Today, monitoring of Americans by Americans via the latest security cameras
and paraphernalia goes beyond turf protection and money lust; it belies our
widespread distrust of each other. This seeps through passages of the Magna
Carta of the Knowledge Age, a document which some have adopted as the
Common Sense of the 1990s. This tract, authored by the Tofflers, George
Gilder and Esther Dyson among others, presents a weird mix of isolationism
and virtual bonding.

Such sentiments also fuel Rep. Andrea Seastrand’s (R-California) personal
crusade. Seastrand wants to create a National Spaceport Agency. As Hanna
Rosin recently reported for The New Republic, the Agency would convert
defunct military bases to ports for commercial space. Seastrand elaborated
to Rosin, “When you think about space, think of all those poor children
trapped in the ghettos. They may want to take a trip into space someday, or
even go live there.” Or maybe it’s that Seastrand wants to send them there
so she doesn’t have to contemplate some of the ugly byproducts of trickle
down economics?

Seastrand’s embarrassingly flaky comment remind us that a new tribalism
lurks beneath all the talk about restoring community, civility and darning
the social fabric. This atomized, racist vision of community ignores one of
the most fundamental aspects of an ordered society–respect for people with
whom you have nothing in common except proximity: your neighbor who drives
a taxi, the folks who take their dogs to the same scrap of grass in the
park. Incidental, spontaneous encounters with these people demand civility
and politeness, the whole Victorian ball of wax. But community demands
civility only if you can’t <ESC>, and in virtual communities, you can
disappear whenever you like. If one of your postings inspires the ire of
newsgroup regulars, then there’s always another newsgroup to join.

In fact, the Internet facilitates the retreat from shared experience which
keeps people together and teaches all those Victorian virtues. The Magna
Carta glorifies this very possibility: “Socially, putting advanced
computing power in the hands of entire populations will alleviate pressure
on highways, reduce air pollution, allow people to live further away from
crowded or dangerous urban areas, and expand family time.” Here
telecommuting is the path to deeper family bonds. Tellingly, the authors
emphasize the physical detachment from places and people outside the home.
This vision of the future renders contact with society at large nearly
irrelevant. And cities, home of higher concentrations of immigrants and
people of all social strata, from the filthy rich to the working poor, are
intimidating and dangerous and not worth reckoning with. Most people do
acquire “values” from their families. But what of these values if you don’t
test them in a world beyond this little unit? The family becomes a cocoon
with a modem-umbilical cord connecting you to the world.

In The Diamond Age, Stephenson takes these intimations of a new tribalism
to their logical conclusion. There, technology has unhinged ethnicity from
geography, but not completely. Society has broken into phyles, essentially
clans which are no longer defined by territory per se but rather by
culture. The three most powerful ones are New Atlantis, Nippon, and Han.
Though a phyle does not exist solely on contiguous land masses, they do
carefully control borders using the most advanced security technologies.
Admission to a phyle depends upon meeting their code of behavior, but
maintaining this behavior within its borders means eliminating people who
would subvert it. Basically the phyles of The Diamond Age translate the
suburbs (or the default segregation of a city like Los Angeles), with their
private neighborhood patrols, superior schools and gated country clubs,
into an entire social order.

As Gingrich and his colleagues unravel the social safety net, which
admittedly had mixed success in uplifting the downtrodden, their
techno-babble serves up a soothing fantasy. Those distressed by the bleak
conditions of our cities can avoid them. And from our outposts in the
exurbs, we’ll commune in cyberspace. Information technology will
undoubtedly continue to benefit millions, but it’s no substitute for
connections to the people with whom you may have nothing in common
except a zip code.