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Lowell Monke

Lowell Monke is a professor, teacher and a cautionary advocate for the mindful use of computers/technology in education. He is a frequent contributor to Net Future and author of "Breaking Down The Digital Walls: Learning to Teach in a Post-Modem World".

Questions of Community & the Internet

When I hear the word 'community' now, it is hard for me to differentiate between the first meaning of community, which denotes relationships based on regional or geographical situations, and the second meaning, which denotes relationships based on common interests or characteristics. Considering this, what do you see as some positive and negative trends in online community development?

Both the benefits and the problems come from that difference in meaning spelled out above. Groups defined by proximity of place have that in common. They may have very little else that binds them together. Thus, a community has to be grown out of much negotiation, co-operation, political and social engagement. Healthy communities of place are generally marked by the ability of its members to work through differences so that a sense of commitment to the common good has a good deal of leverage over individual interests. It takes a lot of work and often a good deal of sacrifice.
On-line groups (I think it is a real degradation of the word to call them communities) that form around common interests do not generally require that kind of effort or sacrifice. Indeed, it is the convenience and ease of communication that draws people to these groups in spite of the barriers that prevent full human engagement. In fact, those barriers are what often times make these associations attractive. We can get the information or support we need without having to be very tolerant or revealing of ourselves. We can participate at our leisure, expose only as much as we want to of our identities, and disconnect at any time without significant consequences. With only text and perhaps images as our means of engagement, the necessity or ability to create a community in the full human sense is extremely limited.

There are benefits that come from each of those associations, of course. My concern about on-line groups is that they seem to be drawing attention and time away from the constant struggle to maintain healthy communities. As communities continue to disintegrate in our society, there is a tendency to look to on-line associations as a substitute, which they just cannot be - they have a very different and much more limited character.
Democracy especially depends not so much on who we vote for but on our willingness to engage those we live with - whom we may not have much in common with or even like - in the hard work of community building. John Dewey called this process "conjoint communicated experience" and saw it as the fundamental building block of democracy. On-line interest groups tend to work against this process, drawing members toward like-minded blocks of influence.

Have you seen good examples of community projects, which strengthen their local communities? Have the arts or culture played a role in any of these?

Here in Springfield we have, like many other cities, an annual summer arts festival. It lasts nearly a month and includes almost nightly activities (plays, concerts, etc.) in a large amphitheater across the street from the art museum. It takes an enormous amount of time and effort by a large number of mostly volunteers. Many of these folks would not know each other if not for their work together on this event. And every year, new people join in. They come out of a common interest, but they find themselves engaged in just the sort of conjoint communicated experience that can only be achieved through working side-by-side and face-to-face with others. I suspect this project has done more to strengthen our community than anything else going on here.

Just as a counter-example: Springfield Schools is having a great deal of trouble, both financially and academically. In part, this is due to a long-standing disengagement by the parents, whose attendance at meetings, parent/teacher conferences, etc. is very low. The district has purchased a very expensive telephone messaging system that will allow parents extensive access to their children's assignments, and better communication with teachers and administrators. Will it improve parents' communication with the schools? Perhaps. Will it improve parents' involvement in the school community? Almost certainly not, as it only addresses their narrow interest in their own children's performance.
Far more promising, I think, are the combined music concerts of all the high schools and middle schools that were begun last year, which has brought parents together from all over the city and has inspired many of them to become more active in supporting the overall music program throughout the district.

If technology itself is ambivalent, and as Steve Talbott suggests it's hidden agenda is our hidden agenda ( depending on us to determine its use), what advice would you give for people who wish to use technology for strengthening communities?

First, let's be clear on what we mean by "us". Technology does indeed depend on a corporate us to determine its use, but us as individuals have a very limited power in this matter. I watch almost no television, but to say that I determine TV's hidden agenda or how it influences my life would be hopelessly naïve.

So my advice hinges much more on the issue of ambivalence than on control (which we have much less of than most of us want to admit - witness the recent FCC decision on deregulation). Anyone who wishes to use technology for strengthening communities should first recognize that every powerful technology represents a Faustian bargain, and it is crucial to understand just what price is going to paid for the power one gains.
Will it decrease the opportunities for people to meet face-to-face? How significant is that loss to the health of the community? Is the work that is saved using the technology a blessing or was the work itself a critical ingredient in the glue that holds the community together? And, of course, there is always the financial costs. Could the money be spent in other more beneficial ways? Will the ongoing financial commitment to the technology preclude other diverse ways of building community? How widely will the benefits be spread across the entire community, as opposed to a few elites with access to the technology? The answers to all of those questions are rarely either/or, but rather matters of degree that need to be carefully worked through by the community itself.

The second thing to do is determine if there are ways that those losses can be compensated for while still employing the technology. Often, the problems caused by technologies to communities can be ameliorated if we just pay attention to them. The Amish have been doing this for centuries. Contrary to their image, they don't reject new technologies out of hand, but study them carefully and often find ways to use them without damaging their community commitments. Many Amish have telephones, for example, but they put them far away from the house so that they can use them for emergencies or to make business calls to the outside world, but they do not intrude on the home life. Whether that strikes us as absurd or not, the point is that they pay attention to the costs as well as the benefits of technologies. We need to do that as well.

