A New Definition of “Community”

News pundits, politicians, teachers, and parents all report that the upcoming generation will grow into a world where the Internet and social media have fractured and divided communities into mass groups of isolated individuals. The likely truth is that we have reached a point that surpasses all others in recent memory in terms of community, and that there has never been such potential for these communities to impact the institutions that most interest and affect them.

Once upon a time, community used to be governed by proximity — you bonded with the people who lived near you because near you was the furthest you could reach as an individual. You and your barrage of plucky local figures would rally together on the steps of City Hall to protest water restrictions or an increase in the cost of utilities, since the “community agenda” really meant the “neighborhood agenda.” This focus on proximity also gets at the root of what social interaction used to center around, which suggests to me that community was very limited in its scope. Folks were not as interested in issues originating beyond the hedge, and attitudes about foreign affairs or “outside” issues were much more narrowly formed as compared to today. Think of the implications of this to a person whose goals varied profoundly from the common goals of the community. Where would this person go? To what community could this person subscribe? He would have no choice but what was right in front of him, or else he would have to relocate to wherever his preferred community existed, provided he knew of any.

Thankfully, this person need not despair, for a true miracle of human ingenuity means that he can belong to any community he wants. If the plight of the lemming concerns him above all other things, then he can visit the Save the Lemming Foundation or other such similar forums on the Internet that rally a group of people around a common goal: to save the lemmings. Under the old definition of “community,” our concerned citizen might not have had any way to educate himself about the lemmings’ plight, much less a means of addressing it. In fact, without the invention of the Internet, the number of significant unseen and unaddressed issues would be limitless.

Concerns about the future of technology have been present at all recorded stages of human development. Do you think that cavemen anticipated that the wheel would be the end of hard work? I do not doubt it. People, and especially older people, will be more inclined to shake their heads at advancements that dissolve classic activities of their pasts. In his podcast You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney and his guests, James Burke and Matt Novak, discuss something called “present bias.” Present bias describes the bias that a man makes in favor of the moment, imaging future decisions he might make as though the person in the future will perfectly reflect the current attitudes of the man in the present. McRaney uses the example of a person who plans in the morning to eat a strict diet and follow up with exercise in the evening, but then makes excuses when the times comes around to practice these commitments.

It is also probably no surprise that the generations that most notoriously suffer from technological ineptitude are the ones who blame technology for a lack of community. It follows that if you are incapable of navigating the Internet, then you will obviously be precluded from the communities that develop therein. This marks an error of the user, not of the medium.

Fortunately, this leads directly into possible improvements in technology, or at least the way it translates, to correct this. First, educators ought to make comparatively recent technologies a more appropriate convenience for citizens who were not calibrated to operate in a high-tech world. The age gap for technology consumers must be addressed since a large demographic remains largely uninformed on how to use one of the biggest sculptors of our environment. As a society, we must respect that technology does not inhibit community, it liberates community to encompass a broad range of modes, compositions, and goals. Accepting this will open a world of potential.