Technically Together: Rethinking Community within Techno-Society
Author: Michele A. Willson
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006
Review Published: June 2008
Technically Together confronts the ironic sense of isolation felt by many people in our increasingly technologically connected society. Michele Willson cleverly entitles her first book with an allusion to the conflicting tendency people have to seek both individuality and togetherness, a conflict undeterred by technology. Her book explores this conflict in a new, interesting way by focusing on the effects technology has on community. As Willson notes, "the title, Technically Together, is ... part description and part question. It refers to the increasing ways in which being together is technologically mediated, and it also questions the form, degree, and experience of this type" (3). As an initial stage of a much larger project, Willson takes the time to unpack terms useful for theorizing how technology affects our ways of being-together.
One strength Technically Together has is addressing the interplay between the individual and the social as components of community. The book addresses ways of being-together in real-space and cyberspace by looking beyond both the nostalgic ideas of traditional community and the utopian ideas of virtual community. Willson provides a useful framework for understanding the changing, complex relationship between real-space and cyberspace experiences. In addition to exposing the effects of technology on both individuals and society, Technically Together differentiates society from community, and exposes similarities between real-space and cyberspace.
Willson's work strikes a critical balance that both avoids glorifying technology's utopian potential or vilifying its ability to oppress and distance individuals from meaningful community. She does this by raising questions that clarify our understanding of community, subjectivity, and technology.
Clearly structured, the book is divided into two sections. Part one, "Establishing a Framework: Theorizing Community, Technology, and Intersubjectivity," includes three chapters filled with new terms and that outline, as promised, her analytical framework.
"The Concept of Community" complicates a singular notion of community by focusing on the intricacies of subjective experiences. Her discussion of postmodern community as "detached from presence and mediated through technology" (39) is placed in relation to ways communities are experienced. Beginning with Benedict Anderson's work on imagined communities, Willson outlines several theories about community. After that, she explains four key subjective elements -- bonding, reciprocity, commonality, and identity -- that she convincingly argues are important for a full understanding of community; she returns to these in the second half of the book. Finally, she makes it clear that traditional, modern, and postmodern forms of community coexist, and that the overlap of these social forms affects our experience of being in the world.
"Technology and Sociality" explores how the extended social forms made possible by information and communication technologies significantly influence subjectivity and community. Through a review of some writings on technology and sociality, Willson raises interesting questions about how interactive communication technology alters social forms. I found her discussion of virtual communities and discrimination an important part of the ethical analysis underlying her project. However, the chapter moves on to discuss three ontological categories: social explanation (knowledge), social organization (within time and space), and presence (embodiment).
"Intersubjectivity, Technology, and Community" further expands on the three ontological categories. Although some might find the power of Willson's ideas hampered by her repetition of ideas from earlier chapters, I overlooked repeated phrases because generally the reminders clarify unfamiliar ideas. In addition, I appreciate Willson's ethical analysis of group dynamics. I hope her discussion of intersubjectivity will expand existing theories for thinking about technology and will provide a rare invitation for more discussion about difference and cyberspace.
Part two, "Approaches to Community," includes three chapters assessing the work of community theorists Charles Taylor, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Mark Poster. Relying on an outline format, all three chapters clarify the power of Willson's framework to analyze the authors' approach to community, structural considerations, subjective considerations, and technology.
"Charles Taylor and the Social Communitarians" briefly explains Charles Taylor and social communitarians' focus on the socially constituted nature of individuality. Willson highlights Taylor's interest in shared goals and purpose as a possible strategy for counteracting the fragmentation and isolation accompanying the ontological changes brought on by our technological society. Willson also explores the limitations of Taylor's work to address key subjective elements discussed in chapter one.
"Jean-Luc Nancy's Notion of Community" reviews the work of Nancy as representative of European theorists Willson names the Heideggerians. Willson explores their work because "all seek to understand a way of being-together that is able to accommodate the Other in a manner that is not repressive" (148). Going beyond Nancy, Willson also argues that "abstract philosophical processes ... runs the risk of obfuscating the need for any direct political or social action" (173). Willson's appreciation for social change in both real-space and cyberspace is refreshing.
"Mark Poster and Virtual Community/ies" investigates important aspects of Mark Poster and virtual communitarians' position on virtual communities. According to Willson, "the virtual communitarian' main emphases are on the following: the proliferation of multiple identities that can be enacted through the use of the Internet; the removal of the constraints on embodies identity and the ability to play with alternative forms of identity; and the removal of the constraints of time and space from social relations and practices" (177). Utilizing her ontological and subjective based framework, Willson critiques Poster's focus on individual experience. Her attention to coexisting forms of community illuminates problems that arise for communities and Others outside of virtual communities.
The concluding chapter, "A Question of Theory and Practice," pulls Willson's argument together, including closing questions about the project. Refreshingly, she raises ethical concerns about the lack of action taken to solve problems in our communities, especially where the problems involve creating outsiders. Obviously, her discussion about relations with the Other can easily become an entire project in itself.
Technically Together articulates a much-needed complexity about community and technology. Willson interweaves the issues of social justice and political action into the theoretical discussions about technology and community. Her well-founded theoretical model aids in her critique of apolitical and theoretical ideas about technology. She calls into question theories that fail to respect diverse ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, and class based experiences of individuality and community. The inclusive nature of Willson's text offers a perspective from which to imagine ways of being together technically without reconstructing oppressive forms of community. In doing so, Michele Willson demonstrates her subtitle, providing a realistic and powerful way for "Rethinking Community within Techno-Society."
Lisa Justine Hernández:
Lisa Justine Hernández is an assistant professor of University Programs at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. Her research areas include Chicana literature, Women's Studies, and cyberspace. She is currently developing an online publication site called This Bridge Called Cyberspace: Online Publishing By and About Women, People of Color, and Social Identity Groups. <email@example.com>
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