Technophilia, Virtual Communities and the World of Ends

Natural Economy 2
A lot of my friends and readers are technophiles. They believe that social networking and other technologies can make the world a much better place. I’d like to believe it, but I don’t.

The industrial economy is rigged. It is not a ‘market’ economy or a ‘free’ economy. It is designed to reduce us to mere, insatiable consumers — of politicians’ promises with our tax dollars, of overpriced, imported crap products, of ‘education’, of packaged information and entertainment ‘products’, of health treatments etc. We are given just enough cash and credit to keep us addicted, and we are isolated from serious social interaction to make us compliant. No great conspiracy. That’s just how the world works best when the objective is to maximize profit and GDP.

We are not people in this economy. We are consumers, taxpayers, students, audiences, patients. Numbers. Demographics.

The natural economy, the one we keep striving towards because it’s, well, natural, is inherently social, which is one of the things we like about it. It engages us as customers, citizens, learners, participants, as peers in the collective enterprise of living and making a living. It disintermediates the robber barons, the corrupt politicians, the boring teachers, the mindless media, and healthcare professionals who profit from our illness. They are not needed in a natural economy. There is no place for them.

It is not surprising, then, that we are attracted to entrepreneurship, to networked rather than hierarchical organizations, to the idea of community. Small is beautiful, and we are social creatures by nature.

The idea of a World of Ends is that we don’t need middlemen to do what is important. With the Internet, with social networking, we can co-produce what we need together, for ourselves, with nothing skimmed or suboptimal. It is suggested, and we would love to believe, that the World of Ends is evolving, slowly, under the corporatist radar, waiting to achieve sufficient momentum that it cannot be stopped.

In a fully developed natural economy, we would all be members of self-selected, self-managed natural enterprises, and of self-selected, self-managed natural intentional communities. Natural enterprises and our natural community would be self-sufficient and self-governed, and as members of them we would look after our own learning, recreation, health and well-being.

It’s a great idea, and we need to work towards it. But there are two problems with how we’re approaching it now:

  1. Technology alone will never get us there. Technology is a facilitator of social change, not a catalyst for it. We need to want to change, we need to have to change, before we will. And there is no indication, in history or in what is happening today, that we want or need to change that profoundly.
  2. The glue that holds natural communities together is physical and emotional, not virtual or intellectual. To make them work, and to make them sustainable, they must be part of a massive relocalization of the way we live and the way we make a living. Long distance social relationships may be pleasant and instructive, but they are not the stuff of true community. As useful as the Internet is in letting us practice social arts, it may actually be an impediment to creating real, sustainable community, something we can depend on, live on. The economics of natural enterprise and natural community are inherently local, geographically centred on physical place.

I know this is hard to explain, which is perhaps why I keep putting off trying to express it. I understand the two problems above intuitively more than intellectually. We can develop software virtually, and we can undertake artistic collaborations remotely. But we cannot build a whole economy on fragile, multiple virtual relationships. Most of what our economy is about is atoms, not bits. It is quality, locally produced food and clothing and building materials. It is creation and recreation that we participate in, in person.

Ultimately we will have to abandon the illusion that we can be part of a global, virtual, ever-changing ‘electronic’ community, that we can be citizens of the whole world, that social networks and technology can change the world. Eventually we have to come back to place, to true community, and make it work, face to face.

The world we will face by the end of this century, a world of cascading crises and horrific scarcity, will not allow us to play with technology. This technology is fragile and needs huge amounts of energy stolen from future generations to work at all. We cannot afford it. This future world, a world of rust and reclamation, will force us to face hard truths. Our future social networks will be held together with flesh and sweat, not messages and VoIP.

It’s time we got down to the business of figuring out how our descendants will live, and make a living, when the ephemeral constructs of our rapacious, delusional age are gone. It’s important to get started, withlove and without illusion. Here, now, in this place.

The time for toys is over.

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8 Responses to Technophilia, Virtual Communities and the World of Ends

  1. Jon Husband says:

    They believe that social networking and other technologies can make the world a much better placeAs useful as the Internet is in letting us practice social arts, it may actually be an impediment to creating real, sustainable community, something we can depend on, live onBoy, are you ever playing fast and loose with a lot of other people’s thinking here, in my opinion.In order to begin making some of the kinds of (very large and fundamental) changes you continuously espouse on this blog, people SOMEHOW have to become more aware of a relatively wide range of conditions and factors, and there are only so many ways to do that … reading books and journals, watching documentaries and reasonably factual television shows, and those will happen in the intensity required only if their interest and concern(s) are sufficiently aroused.Arguably the technology we are privileged to enjoy today we did not have a decade ago or so, and it is a powerful means of spreading information and growing awareness. You are correct that it is not a panacea, the be-all and end-all, a magic wand. IMHO, as a reasonable number of those you tar with your brush of disdain have taken pains to point out, the technology is only technology .. it takes peoples’ interest, concern, care, passion and awareness to use it to further the ends you are seeking.Yes, there is the possibility that its use can isolate people or abet their detachment from other real issues and means of connecting and acting. Bu I do not think it is either atoms or bits .. again IMHO it is both atoms and bits.

