Saturday, April 08, 2006


While I was in London I spent a happy couple of days in the British Library researching the history of computers - or rather the history of the effect of computers on those fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to encounter them. I spent most of my time reading a fascinating book called THE VIRTUAL COMMUNITY which was written by Howard Rheingold in 1994 (to my great joy I find that it is available on-line here). The book is overwhelmingly optimistic (and therefore reassuring) in tone - the fact that he was habitually spending 2 hours a day on-line participating in a virtual community via bulletin boards he believed to be a cause for celebration - although he admitted there were disadvantages as well benefits in this way of living.

He quoted Ray Oldenburg in THE GREAT GOOD PLACE who claims that each individual needs 3 spaces: a place to live; a place to work and a place to gather socially. Rheingold points out that, for some, the virtual community is serving this latter need since physical social gatherings are fast disappearing in western society. Furthermore there is more chance that an individual will find other people on-line who share their interests (since the pool is so much larger than the local physical one) - particularly if these interests are unusual or specialised. Also some personalities may actually find it preferable to interact with others virtually if they are not so good at speaking spontaneously - they can think about what they are going to say on a blog or a bulletin board. The internet also has the effect of democratising responses - those that domineer in conversation do not have the same opportunity on-line so that even the most timid has a voice. Yup, certainly true for me - and many other writers I would say. As I keep telling my agent - my brain seems to be far better connected to my hands than my voice.

The internet is also serving as a place to work. There are advantages ('you never have to get out of your pajamas' says Rheingold. Very true - my postman is under the impression that I work nights and leaves parcels by the door rather than knocking so that he doesn't disturb me) and disadvantages - 'the occupational hazard of the self-employed, home-based symbolic analyst of the 1990s is isolation'. But the internet can help with this too - by providing the 'tactical and emotional support' for these workers (computer programmers, writers, artists and designers) that others get from the office or factory. I certainly depend on support from my virtual friends as well as from my local friends, and sometimes feel my day only starts properly when it is the turn of their side of the planet to be lit by the sun.

Rheingold also points out that on the internet people can both reveal more about themselves anonymously in a forum yet at the same time revealing less (basic information about their name, age and where they live). I am sure this is the case - there is a strange kind of intimacy apparent in many forums and blogs - especially in those that are 'anonymous'. These are often the most interesting.

He also described the disadvantages - addiction to being on-line could be more powerful that a physical addiction to coke - one particular 'pothead' finding that he had ignored a line of coke waiting for him beside his computer in his absorption in contributing to the on-line conversation. This person went on to commit virtual suicide (removing all postings using a 'scribble weapon') before going on to commit suicide in real life. Rheingold went on to describe MUDders who play virtual reality games (set in dungeons - ah yes, I remember Dungeons and Dragons addicts from university) for 80 hours a week and therefore do not participate in real life very much at all. I think this sort of addiction is becoming more and more widespread. You start to live in this unreal world. It is intense, absorbing, all-consuming. You become isolated, pale, unable to communicate except via the keyboard. You start to think you are someone else. You lose all interest in the outside real world. You begin to lose all your real friends and your family drifts away. You forget to wash. You forget to sleep or eat...just like being mid-novel in fact...


Blogger Linda Rogers said...

I'm glad Howard spends so much time online. He's created a great community.

Sat Apr 08, 08:18:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Linda: Yes, he seems like quite a charismatic man - I found his book very interesting.

Sat Apr 08, 11:22:00 pm  
Blogger Ros Barber said...

Everything you say here - that Howard has said, in fact - rings very true for me. In fact it is the subject, in fictional terms, of my stalled fourth novel. I've found the internet an excellent space to live in for all the reasons you describe. From anonymous but intense friendships forged in the Eddie Izzard newsgroup during my divorce, to detailed information that has helped me gain control over an auto-immune disease, to career furtherance via website and blog, to easy and free global communication with friends and people I'd like to connect with via e-mail.... the internet has been a huge boon in my life, and continues, every day, to be a joy.

Thu Apr 13, 09:23:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It sounds a great subject for a novel, Ros, I hope you have the chance to carry on with it sometime. I'd love to read it.

Mon Apr 17, 09:19:00 am  

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