Steve Cisler on Wed, 20 Nov 96 15:27 MET

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This review appears in the new online journal, 
Community Networking Currents,  from
the University of Michigan School of Information

The Wired Neighborhood by Stephen Doheny-Farina. Yale University
Press, 1996 ISBN 0-30006765-8

Copyright Steve Cisler, 1996  <>.  No commercial site
may mirror, republish, archive, or re-use this review without permission
of the author.

A few months ago, I was visiting the garden office of my online
colleague, Howard Rheingold. We correspond fairly often but see each
other no more than once a year, just enough to maintain a friendship
that began when we both joined The WELL in 1985. In a sense, I grew
up on The WELL. I began to write, to interact with people far from
the world of libraries and winemaking (my main lines of work), and to
expand my view of what was possible, of what others were thinking
about and doing. The WELL proved to be an important experience for
me, and even more so for Rheingold who went on to write a number of
books including The Virtual Community. He showed me the review
manuscript for Doheny-Farina's book, but I don't think he had time to
read it. He was involved heart and soul and pocketbook in the
birthing of a new venture, Electric Minds  <>. which
came online November 11, 1996.  By chance I had introduced him to his
business manager, as well as one key investor in the new venture. I
mention this as a prelude to the review because my virtual life
online has become such an influence on the rest of my personal and
professional life, that it will surely color my remarks.

With print material, as with the World Wide Web, the reader is
alerted to the kind of publication he is encountering by the design.
Yale University Press' designer has been influenced by WIRED
magazine, as have so many others. Mercifully, that influence goes no
further than the title and the cover: a pixilated moire in two shades
of green, overlayed with rectangular cutouts of the title in yellow,
red, green, and blue. This book does not follow the WIRED credo, and
yet it does not reject it totally.

>From the very first pages, we can see that Doheny-Farina is at odds
with the beliefs of some of the people at WIRED or the authors of 
"Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age" who see the electronic tools
being developed as "facilitating the creation of 'electronic
neighborhoods' bound together not by geography but by shared

Although the author is not in the neo-Luddite camp, one of the most
prominent endorsements on the book jacket comes from Bill McKibben,
author of The  Age of Missing Information, and a participant in the
Second Luddite Congress held in 1996. Instead, the author is a
participant who has not been reticent about weighing in with
criticisms about the virtual life, the efficacy of online
communities, and the shortcomings of the technology.

He has conducted classes using MOOs, argued with John Barlow, read
the literature--both online and in print, visited a number of virtual
communities, and certainly admits to the liberating aspects of some
facets of these tools and services: for the handicapped, the
geographically isolated, or the person re-inventing their job through

He says, in discussing the popular 'frontier' metaphor for the
Internet espoused by online veterans like John Barlow and Dave
Hughes: "Unfortunately, what is silent in our emigration into this
so-called frontier is our utter dependence on technology created,
provided, and sustained by others. This is a sign not of frontier but
of containment, not of our independence but of our domestication."

He continues elsewhere to emphasize the importance of human bonds as
manifested in the geophysical community. "I fear that the continual
virtualization of community reveals that geophysical community is
dying." But surely this community, this kind of social organization,
is a technology, as surely as language and writing are. The social
organization is a technology that also domesticates us, that sets us
apart from nature.

There are interesting chapters on virtual schools, his experiences
with MIT's MediaMOO, how people really participate on the Net and how
advertising is affecting their choices, telecommuting, Marc Weiser's
research at Xerox PARC on ubiquitous computing, and a final section
on the wired neighborhood, a long and thoughtful investigation into
the growth of civic or community networks. Although there is an
appendix with some important organizations, it does lack any pointers
to Canadian and American mailing lists on community networks.

Community networks began in the 1970's with the Community Memory
project in Berkeley, California, got moving and growing with some
small public BBSes,  Cleveland Free-Net, and Santa Monica Public
Electronic Network in the 1980's. In the early 90's they attracted a
lot of attention because there were so few options for the public to
acquire Internet accounts, and the godfather of the Free-Nets, Tom
Grundner, was doing a good job playing Johnny Appleseed around North
America, the most fertile ground for these systems.

Doheny-Farina reminds us of the hopes, dreams, and rhetoric of the
community film makers of the National Film Board of Canada, of the
early cable television activists. Indeed, the rhetoric of
technological liberation is remarkably similar whether the writer is
discussion the telegraph, electricity, radio, the typewriter,
television, public access cable, and now computers and networks. I
and others have certainly churned out tracts and broadsides and white
papers on the promise of community computing networks. The author
looks behind those promises and concentrates on National Capital
Freenet in Ottawa, Canada, just over the border from his own home
town in New York. His research was partially funded by the Canadian
government which has also funded some in depth research by Andrew
Patrick, of NCF. From my own investigations, we need much more
research into the workings of these systems on both sides of the
border. Other countries are taking this as a model for their own
communities, but, other than great anecdotes about individual
successes, we don't know the real effect of these community systems
in binding existing communities together, providing training, in
helping people learn, find jobs, and in counteracting the fragmenting
effects of seductive virtual communities.

Mario Morino, a strong supporter of community networks (time, money,
influence) gave two seminal talks on these topics at the Ties That
Bind conferences Apple sponsored with Morino in 1994 and 1995. I
believe he was somewhat disappointed that more definitive shifts or
organizational structures did not come out of those conferences, but
many of his words and suggestions have found their way into the final
chapter, "Fight the good fight". The key message Doheny-Farina closes
with is the one repeated often by Tom Grundner, a pioneer who now has
nothing to do with community computing or the Free-Nets he founded.
"The net, like a glowing city I gazed at, is a seductive electronic
specter. Take part in it not to connect to the world but to connect
to your city, your town, your neighborhood."

People sometimes dismiss books as a medium. Kevin Kelly of Wired says
he mainly reads articles, and Nicholas Negroponte claims not to be a
book person. Others focus their criticism on the slow cycle of
publishing, especially academic presses. In the interim between the
author's completion and the appearance of the book itself, the
National Public Telecomputing Network went bankrupt, Canadian and
American Free-Nets and community networks began seeing the results of
competition from Internet Service Providers and commercial outfits as
well as the growing pains of successful systems like Blacksburg
Electronic Village, La Plaza Telecommunity in Taos, New Mexico, and
the growing sustainability crisis in many systems. During this
interim a number of community networking advocates have worked online
and offline and face-to-face to establish an organization that will
help practitioners, raise public awareness, and serve as a beacon to
the many people, companies, and organizations interested in
strengthening the community through the appropriate use of
communications and information technologies.

In spite of this understandable lag, the book serves interested
parties better than other sources. Nowhere online can you find all of
these issues summarized or explicated. The numerous magazine and
newspaper articles can't cover the big picture, and WIRED does not
consider it a trend worth tracking, even though they have been at the
forefront of many other trends. For a very readable thesis that
studies the promise and reality of community networks, I highly
recommend Neil Guy's "Community Networks: Building Real Communities
in a Virtual Space?" <> 
both to the Doheny-Farina and his readers. While I may believe this
topic is of paramount importance, I don't think the book will have
the influence of Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community mainly
because the publishing world is more interested in the electronic
trends and how society is being changed by them, than in community
revitalization and development. Reporting on the new phenomenon of
virtual communities is easier than describing the challenge of
practioners using new tools and technology to improve physical
communities. I am confident that The Wired Neighborhood  will remain
an important early analysis of the effects of the Net on our towns
and our lives.
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