronic technologies can create public spaces in which people can gather and interact. The second chapter of this section contains the book's most detailed discussion of a specific technology and users' experiences of it. It consists, however, largely of MOO transcripts and simple descriptions that are now commonplace among books treating virtual communities, and Doheny-Farina's version adds little to the now well rehearsed play of textually emoted actions.
Doheny-Farina makes an interesting point when he discusses the economic dynamics of MOO. He explains that like RL, MOO life involves negotiating privacy and property, and the two are related. He continues, however, by noting that unlike RL, MOO does not require that individuals interact with others in the community to gain, use, or exchange property. This sounds like a good point that most others treating MOO have overlooked. Doheny-Farina does not, however, attempt to expand this observation to theorize the social, political, or economic systems of MOO. I would have liked to see amore thorough discussion of the effects, assumptions, and implications of this kind of economic system.
The third section describes activities involved in telecommuting and distance learning and suggests some reasons that we need to question the current enthusiasm for these technologies. Doheny-Farina cites several individuals and surveys to show that some telecommuters are not happy with all the consequences of their new work environments. Suggestions that electronically mediated communication can sometimes seem alienating and that lost visibility in the office may hinder the careers of telecommuters are, however, not new.
In the second chapter of this section he engages Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC in a discussion about electronic surveillance and privacy. Doheny-Farina voices legitimate concerns about privacy, and his principle, "the burden of proof must be on the watcher, not the watched" (101) is attractive. Although I find his argument for his position on "default equals offline" (97) and his discussion of the effects of electronic surveillance on community incomplete, I find this chapter interesting and his perspectives understandable if not persuasive.
In the last section, although he expresses doubts throughout the book about the value of the communities engendered by electronic technologies, Doheny-Farina describes the activities on local or regional bulletin board systems and discusses the possibility of using computer networks to strengthen geophysical communities. It is difficult to argue too forcefully against the sentiment in Doheny-Farina's final exhortation, "take part in it [the net] not to connect to the world but to connect to your city, your town, your neighborhood" (188), just as it is difficult to ignore his descriptions of some of the problems faced by communities today. But Doheny-Farina offers little to suggest that such electronic interaction might actually solve any of the problems that he describes. The main reason his position is unconvincing extends from his failure to identify specifically the problems, causes, and the degree to which technologies affect them.
Indeed, Farina does not even show that neighborhoods today are any worse than they were at any other time in American history. He merely points to various unconnected examples of urban decay or domestic strife as if poverty, crime, or alienation were problems unique to the information age. Further, because he depends on large generalizations about a nation's social condition to make his argument, Doheny-Farina ought to cite at least a few sources more comprehensive than personal anecdote.
In conclusion, although some of the descriptions are interesting, I find most of this work undertheorized and most of the assertions inadequately supported. Indeed, the best points often appear at the very end of chapters with little discussion as if they were merely afterthoughts. Explicit definitions (with discussions) of key terms, such as "community," would have been useful, and a critical engagement with other work treating these concepts, such as Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, would have made the points much more interesting. Although it may serve some purpose as a casual treatment of virtual communities, The Wired Neighborhood lacks almost completely the precise arguments and thorough discussions that I seek in academic work.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1983.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.
Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Samuel Choi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the Ohio State University. He is currently working on a book-length project titled Digital Matters that imposes a materialist critique of current writing on computers and reassesses the operation of these electronic technologies in terms of cultural practices and political effects.
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