Friday, October 29, 2004

Yearning for the Commons

In his post "IS IT THE DISTANCE OR THE PROXIMITY?" Orrin Judd comments on Jonathan Rowe's opin piece from the CS Monitor entitled "Our dangerous distance between the private and the commons", in which Rowe sees contemporary Americans as living in self-enforced coccoons, separated from our fellows by barriers of space and electronic firewalls:

The concept of property early settlers had wasn't a walled fortress; it was a permeable membrane that sought to reconcile the parts and the whole. Early New Englanders built their towns around a commons, a shared pasture for livestock. Private woodlands were open to others for hunting or cutting wood, unless owners fenced them.
Water law, so important in the new land, reflected this desire for balance. You could use the water that ran through your land, but not in a way that diminished your neighbor's use. The water belongs to all of us, the law said, and ownership has responsibilities as well as rights. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which laid out a plan of government for what is now much of the upper Midwest, declared that the main waterways there "shall be common highways and forever free."
Such thinking isn't a quaint relic of a simpler time. It's rooted in a fundamental economic truth - namely, the symbiosis between the private and the common.
Private property couldn't exist without a society that honors and protects it. The value of property derives largely from the efforts of others, or gifts of nature. Take a Park Avenue apartment, or a Cape Cod cottage, put it in a cornfield or urban slum, and you'd better reduce the asking price. The structure is the same; the difference is what's around it. The real estate mantra "location, location, location" really means "gifts, gifts, gifts" - of society and nature. This is true of financial assets as well
as real estate. In fact, it's true to a degree of all human production and creation. Every invention, business technique, story, and song draws on what has come before. I couldn't write this, nor you read it, without the English language - a gift to both of us. We all stand on many shoulders; and earlier concepts of property acknowledged this.

Orrin Judd sees things differently:

One wonders if the problem isn't precisely the opposite, that in an Information Age we're exposed to the ideas of others like never before and upon that exposure are made contemptuous of those we naturally disagree with.

I tend to agree with Orrin. In the supposed golden times that the author pines about, people had an intimate knowledge of maybe 50 people in their immediate community, and just about nothing of the vast rest of humanity. They lived in a cocoon of a different kind. Our cocoons are less spatially restricted, organized around work and interests. We create our own virtual cocoons, filtering our contacts through the identity templates we create for ourselves. This is normal and natural. People just cannot handle more than 50 or so meaningful, personal relationships with others. Personal relationships require a commitment of some part of ourselves, and we don't have that much of ourselves to pass around.

The problem we have today is that there are constant intrusions from the outside, barbarians at the gates, trying to break into our cocoons. Marketers trying to get into our skins. Political parties trying to earn our personal commitments. Religious missionaries trying to breach our identity barriers. Just plain nosy people trying to improve or manage our lives for us. The communications revolution has made these assaults more intrusive than ever before. We are now subject to the entreaties of strangers who may come from any corner of the globe, armed with personal information about ourselves that no earlier age would make accessible. It is a transactional, "hit and run" intimacy, a micro relationship that exists long enough to transact business or change a mind on some peripheral issue that we may know or care nothing about.

The virtual cocoons seems artificial and unnatural, which they are. The older cocoons were organic, natural. The intimacies that were engendered lasted lifetimes, and facilitated deep interpersonal transactions both economic, social and spiritual. We were once settled folk, now we are nomads. But our cocoon creation is a natural response to an unnatural environment. It is like a ship at sea, an artificial construct of dry land in a fluid wasteland. Some people never get used to its motions, and suffer a sense of "cocoon-sickness" that tells them something is not right. They look to the horizon for a point of land, a journey's end where they can disembark and live the settled life again. It is an island that no longer exists, a bucolic Atlantis sunk beneath the waves of modernity. Others , born and bred to know nothing else, feel at home in this floating virtual home, and would never turn their backs on the modern "sea" for the quaint stillness of such an ancient life.


Blogger Michael Herdegen said...

Nothing prevents anyone in America from achieving the older style of cocooning...

Owning or operating a computer isn't mandatory, and the real world still exists for those who want to experience it full-time.

However, my best guess is that many, many more people want New Age cocooning.
In fact, once "virtual reality", or the Star Trek holodeck, become reality, I suspect that a majority of people will live there full-time, experiencing interaction with other real people only through the prism of their chosen reality.

October 31, 2004 1:53 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Michael, certainly the way that online communities like the Sims have addicted many people gives some creedence to your opinion. It would be hard to pay the bills that way, though. Someday the economy may very well go virtual. There is one online MUD game that attracts millions of players, something like D&D, where some players actually will pay other players real money to acquire weapons or objects that they have earned in the game. Maybe at some point robots will handle all of our real world production so that we can live virtually. That would be a switch - robots deal with the real world, and we live in an electronic world.

October 31, 2004 7:47 PM  
Blogger Michael Herdegen said...

The point about robots is part of my vision of the future - The other is that many real-world tasks don't necessarily need the doer to experience them as they really are.

For instance, it may be possible for people deep into their own constructed universe to still craft advertising campaigns that resonate with other people in their own paradigms.
Or, supervising a platoon of robots might only require that a person be on-call, not actively watching them work.

Also, as you note, there will be new items of value, that might be paid for in new ways, ways that can be generated in abstract ways, such as entertainment.

November 02, 2004 9:55 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

The question will be how much of their lives will people live through the mediation of the virtual world, and how much will they live it through the "real" world. The virtual world has its benefits, especially for the socially challenged. It is much easier to express opinions and take intellectual or moral stands behind the anonymity of a screen name. I imagine (I haven't tried it) that it is easier to be socially or romantically adventurous in a Sim world than face to face. There are advantages and disadvantages.

Personal, face to face interaction won't go away, but I see the virtual world playing an important role in mediating personal "transactions" and acting as a levelling, equalizing medium. Some people will excel in real, interpersonal interactions, their personal charisma or charm shines there. Others may excel there for more negative reasons - they are agressive, intimidating, dominating. For those that don't excel there, the virtual world equalizes the playing field. People who can be shy, inarticulate and unimpressive in person often can come across as articulate, assertive, engaging, intelligent and persuasive behind the guise of the web. The reverse is often true - the guy who cuts an imposing figure in person may be mediocre or worse when he's evaluated primarily by his ability to express himself in text.

The immediate world of the flesh will still offer the primary way for people to experience their humanity, but that world, unmediated, often tyrannized as much as it enlivened. It is still ruled by the animal instincts, the imperative to construct status hierarchies based on sexual attractiveness, gender, physical or verbal agressiveness and violence. The virtual world has the potential to tame this world. For those unwilling to engage in the physical status wars, the virtual world will offer an out, an optional way to thrive and advance themselves economically, socially and intellectualy.

November 04, 2004 2:59 AM  
Blogger Michael Herdegen said...

Actually, the reason that I believe that most people will choose to spend as much time as possible in an alternate reality is because it is an "out", a way for the powerless and the poor to pretend to be powerful and wealthy.
Like D&D, only better.

People won't have to advance themselves socially or economically, as long as they do enough to be able to stay in their custom virtual realities.

November 06, 2004 9:09 AM  

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