Sunday, March 20, 2011

Ambient Awareness -- The New Social Capital

The readings for this post, combined with a trip back to my childhood home, gave the opportunity for considering this topic from several perspectives. Now I’ll warn you – and apologize – right up front. This is more of a personal story, not because my life is particularly interesting, but because it illustrates a broader continuum of the topic than is discussed in the readings.

We grew up in a tight-knit farming community where church was the center of the known world. If the church doors were open and the lights on, our family was there – all 11 of us! That was life in this farming community. From my recollection, we either visited another family or had another family over to our home for dinner (the noontime meal) every Sunday after church. Several times a year, all the churches in a larger area would get together for special events. We had our own self-contained cultural system. While many of us had some connections outside of this system, they were most likely relatives who lived in similar cultural constructs.

I was five years old when we got our first telephone, a party-line system that included seven other families – some of whom were not members of our church. For the first time, we could find out what was happening in the neighborhood – not just the church community – on a daily basis rather than relying on the weekly update at church.

We got our first television when I was in the sixth grade, and suddenly a window into a world beyond our agrarian culture was opened. It was very unsettling to the older generation, but a welcomed relief to the younger generation.

As awareness grew of issues outside of our immediate community, opinions that had never needed to find expression began to find voice. Conflicts and stresses grew where ideas had never been discussed before. Should we be patriotic and support the Vietnam War or honor our faith history of pacifism and resist? Should we build our own schools to protect the kids from the outside influences or accept change. What should the church’s position be on Rock and Roll, television shows, movies? The privacy of our culture had been compromised.

The traditional Sunday dinners became less frequent. I recall that because of the phone, there was less need to get together in person, so with the extra time, we began to become interested in new things, like NFL Sunday afternoon football.
As the party-line gave way to a private telephone lines with long distance capability, the social fabric became thinner, but more extensive. We could find out that Grandpa had broken a hip the day it happened rather than waiting two weeks for a letter to arrive.

As the ability to stay in touch became less of a barrier, the need for face to face interaction became less necessary. Now Sunday dinners tended to include family rather than cycling through the families who attended our church. Face time was reserved for the closest circle of friends.

Technology was changing the amount of time we had to invest in relationships in order to maintain them. If you were to go back and apply the Dunbar number, it wasn’t much different back then. We had very close ties with a small knot of people. Our social network included maybe 8 – 10 families, and the larger network could include 100 – 150 people. Even then, the shift was happening. We were replacing a face-to-face relationship with people with an ambient awareness of the people in the community. We still knew what was going on, we just collected the information in a different way.

Traveling back home last weekend made me aware that I still carry an ambient awareness of most of those people all these years later. I could still stop by for a visit or pick up the phone and call any one of them and carry on an enjoyable conversation. Yet, I choose to connect sporadically with many of them through Facebook or email – basically on a “need to know” basis.

Last summer, several individuals updated me on what was probably the largest auction of John Deere tractors in the world. My Uncle Louie’s estate was selling off hundreds of tractors from his collection. It was promoted nationally via a website set up for just that auction. People passed the word on Facebook and arranged meetings through email. It even hit Twitter among a few brave souls. The internet and social media were playing a significant role in the sale of assets of a man who had never touched the power button on a computer in his lifetime.

The threads of the local community were suddenly woven into the fabric of a much larger “community” of people interested in John Deere tractors. People who didn’t know each other or even know they had a common interest were getting together and creating a new collective commons around Uncle Louie’s tractor collection.

Even as the availability of new technologies seemed to diminish the value we placed on community, that value was being bolstered through new methodologies. The telephone made it less important to get together each week. The television provided information directly that previously came through a weekly newspaper or letter. The connections were still there, just being maintained in a different way.

Similarly, today’s cultures are not so much replacing or failing to establish relationships, but rather are relying on “commons” other than location to establish communities. People who have been or choose to be isolated in real life can seek relationship in virtual environments. Friends who can no longer walk next door for coffee can maintain the relationship despite job relocation or divorce. The transience of our people and fluid nature of our culture has found a new stickiness that is reshaping the concept of community. The physical community is no longer required as a basic building block in the structure of culture. Common interest has become the new thread through the fabric of our many cultures.

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