What does it mean to be human?

When it comes to the “dilemma of modernity”, namely, the tension between individual expression and community spirit (Matei, 2001) all the authors have an opinion on how serious it is and whether it can be resolved. Rheingold in a lengthy postlogue remains captured by the potential of virtual communities to do both and. He outlines some important questions, responds to his critics, and even acknowledges learning from them and his experiences; however, he still believes that the Internet provides humans “a chance of influencing our destiny” (2000, p. 323). It’s a issue but one that will be resolved if people take the time to be actively involved in shaping virtual communities – or rather, as he wishes he had written – virtual networks. In contrast Matei (2001) declares it one of the “thorniest issues of our day” (2001, p. 34). I would tend to agree – not because he determines my grade in this class, but for very personal reasons. For a number of months myself and my spouse and key friends have been debating this issue (online and off) of individuality and community without having a way of naming it. It is important to define community – to understand what it is – but not simply as a way to finally be able to categorize online interactions (is virtual community, community or not?) but because our world is a different place. As Wellman put it our sense of community is changing from place to place to person to person. Technology is not causing it but rather is a catalyst for its acceleration (2001, p. 27).

I’m not arguing that technology is a neutral tool. That seems naïve. As a human creation it is influenced by the assumptions of its creators (See Agre’s story about the assumptions behind the community the ARPAnet designers thought would be using the technology, 1999). Marshall McLuhan infamously wrote (and was documented in history commercial-mentuaries of my childhood) that “The Medium is the Message”. While this may or may not be true – the medium definitely influences the message and the people engaged in relying, receiving, interrupting, or engaging the message. To understand what a community is – perhaps we need to go back to our metaphysical roots – to discover “What does it mean to be human?”. Does it require a series of social networks? Is place critical to truly valuable social networks – beyond basic utilitarianism? Should we even replace the word community with the concept of social networks? Are they interchangeable or simply interrelated? Can a community also be a commodity? If it is a commodity how does that change a community?

I’m inclined to agree with Wellman (2001) and lean towards thinking of online interaction as a complement to real world interaction – eliminating the distinction between computer mediated communication and accepted technology use + face to face, focusing instead on the dilemma that technology seems to highlight: As moderns (or post-moderns or whatever label/non-label/formerly-known as symbol we like to use) the Internet highlights some critical issues in modern relationships and communication. I may not fully aspire to Rheingold’s arguments and see some naivete exhibited there but I’m drawn by the potential and promise he talks about both in his book (2001) and in his blog/website/group/community/network where he is focused on looking at the future (yes, he is connected to an “Institute of the Future” and mapping the potential of humanity to cooperate and to move toward collective action). There is something to be said for seeing the opportunities and not simply focusing on the problems or perceived problems – I think we need both; however, we can’t really judge the value of a community, virtual or real, without knowing what it is… So how would you define it?

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