Why Culture is Important

During a conference on Friday, panelists from popular social network sites were asked to speculate about the future. Scott Heiferman, co-founder of Meetup, presented a vision of technological advance and social progress along familiar lines: technology, information, democracy, etc. For example, we might not have to worry about privacy and the partitions between the various roles we play in life (e.g., a friend to some and a boss or professor to others) because society will necessarily become more accepting and tolerant of the full range of our life's facets.

I responded, from the audience, along familiar lines as well: this is a rose-tinted vision that fails to account for the facility Al Qaeda has with technology, the ease with which neo-Nazi spread the information, or that weak democracies (without a strong civic right and culture) can become fascist.

Such an argument is not new and entails questions of technological essentialism (i.e., is it necessarily progressive?) and determinism (i.e., is that progress inevitable?).

The critical party to this argument, which is often ignored, is culture. Consider the Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not good and interesting because of technology, it is those things because of its culture (e.g., neutrality, friendliness, etc.). Because technology has played a necessary, but insufficient, role in many seemingly progressive phenomena we attribute far more to technology than it merits. (Gutenberg made his living printing the church's indulgences long before Luther's objections to them.)

But, what, then, can we say of information technology if it isn't inherently progressive and emancipatory? "Inherent" is certainly too strong a word. I agree that it has been a benefit to humanity in many ways. And I will admit that my own early disappointed cipherpunk visions -- and even RSI -- have contributed to a skepticism of utopian claims. But I also believe that technology is really the wrong "unit of analysis."

When I wrote Why the Internet Is Good seven years ago I didn't address technology directly. Instead, I spoke of the ways in which the early culture of Internet standards-making was commendable: open participation; no kings, but elders; consensus and competitive scaling, transparent implementation and enforcement. And this hints at why I think an essentialist notion of progressive technology fails.

Why, then, does Internet technology seem progressive? Because the people who built it were geeks. And the geeks love the interesting. How do you make things interesting? You enable experimentation and communication. And this also has wider, progressive effects. But it is not inherent to technology -- perhaps we could speak simply of sympathies at best with geeky technology.

My argument is much like the one Larry Lessig made to me many years ago, but then he was speaking of law and how the progressive "West Coast" law of "code" need not necessarily remain so, and how it might be trumped by the "East Coast" law of politicians. Yet, I'm not concerned with law specifically, but of culture and when I look at new online communities I ask questions about their culture. Yes, the latest technology is cool, but how do people treat each other? Do they have values of tolerance and civility? Are there norms of humility and friendliness? This is why I've been skeptical of technologies that simply exaggerate the social cliques of high school hallways; this is why I find it difficult to get excited about the first "Web-rings" to present-day hundred-fold friend lists and blog rolls. However, one of the reasons I do love the Wikipedia is because they ask of even the most senior participants, "Please do not bite the newcomers."

When I go back and read Rheingold, writing at the outset of the virtual community phenomenon, the folks on the Well weren't really speaking about technology. They spoke of moments of joy and sorrow shared within a community's culture that could hold and make meaning of those experiences. Technology contributed to that, but such an outcome is not essential to technology, nor a necessary result.

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