Communicating Community

Past and Present

"A 'community' is a set of persons involved in stable patterns of communication. Communities vary widely in the range of their interactions, the capacity of their networks, and the links between information and material exchange. A community is developed by actions which increase their range, capacity, or integration.
-- S. J. Mandelbaum."

"Critical to the rhetoric surrounding the information highway is the promise of a renewed sense of community and, in many instances, new types and formations of communities." -- Steven G. Jones.

1So what's new? Once upon a time, in 1680 to be exact, it was the postal system. In that year a merchant called Dockwra set up a 'penny post' in London, quickly establishing over four hundred receiving offices and seven sorting offices. In parts of central London this service provided up to twelve deliveries daily. Similar services were subsequently established in a variety of provincial towns throughout England. A century and a half later an insightful schoolmaster called Rowland Hill saw a huge potential for growth, arguing that the, by now well established, local penny posts be expanded to include all inland postal transit: his rationale being that the existence of such a cheap service would precipitate an upsurge in personal correspondence. This increased volume, sensibly handled of course, would so reduce the unit cost as to make it profitable to carry a letter all the way from Glasgow to London for the princely sum of one penny. In 1840 the penny post was indeed expanded to incorporate all such inland post; the benefits of providing such a cheap and efficient communication infrastructure lying in its potential to enhance society by facilitating stability and unity -- by making society into a community. Of course it shouldn't be forgotten that in order to avail oneself of this service it was necessary that one have 'access' to certain 'tools': literacy and a spare penny being not least among them.

2In nineteenth century England one demographic that most certainly had access to the tools which would allow them to make full use of the new communication network was the upper class. Many of those who could reasonably be said to have fitted this description lived within a couple of miles of Hyde Park Corner in London. The outstanding frequency of the postal service available to this relatively small group meant that it was theoretically possible for one of their number to mail a message, receive a reply, reply to the reply, and so on . . . all in the course of a single day. If we accept Mandelbaum's criterion for the development of communities, then, this availability of a cheap, regular, and easy to use mailing network must have gone some way towards the development of a sense of community amongst those who had access to the communications 'technology' of the day.

3In 1957 there was something new in the skies: a U.S.S.R.-launched satellite called Sputnik. One of the American responses to what they perceived as their sudden disadvantage in the space race was the setting up of the Advanced Research and Planning Association, ARPA. This was an intervention which ultimately led to the development of the global communications infrastructure that we know today as the Internet. Prior to this rush of ARPA-funded research into new forms of, and uses for computing technology, computers were unwieldy monsters; owning one meant needing an inconveniently large building to carry it around in (apologies to Douglas Adams). The new young programmers and engineers who developed such human-machine-interface facilitators as keyboards, screens, and graphics, quickly decided that what they wanted to do most of all with their newly networked machines was to communicate with each other -- computers, it seems, came to be conceived of as communication tools almost as soon as they stopped being card-punching, number-crunching megacephalic giants, amenable only to an esoteric bunch of Fortran-wielding lab-coats.

4So, within a few years the demystification of computers had gotten under way regardless. As Howard Rheingold puts it, "changes in the way computers were designed and used led to the expansion of the computer-using population from a priesthood in the 1950s, to an elite in the 1960s, to a subculture in the 1970s, and to a significant, still growing part of the population in the 1990s" (67-68). Electronic mail quickly became, and remains, one of the most common uses to which networked computers are put. Initially this "e-mail" followed the post office model, with single messages being sent from one individual to another within a group. But the opportunities that the medium afforded for the quick, easy, cheap and instantaneous dissemination of information to large numbers of individuals, were soon recognised. Out of this new mode of communication grew concepts and practices such as electronic bulletin boards, newsgroups and, ultimately, the burgeoning network-within-a-network known as Usenet.

5Today, then, what's new is that messages may be sent, replied to, the replies replied to . . . and so on, all in the course of a day; only the individuals engaged in this feverish activity don't have to be geographically proximate; indeed, they can be situated on opposite sides of the globe while it all takes place. The same message can be sent to many people without the need to undergo the strain of endlessly repeating your elegant copperplate (or, for that matter, spending a lot of pennies). Indeed the message can just be put into the public domain, read it who may. Of course, it shouldn't be forgotten that to engage in such untrammelled interaction with one's fellow travellers requires that one have 'access' to certain 'tools'. I have access; if you've read this far, then I guess you have too (one of those tools, by the way, is the time to spare).