Bill’s description of the spectrum of "multiple, overlapping communities" he
participates in, and his point that this multiplicity is an abiding feature
of the modern world, strikes me as not just accurate, but unarguable. The
rapid erosion of the essentially nineteenth-century, place-based community
has been a sociological truism since at least the publication of Robert and
Helen Lynd’s 1929 book, "Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American
Culture." Who could deny that place means less to us today than ever
before? Who could dispute the fact that most of us (in the industrialized
first world, anyway), divide our time exactly the way Bill does, between an
ever-expanding number of communities in both the on and off-line world.
Not I.

Just because something happens to be true at a particular historical point,
however, does not render it immune to criticism. This is a point of
contention between myself and some of the self-described Net-religionists
(I’m thinking of folks like John Perry Barlow, Kevin Kelly, et al), who
have expressed their profound discomfort with (even fear of) the direction
of the digital age, while at the same time arguing its "inevitability,"
advocating our submission to it ("When you’re about to be swept over the
falls, you might as well try to enjoy the ride."-Barlow), and pocketing the
considerable profits it makes possible. All this talk of inevitability,
frankly, gives me the heebie-jeebies. Culturally speaking, nothing is
inevitable; ideas can derail even the most seemingly inexorable cultural
trends. Inevitability is simply a way of declaring by fiat what ought to
remain open to question.

Getting back to Bill’s argument, then, I think it’s possible to accede the
fact that we inhabit multiple communities while continuing to debate the
value of these new social forms for our culture. And I believe it’s
possible to do this *without* resorting to either "neo-traditionalist
nostalgia for the nineteenth century small town" (I’m well aware of what
remained just outside the frame of Norman Rockwell’s fantasies for
example), or the potentially autocratic dictates of folks like Jim Exon. I
argue (to anyone willing to listen), that the momentum of the digital age
is taking us in the wrong direction, that we should limit the role of
electronically-mediated communication (and entertainment) in our lives to
the greatest extent possible. At the same time, I’ll be the first to line
up on Bill’s side should someone want to restrict his menu of choices.
There’s no contradiction.

What’s wrong with the ideal of diversity that Bill proposes? Simply this:
it doesn’t work. Mediating technologies (because they make our lives
superficially easier in certain respects), tend to take over. Like some
opportunistic predator exploiting an ecological niche, they very quickly
make themselves the *only* choice for all but the most stubborn or
willfully eccentric. To walk down almost any street in suburbia today is to
walk through a prime-time wasteland; no old folks talking, nobody picking a
guitar, no couples making out under the bleachers. Are they all sitting in
front of those little blue squares of their own free will? Well, sort of.
There’s a chance, though, that if someone had told them early on what
they’d be trading in for "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," they might have
made a different choice.

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