The view from out there

Robert Putnam is the former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000). We asked him how the Internet has affected our sense of community.

Americans have stopped connecting with one another and with our community institutions over the past 30 years. The Internet has absolutely nothing to do with that basic trend, because the decline was already under way when Bill Gates was in grade school. That said, the Internet may be part of the solution -- or it may make the problem worse.

The Internet is about communication, and communication is central to community, not just etymologically but substantively. You don't get community without communication. The Internet certainly provides an opportunity to build what I would call social capital -- connections among people and, possibly, a deeper sense of reciprocity and trust. That's the fundamental case for cyberoptimism.

I think, however, there are four important obstacles to the Internet's becoming a way of solving the problem of the decline of community.

The first, and the one that is most widely discussed, is the digital divide. Insofar as access to the Internet is class biased or racially biased or biased in terms of education, it tends to exacerbate the decline of bridging social capital.

In a certain sense, it's easy to fix. It's just money. It's money for computers and hand-holding and so on. That problem ought to be the top item on the list because it's the one we do know how to solve.

The second obstacle is bigger, and that's the difference between face-to-face and text-based communication. It's pretty clear that there's a lot that cannot be communicated with words alone. Talking face-to-face is quite important, particularly with respect to issues of trust. Enabling face-to-face communication is fundamentally a bandwidth problem, and it won't be fixed quickly or easily.

The third hurdle is one that is even higher, and it goes under the heading of cyberbalkanization. It's intrinsic to the attractiveness of the Internet in that it enables us to connect with people who have exactly our interests and to not futz around with people who don't. So it's not BMW owners, but red-BMW owners, and if you want to talk about your blue BMW, you risk being flamed for being off topic.

By contrast, in a bowling league, you're almost never flamed for being off topic; you can talk about whatever you want. The ability to confine our communications to people who share our exact interests has a powerful potential for decreasing connections on more broadly shared interests. And that is not a technological problem. It goes to the core of what's attractive about the Internet and therefore is even harder to fix.

Finally, and I think most fundamentally, the jury is still out on whether the Internet will come to be a really nifty telephone or a really nifty television. By that I mean, Will it come to be primarily a means of communication and interchange or primarily a means of passive entertainment?

I'm actually optimistic about the general problem of how to revive American community, because there are deep parallels between our current period and the end of the 19th century, when major technological changes, the Industrial Revolution, urbanization, and immigration rendered obsolete a stock of American social capital. And then we fixed it. Most of the major civic institutions of American life -- the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, and so on -- were invented at that time. Today we need to figure out how we can reinvent the Boy Scouts, by which I mean, How can we have a period of sustained creativity that will form new channels through which people can reconnect?

We've got to find ways to meld the old and the new and not imagine that we can do away with face-to-face communities. -- From an interview with Mary Kwak

For more insight on the current state of small business, see The View From Out There.

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