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Technically Together: Rethinking Community within Techno-Society

Author: Michele A. Willson
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006
Review Published: June 2008

 REVIEW 1: Lisa Justine Hernández
 REVIEW 2: Barbara Iverson
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Michele Willson

Technically Together: Rethinking Community within Techno-Society, by Michele A. Willson, is thick with theory and the formal vocabulary of theorizing. The author notes toward the end of the work that the book "has been many more years in the making than originally planned" (226). Though the technologies and forms of mediation that undergird virtual communities have "increased incrementally" (226), Willson asserts that the work of the theorists she outlines and explores holds up to the changes and can set an inquiring reader off on a quest to explain how the real and the virtual are synthesized in the form of virtual communities.

If you are looking for a challenging, systematic critique of the work of Charles Taylor and social communitarians, Jean-Luc Nancy, or Mark Poster, this book provides that. The author sets out by defining some common problems with existing theory and frameworks for investigating virtual communities. These tie together community, technology, and sociality, and include: intersubjectivity, connectedness, reciprocity, commonality, Gemeinshaft vs. Gesellschaft, re-presentation, and the relation of the individual to Other.

The central premise of this book is that increasingly dominant practices of technical mediation and extension of social relations require us to rethink our understandings and practice of community, the other, and individuality.

Willson introduces knowledge (or ways of social knowing), time, space, and embodiment as ontological categories. These are clearly being altered by the ways in which we experience and understand them, as discussions of digital immigrants vs. digital natives in the popular press suggest. Certainly how social relations are understood and experienced across time have ramifications for the form and kind of communities that evolve. While deftly teasing out the problems that face us by exploring existing frameworks and theories that allow us to better understand our current mediated condition, Willson does not suggest a new paradigm.

Exploring the work of the three theorists -- Taylor, Nancy, and Poster -- leads to some interesting insights. According to Willson, Taylor views the technological "benevolently," because for him, social connectedness is tied to the dialogical nature of desirable human activity. So for Taylor, commonality, self-responsible freedom, and individual rights figure prominently into his social community, but he fails to explore conflict that can arise between the individual because of interconnectivity.

As Willson moves to Jean-Luc Nancy, she begins with with the Heiddeggarian concept of "inherent sociality" to find a link between the work of Taylor and Nancy. She notes that Nancy's focus on singularities situated among others focuses on the social more than on the individual. In fact, this is where Nancy is most useful. In illustrating the continuous and never resolved struggle between singularity and commonality -- between integration and difference -- that exists in human society with or without mediated technologies, Jean-Luc Nancy makes clear an issue that is problematic for virtual and face-to-face communities. Unresolved is the issue of respect for Other vs. the need for direct political action.

Willson begins her discussion of Poster's work with his own words: "In the era of cyborgs, cyberspace, and virtual realities, the face of community is not discerned easily through the mists of history, however materialistic or dialectical they may be" (177). Like other writers such as Sherry Turkle and Howard Rheingold, Poster positions virtual community as post-modern. In Poster's writing, Willson finds a theorist who "concentrates in sufficient detail on issues such as interplay of technology and subjectivity and moves beyond empirical social analysis" (178). She finds his exploration of how technology extends and abstracts relationships, integrative processes, experiences of embodiment, and time and space to go beyond what Taylor or Nancy have proposed. Where Poster misses the mark is in his failure to recognize or analyze sociality.

As Willson completes her explication of the three theorists, she states that while the three address her main areas of interest -- sociality, radical relations, and technologically-extended social forms -- none of the three work out a cohesive theoretical position. This brings us to the key point of this book: that the explication and critique of the work of these theorists "casts doubt on this solutionistic attitude toward the use of technology" (206). We know that technology extends and mediates social relationships and affects the form and experience of community. Therefore, how we live in a technologically-dominated society must enter into how we construct accounts of community.

Willson returns to her ontological categories of time, space, knowledge, and embodiment to note that how traditional, modern, or post-modern theory look at these aspects of being determines what they will make of virtual communities and social networks. As our social nets extend via mediated technologies, our social relations grow while getting thinner at the same time, Willson contends, leading to more individualization and compartmentalized social relations. She sees a danger as social relations become more instrumental and emphasize self-gratification, and the possibility of the other being conflated with self.

The critiques in this book point out several areas where theory could be expanded in order to understand community in techno-society. It is not a book for those looking for "how-tos" about social networking or communities, but it suits the scholar looking to work in the area. It will be interesting to follow Willson's future writing to see how she deconstructs the virtual communities that have arisen with the use of social networking tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Second Life.

Willson leaves us with a conclusion that might have come from observation, but which she chooses to wrest from theoretical critique. It is that community describes ways of being together that are not static, shouldn't be romanticized, but no matter what, "technologically enabled time-compression" (223) is changing how we experience Other and define ourselves. It needs to be the business of scholars to explain this and probe its ramifications for our society.

Barbara Iverson:
Barbara Iverson teaches online publishing and production and new media in the Journalism Department at Columbia College Chicago and blogs at currentbuzz. Barbara is a contributor to Poynter.org's E-Media Tidbits. She is also co-publisher of Chicagotalks.org, a community and citizen journalism news site focused on Chicago's many neighborhoods.  <biverson@colum.edu>

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