Sunday, October 19, 2014

Community from a Digital Perspective

I spent a month in England this August, three weeks touring England and Wales plus another week in London for WorldCon.  The most often repeated story on the news while I was there was about the upcoming referendum to decide whether Scotland would remain a part of the United Kingdom or return to being an independent state.  
I got an interesting perspective on the issue while I was there.  The coverage was, not surprisingly, far more detailed that what was being presented in the states, not.  I found the the historical perspective very interesting.  About how the United Kingdom was comprised of four regions, three Celtic (Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland) and one Anglo-Saxon (England), how the history of the U.K. was marked by the effort of the Anglo-Saxon region to extend control and domination over the other three Celtic ones.  Over the centuries, England was able to exercise dominion over Wales and over Ireland, at least for a time.  
But not Scotland.  Unlike Ireland and Wales, Scotland was never "taken over" by England.  It was able to maintain its separate identity and independence, even if only tenuously at times.  In the end, the move toward unification that created the United Kingdom came when a Scottish King, James IV, took over the English throne when Elizabeth I died without an heir.  He became James I of England and ruled over both kingdoms.  But even then, both countries had their own parliaments, their own laws and armies and such.  It wasn't until a century later that one parliament was formed, that met in London, to govern what was became the United Kingdoms. 
I used to think of "British" and "English" as being interchangeable terms when it came to the people of the U.K..  But after seeing so many Crosses of St. George slapped on bumper stickers and flying on flags over storefronts, and hearing things like, "They wouldn't even cheer for our soccer team!  I say, 'Let them Go!'"  and "I'm NOT British.  I'm English!" I now recognize the distinction.  
Distinction.  I think that is an important word these days.  It seems to me that a lot of people are seeking to distinguish themselves from those around them.  The Scots, a significant portion of them, tried this summer.  The Catalans in northeastern Spain are seeking a similar referendum.  The Basques to the northwest of them have been trying to separate themselves for years.  The Kurds remain the largest single ethnic group without a sovereign state.  Their desire for one complicated the process of building a unified Iraq and held enable the current crisis with the group known as "The Islamic State," which also wants to separate themselves from everyone else, often by killing those they want to be distinct from.  The protestors in Hong Kong are trying to make a de jure distinction with China more de facto.  
I see same impetus in my own country, the United States, as well.  There was a effort to put on the ballot a proposition to divide California into six separate states.  The state, the backers claimed, was too big to be managed and that by divide the state into smaller units, the resulting governments could do a better job.  It can also be seen in the growing belief in the inefficacy of, and resulting dissatisfaction with, the Federal Government.  Both parties are trying to seek control over the entire mechanism of government by working at smaller levels of state and local government.  This has regionalized their message and given us the "red and blue" distinctions of locality.
This impetus to identify with a smaller, more strictly defined community is an ongoing one, which feels, as defeats are experiences and frustrations mount, like one that will gain strength going forward.  
Why do I think that?  Because we have today much greater opportunities to find an associate with people "like us," even if these people are not in close physical proximity.
The internet is a defining feature of our modern day life and has created phenominal changes in how we relate to each other.  I'll call that last statement the "Duh" moment of this essay.  But it is worth repeating because sometimes the most profound changes often start as the most subtle and are quite often unintended. 
An example of a similar unintended change brought about by technology is my contention that e microwave oven weakened family ties.  With my family, before we bought a microwave, if we wanted a hot meal we had to gather together at a specific place and time and eat together.  My mother was NOT going to cook, or even warm up, five or six meals for each member of the family.  Once we got our first microwave, though, we gained the ability to reheat our meal separately, and so could come to get our food at a time different from the rest of the family.  Over time, my family ate together less and less often.  My mom even started cooking meals and putting everything immediately into the refrigerator for us to pull out and heat up on our own.  
One statements I heard about the internet in its early days that I remember well was that it would tend to emphasize whatever was the prominent aspect of the person using it.  If someone was lonely, going online would make them lonelier, or remind them of how lonely they were.  If someone was social and well-connected, then going online would give them opportunities to achieve even greater connections with others. 
And if someone felt "different," then the internet would help them find other people that shared those differences.  When this was pointed out to me back then, I thought it sounded like a real positive change.  A person who had felt marginalized by society could discover that there were others like them "out there" and discover strategies to embrace and express those hidden aspects of themselves and cope with whatever negative pressure was brought to bear against them where they lived. 
What I didn't see looking forward at the time, the concept I'm trying to express in this essay, is what this could do to political and geographic definitions.  I've always had layers of definitions for "What" I am.  At one level, I'm an American.  Another, a "Native Californian."  Another, an "Angeleno" or more specifically, someone born and raised in Pasadena.  Which of these was strongest would expand or shrink depending on what I was experiencing at any given moment.  Watching the Olympics, my "American-ness" would come out.  At the end of MLB regular season, this self-definition shrank down past my Californian aspect in favor of my association with Los Angeles against San Francisco. 
But these are nested definitions, Angeleno inside of Californian inside of American.  I rarely feel conflicts between one or the other.  Those times I do, I usually try to seek a balance or compromise.  What is good for California might not necessarily be good for the entire United States, but a Good California is a necessity for a Good America.  
With the ability to focus on one definition over another, coupled with the ability to find news and information outlets that support the outlook of one's group in particular, I think such definitions of community have become more particulate and self-contained.  Someone living in Edinburgh might see themselves as a "Scot" and as a "Britain," but as separate associations, the same way I might see being "male" and "American" as separate groupings, without the two having any inherent relationship.  And this separateness, in this case not considering the Scotland community as being a sub-set of the British community, can lead one to decide that one membership is more important that the other, or that memberships in both have contradictions that cannot be maintained.
When such a conflict is reached, in seems reasonable, almost inevitable, that the more specific, perhaps more personal, distinction would be the one chosen. 
The effort to put the measure to divide California before the voters failed this year.  And the referendum to separate Scotland from the U.K., or "devolve the union" as I heard in the British news shows, also failed.  But I am left to wonder if these efforts had taken place some time from now, ten or twenty years, or even as few as five, if they might not be more successful.  How can larger conglomerates of geopolitical power succeed if the constituents regard them as arenas in which they must overcome competing groupings as opposed to the mechanism of managing a shared identity and destiny?  To return to my microwave example, how can we have large families of people if we have no need to sit down at the table together to share a meal? 


Post a Comment

<< Home