  2. Vish Goda says:

    Hey Dave,For some reason, my earlier comments seem to have disappeared – but thought I would add them again.I am inclined to respectfully disagree with everything you have said here, but I am giving the benefit of doubt to you – in that, I do believe you have more to say about this than you did here. So, I do not want to comment without giving this some thought.But, I just have a couple of questions:1. Our species started in a natural wonderland to begin with and then ended up with what we got now. Technology was our choice – so question is – how did we get here, in the first place? 2. “The glue that holds natural communities together is physical and emotional, not virtual or intellectual.” – Again, by nature, we are social animals – constantly in need of social changes, seeking new inner circles and trying to get out of older ones. While, Physical and emotional attachments keep us together, are they also the root cause of most of our miseries, including disappointments and disillusionments?Even if we did chose to live in a natural community – I think we will chose to do so only because modern technology offers a guarantee to the members of the physically isolated communities to continue to stay in touch digitally with other communities – without that chance, natural communities will slowly but surely gravitate towards industrial societies.But a very thought provoking posting, as usual.Vish Goda

  3. Dave I agree with you entirely. And it is uncomfortable to even broach the subject. Anyone who has ever been involved in committees or even loose groups centered around an interest realise that whilst everyone does not feel dependant on each other the group does not function, you get the usual bitching and backbiting, leaving everyone with the feeling that democracy does not work and people function best together when just co-existing, forced into the consumer/employee role with a management class to guide them. Yet research done here in Sweden suggests that it is the social relations in the workplace that are one of the most important factors in work enjoyment, ranking along with wages. The things is, in the modern world there is no widely known example of people coming together in the way you allude to. So many people think it can’t be done.I think it HAS to be done. Stuff technology I would rather be in a community of people I trust and like, living off what nature provides than alone at home with the TV, surrounded by gadgets and networks of only slightly committed relationships.Research done by Systems ecologist Folke Gunther ( shows that the optimum number of people from the point of social organisation and production of food is about 200 e.g. 50 to 80 households. Maybe readers would like to look at his ECOUNIT concept. Together with Folke and Ortega from a university in Brazil we looked into the financial and legal aspects of setting up a “tribe” or “intentional community” where you were dependant on the social capital in the group (not technology) for your food, accomodation, feeling of belonging, energy and water.

  4. peter says:

    in order for change to happen people need to realise that they do have the power. They are not mere consumers or tax-payers. In that arena technology helps us a lot. We can find other sources of information that are not available in the centralised ‘one-agenda’ media. Also it is way easier to identify and associate with people with similar ideas and ways of living even if they are physically far apart from each other. For change you need to first become aware of that you can change. Sure, technology is only a tool and will not solve the issues for us but like any tool it’s up to us to decide what we make out of it. De-centralisation starts first in our minds and only later in physical communities if necessary.

  5. Jon Husband says:

    Per Howard Rheingold (I believe) in Twitter discussion of this blog post …“Gutenberg and the Reformation– ppl went to war alongside others not of their local tribe because they shared a belief”

  6. gbreez says:

    When it all comes down, when the economy collapses in the USA then the world as it surely must, when we lose dependable utilities perhaps because of some antibiotically untouchable plague or the chaos of war, it will have to be our neighbors we turn to or defend ourselves from. If we have become friends, perhaps we can survive by helping each other, trading goods and services, co-operating to build/rebuild what we can. I do not believe that this is an outlandish thought. I do believe that it will be most difficult if we have not laid the groundwork for friendship in advance. However, I happen to live in a red-neck small town area. I have a few friends within walking distance but most of my neighbors are total strangers as we cannot relate to each other except on the most primitive level, a serious obstacle. Add to that the fact that I am horrendously shy, and, well, things are not looking too chummy.

  7. Tom R says:

    I made a donation a few years ago to a “Dorothy Day” house, a group that exists to serve the needs of the poorer people in a community. I naturally asked for their email address and was surprised that they explicitly rejected having a house computer, largely because it was too distracting. I certainly couldn’t disagree – there’s only so many hours in the day, and intellectual curiosity in a wide world probably always means neglect to the one closer to home.I suppose I am a technophile, although still in denial, consider no loyalty in that world at least, nothing to defend except the open roads of access. I much appreciate the access to information of the internet, communication with like-minded people far away. I suppose the internet is like “travel” that is instantaneous. Joseph Campbell talks of the “Hero’s journey”, leaving the comfort and safety of home into the wilder world, and coming back with something won to aid the community. But maybe when travel is too easy, we let our “wanderlust” hold us too easily, too long, and forget our actual mission – to bring something back of worth to the world that really matters to us.On a different side of travel, I imagine the idea of the pilgrimage, traveling to a holy place, where the journey is part of the ordeal, and without some hardship, the destination becomes less powerful. I imagined this contrasting hiking up a mountain in Colorado vs driving up it. Anyway, there is a vast world for all of us, even within walking distance, unexplored, unappreciated, and the virtual world helps alienate us from taking those steps and finding places close by that are worth defending.I know a great wonder of having access to the wider world, through fossil-fuel travel, telephone, internet, as well as mass-media, being able to “choose” our like-minded friends and heroes to look up to, and give up trying to understand or find common ground to family and community who “don’t understand”. Even political parties too easily force people into collecting into like-minded groups where real issues and differences can’t be discussed, or even recognized.It takes power to face our differences, our conflicting world views, and to try to offer something that isn’t appeciated, like fears that the world isn’t going as well as we’d like and hope, and bigger things must change than we can do individually. Anyway, I guess I’m in agreement. Technology must be evaluated from a point of view of its effectiveness to acting in the world. To the degree is separates and distracts us from our true power, it must be rejected or limited.

  8. roy williams says:


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