What warnings would you give to policy makers who think optimistically about the benefits for the internet in society, in rural settings for example?

Take a close look at what has happened to rural communities as a result of the technological "advances" in farming over the last fifty years. That ought to sober them up. In Iowa, where I grew up, the countryside has been depopulated, as large scale farming using massive farm equipment and direct marketing and purchasing technologies (not to mention GPS technology in the fields) have made it possible for one farmer to do the work of eight. Small towns, which were thriving in the 50s, have shrivelled up into rural ghettos and retirement communities (for a few more years, until all of the old farmers die off). Local schools have consolidated so many times that the abbreviated names are now an alphabet soup of letters designating no community at all.
If the internet has that kind of impact on rural society, or society in general, then we would be far better off without it. But again, given that the genie is out of the bottle, the task for policy makers, like the rest of us, is to try to anticipate those kinds of ill-effects of the technology (it wasn't that hard to see what was coming in agriculture) and find ways to limit or compensate for them. That, of course, takes a good deal of political will, because it often means opposing powerful financial forces, but if we are going to put community welfare over profit it simply has to be done.

Culture in the Information Society

Do you think the 'Information Society' needs cultural development? Does the internet need local, regional identity? Or does the individual on the internet leave place behind him when he is online?

Let me take those important questions in reverse order. We never entirely leave place behind when we are on-line, as long as we keep breathing. But the internet is such a totally abstract, symbolic environment, it is very difficult to convey a sense of place or develop place consciousness through it.

I would respond to your second question by saying that it is not a matter of the internet needing anything. The fact that it doesn't currently reflect local or regional identities indicates how weak those identities have become. What is really needed is a strengthening of communities of place, which the internet will then, through its symbolism, partly reflect. But it will take constant work to protect and project those identities, as the internet all too easily strips context from the information it moves around.

As for the first question: I don't think there is any possibility of culturally developing an "Information Society". As long as society is defined by the movement and manipulation of information, cultural development really doesn't have a place. Culture is all about the meaning we make of the world. The problem with information is that there is no meaning inherent to it. Whatever meaning culture offers gets stripped out as it is transformed into information.
So your question is right on the mark in terms of what the problem is with a society that defines itself by information. Our society needs cultural development. But since culture is essentially excluded from the force that is currently defining society, if we want cultural development at all we are going to have to recognize that "Information Society" is an arid and meaning denying way of organizing our lives. To develop culturally, we are going to have to find a different way to define ourselves.

What advice or warnings would you give to the cultural community developers and artists who wish to 'harness the power of technology to serve participants search for meaning in their lives'?

Don't mistake power for meaning. Technologies enhance and extend human power. Unless extending one's power is itself what gives meaning to your life, your search for meaning through technology will almost certainly be in vain. Meaning works its way out from our inner resources along the lines of connectedness we make with world around us through our experiences in it. If playwrite Max Frisch is even partly correct (and I think he is at least that) in describing technology as, "the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it," then it holds little help for our never ending search for meaning.
Where technology holds great promise and has always been of great value to artists is its capacity to help us express the meaning we find in the world. As long as we don't confuse the search with the expression I think we have a chance to employ a great host of technologies, both simple and complex, in creative and beneficial ways.

Finally, could you recommend any further reading, websites or groups that touch on issues of community, culture and communications networks?

That's a lot of terrain to cover. I am not aware of any groups or websites dedicated specifically to those three connected concerns. I try to list valuable and provocative websites dealing with all kinds of technology issues, including all three of the ones you mention, on my website "Confronting Technology". Of course, NETFUTURE offers some of the most profound insights into our relationship with technology that can be found anywhere. Steve Talbott's articles are archived at http://www.netfuture.org/. His book, The Future Does Not Compute, addresses many of the issues discussed here as well. I would also recommend The Unsettling of America, by Wendell Berry, if one is willing to take rural community life as a model or metaphor for what technology might do to community life in general. And if you are willing to sort through the amazingly rich list of on-line links at Social Criticism Review http://www.socialcritic.org/review.htm, you will certainly be rewarded with some deep and thought provoking articles related to this discussion.

Selected Links from Interview:


In his treatise on Computers in Education: The Web and the Plow ** Lowell Monke says that, as a teacher, the key question to ask is

"How is computer technology going to help my students develop those inner qualities, such as insight, creativity and good judgment, which education at its best has always sought to inspire? To put it another way, Is there a way to harness the power of computer technology to serve my students' search for meaning in their learning and in their lives?"

If community cultural developers and artists believe that local art projects help bring meaning to people's lives, it is possible to expand this question to apply to the use of technology in creative, community situations. It is these same questions arts practitioners will ask when approaching community cultural work trying to use technology.