Sunday, June 03, 2007

Internet Communities and Democracy?

Last Friday morning, I sat behind a loving couple on the bus whose faces showed the deep tans and premature aging of people who are often homeless, substance abusers, or both. Yet, they must have had a place. For one thing, they weren't carrying all their possessions, and besides that, I gathered from their conversation they had a computer and an internet account.

I was mildly surprised they were on the net, but only mildly. The internet is a remarkably democratic medium -- especially when compared to all the other media.

I don't know how many of us any longer live in true communities where rich and poor, educated and uneducated, doctor and patient, lawyer and client, mayor and constituent, banker and borrower, all rub shoulders both in business and social life. But maybe the net at times creates virtual communities where that sort of social integration is still true.

If so, then that's yet another reason in my book to love the net. In the United States and (I hear) in the United Kingdom, people increasingly live in lop-sided "communities", apart from the full spectrum of humanity, socially isolated from those who are not pretty much like them. My guess is that sort of "community" breeds indifference and even antagonism towards members of our society we have little or no social contact with. It's easy to dislike rich people, for instance, if you seldom see one. It's easy to become indifferent to the problems of the poor if you do not know any. And that bodes ill for democracy.

Democracy is not built on ideals alone. Just as much as ideals, it's built on integrated communities. Perhaps the net is to some extent helping to re-integrate us into genuine communities.


Ed Yong said...

Certainly it has potential, but I think there's still a massive amount of segregation. Consider, for example, the variety of comments in the talkback sections of the BBC website, and the Yahoo messageboards. There is a clear education gradient...

Schwinn said...

And perhaps it distances us from the people right next to us.