Blur Circle

Steve Yost's weblog
April 17, 2002
The dimension of community

Last week I had a thought-provoking email exchange with AKMA (whose blog is one of the most worthwhile I've seen -- great, meaningful stuff almost every day! How does he do it?) starting with his commentary on community size, and thought it worth sharing excerpts here, with his permission.

Steve:

Interesting post on community size. I've been chewing on an idea that as we become more connected, specialized, and cooperative, we're forming a larger organism -- it's an idea covered well by Robert Wright in his book Nonzero, and much earlier by Tielhard de Chardin. Today I posted to my re-nascent sorta-blog that's what's required of us, if we wish to participate in this process rather than let it blindly rule us (e.g. the problems of globalization), is this: we must be able to not only empathize with other individuals, but also to somehow comprehend the nature of the creature we're forming as we group in larger, wider-spread communities.
This gets me thinking about the relation to limits on community size. The larger-organism phenomenon operates on a scale that's orders of magnitude beyond the limits Clay mentions, though it starts to become recognizable even at that level. We might say that 'community' is defined by that scale at which we *do* have a sense of participation as individuals and a sense of the whole group gestalt. By contrast, we may say that this larger-organism phenomenon is at the scale where that sense is lost and we become specialized cogs in the machine (or cells in the organism), but that would be giving up on the call to participate in the process.

AKMA:

I'm sympathetic to the sense that we're building something bigger than we are ("David--I thnk this is bigger than both of us"), though I'm hesitant to identify what that thing might be.
Partly that's because we're constitutively unequipped to *know* about things bigger than we; we need to reduce them in order to make them functionally significant, or acknowledge at the outset that "whatever that thing is, I don't understand it." Dave Rogers blogged about this a while ago in connection with C. S. Lewis, and I think he was largely on target. I was deeply influenced by *Flatland*; we squares will never really get the hang of cubes.

Steve:

Dave's analogy to Lewis' "transposition" and yours to Flatland are thought-stirring.* I think we have more clues about the larger entities than those analogies let on, though; I think the relationship is more like a fractal-dimensional one than an integer-dimensional one. There are similarities on all scales that, if we can know our selves better, can help us understand the larger scale entities we form. For example, each of us, if we observe carefully, are made up of many different competing motives and roles that constantly vie for center stage, something like a community of humans.
You may gather from my focus on entities-of-different-scale that I think the interesting question isn't so much about what the web/internet is in itself or finding a model for it, but rather what it enables among humans and understanding *that*. From the perspective of my idee fixee, its fundamental feature -- widespread instant communication -- enables entities to form much more fluidly and flexibly and on much larger scales, to suit "demands". (I use this entity/organism terminology loosely, BTW; I hope you'll bear to humor it.) In economics this is manifested as globalization, which we might see as the nasty mechanical face of larger-scale-entity-formation: one that results in humans that are de-individualized and mechanically exploited for their specific usefulness. In-demand specialists can grow immensely rich, and disadvantaged generalists are made into one-function, poorly paid bots (this has happened for a long time, but it's now accelerated and exaggerated). It's a process that we have a good chance of understanding, but beyond any individual's will.
But when we examine a phenomenon like blogging (or this email exchange), it's an amazingly wonderful thing that lets us be even more ourselves and as David W. put it so well "write ourselves into existence". We're no longer limited by geography, and what's really new, we can easily have *group* conversations at distances (synchronously or not), and *that's* where the really humanizing entity-formation is happening. Maybe at its best this collaboration is even in opposition to the mechanical evolutionary law that drives globalization. And maybe we find it to be humanizing because the "demands" here are not purely economical, but a deeper feeding of ourselves. And that's where I really should shut up, read David's book, and see if you'd like to add more.

[*I do find the transposition/Flatland idea to be applicable to the personal/God relationship, but even there it misses the inkling of God's manifestation within us, something I think we're called on to be cognizant of (and act on). As you say, AKMA, we fall far short of *knowing*, though.]

AKMA:

Nice point about God; the catch in that self-revelatory relation is that we don't control or even apprehend it, but take a deep breath and a best-estimate and stake everything on that (the difference in proportion between what we apprehend and what's at stake in our estimate perhaps accounts for some of the heat that theological controversies generate).

Steve:

For me it's a journey of discovery - the biggest risk is to be too forgetful, lazy, or timid (guilty, guilty, guilty as charged) to seek diligently and subtly. But yes, when it comes to basic religious beliefs there are crucial choices at each fork. I favor the notion that when you go deep enough the paths become one, but it's along that line of conjecture that I start feeling a lot like a Flatlander. Hmm, wait, there's an image forming: all the divine manifestations on Earth that are the basis of our religions are just like the irregular 3D shape passing through the plane. We see the various 2D outlines and the effects of our descriptions ripple out for centuries. But that fanciful (it's too inapplicable to be heretical, I think) image aside, I have to struggle with understanding and faith to the best of my ability, within my puny human limits. Yes, I'm coming to see exactly what you're saying about the heat of theological controversies. Now, is there another image that incorporates the fractal view? We need one, and it may even be applicable to the notion of Man created in God's own image.

April 17, 2002 05:04 AM