Cybercommunity and PhysicalCommunity

 About cyberspace, distance, and community

By Vince Giuliano

Back in 1997 I hosted a series of forums in the New York Times On-line. This article was my introduction.

For the first time in the memory of the human race, distance and time-of-transit are vanishing as barriers to communications. History has no precedent for this. We may know this as an intellectual construct, but what it ultimately means remains quite invisible to us. McLuhan said that our media surrounds us like water surrounds a fish. Because we live in it, we are unconscious of it, unconscious of how it changes our expectations, how it shapes us, and how we can in turn shape our reactions to it.

What are the implications of distance-independent communications for families, for nations, for governments, for world commerce, for religion - and for the communities these entities represent? I speak here mainly of what I know from my own limited personal experience, but my mind boggles when I try to think the implications through. So I would like to put some of these issues out for reader discussion in this Cyber Times Forum..

The disappearance of distance

About community

New communities and nations

Some questions


The disappearance of distance

With change of media, the strange, the incredible becomes very normal. TV, the telephone and air travel have already done that in my lifetime. But there are many more recent examples, ones connected with the Internet. Last week, I was sitting in Pamplona, Spain, at a desk across from my friend Noelia Fernandez. My notebook computer was linked to hers via an Ethernet LAN. I copied about thirty of my saved e-mail messages into her machine in about 3 minutes. Very ordinary and nothing to think twice about. Piping information over a distance of 4 feet. Except that the signals took a route about 10,000 miles long in order to go those 4 feet. They went from my computer out through the Internet (passing through Noelia’s machine in the process since I was using Noelia’s Internet connection), to my POP mail server in Burlington, Massachusetts, and then back across the Atlantic, and again back into her machine. They went via who-knows what combination of Frame Relay, FDD, ATM, ISDN and dozens of other protocols, over circuits of Telefonica de Espaņa, British Telecom, France Telecom, MCI, SPRINT, MCI, NYNEX and who knows who else. Thousands of packets each with its own unique path, some going under the ocean, some perhaps traveling via other countries, others flying thousands of miles up in the sky. All the messages were re-assembled again just like the originals, only 4 feet away.

Why did I send the mail messages that way? Because it was a bit more convenient to communicate the messages via regular e-mail. Of course, it cost nothing to Noelia or me, that-is nothing in addition to our regular monthly Internet fees. The 10,000 miles of signal path did not occur to me until after I reflected on the incredible thing that happened. The week before I did the same thing in Caracas, Venezuela, back and forth to Boston, while sitting across from Christian Oliver, head of El-Universal Digital. No big deal. Day to day, I use the same mail server in Burlington (14 miles away) to send mail to my wife and colleague Melody Winnig, though our computers are 50 feet apart on the same office LAN in our home.

Signal path distance means next to nothing for E-mail and Web access today. And, as the Web goes multi-media, distance will vanish for quality live realtime video between any two people anywhere. Lifelike reality in sound and images will be there before we know it for connections between homes, offices and virtual meeting places - in real time with cost not dependent on distance. In my home, I already have a cable modem which gives me a 10mbs data rate, CUCME and streaming audio and video. And they are nothing compared to what is coming.

As the importance of distance is vanishing, so is the importance of geography and location as defining what is going on.


About community - beyond location

Some of the dictionary definitions I have found for community are: 1 group of people living in the same locality, 2. the people with common interests living in a given area and under the same government, and 3. a group or class having common interests, 4. a unified body of individuals, and 5. a body of persons of common interests.

Social and cultural factors are of course critical in defining community, such as religion, ethnicity and language. But the communities most people experienced before modern transportation and the telephone, were pretty much delimited by location. Thus, in Jerusalem there has long been a Moslem community, a Jewish community, a Coptic Christian community, and a Roman Christian community. However, these have been were traditionally sorted into different quarters of the city.

Great-Grandpa Vincenzo's community

My communities

Your communities

Physical location and Cybercommunity

Great-Grandpa Vincenzo's community

As far as I know, my great great grandfather Vincenzo Giuliano passed his entire life in Squillache in Calabria near the toe of Southern Italy that threatens to kick Sicily. I can only speculate what his life was like, fed by tales of distant now-dead relatives. There he experienced community, rarely traveling outside of a subsistence farming community a few square kilometers in size. The community was unaffected be gasoline motors, telephone, telegraph, electricity, or even railroad. Every place of interest was accessible by walking. Long distance travel was rare, and mainly by horse. Possibly, community was centered around the town square, the church, the Inn, and the houses of relatives - but the truth is that I know little of how it actually was. I doubt that he went to school, owned a book, or traveled far. Perhaps Vincenzo went once in his life to Naples, perhaps even to Rome, a capital city of incredible splendor almost as far away as the moon, insofar as how distance was measured at the time. At the time, America and Englnd and the rest of the world existed only in a distance fantasy universe, if they existed at all, for those in Squillache. Click here for a 2008 update to this story.

My communities

 Like my great-great Grandfather Vincenzo, I also live in a community, in Wayland Massachusetts, but this is the community where my home is, and has little to do with my social communities. The houses here are far apart - on 2 acre lots, but behind the houses on both sides of the road are thousand of acres of woodland. In the summer when the leaves are out, you can walk completely around my house and not see another one. There are deer, coyotes, and even moose have been seen here. Paths in the woods lead to tucked-away farms and acres of ripe pumpkins in the fall. I also experience social community - in fact multiple communities. None of these are geographically determined, however. I don’t know most of my neighbors. Liberated by the automobile, the phone,the Internet, and the airplane, my most important communities include people scattered through the US, Latin America and Spain.

Again, struggling to elevate what is taken for granted to consciousness, here are a few of the ways cyberspace has impacted on my communities. In my community of work, I am part of a distributed network of electronic publishing consultants with affiliates in four US cities, Spain, and Latin America, a cyber-potentiated virtual corporation of sorts. We could not function without our e-mail, faxes and notebook computers. Some of us, like Noelia and my partner Melody Winnig, first met online. Then there is my community of family. No joke, four years ago I found my lost half-brother Terry Giuliano in the online CompuServe directory, having had lost complete track of him for years. Of course, my grown kids in Utah, Maryland and Massachusetts keep in touch with me online, not to mention my wife and colleague Melody and my ex-wife Lil. Then there are my communities of friends, and my communities of interest, all of which have their own important online extensions too.

A post-note about my Great-Great Grandfather's community and how cyberspace has impacted my relationship to it, as of February 2008

 Your communities

Readers out there. You probably have a lot of personal experiences of cybercommunity and perceptions of where things are or could be going - and probably some compelling tales to tell. I invite you to share them in the Forum associated with this column.

 Physical community and Cybercommunity

Home is getting to be where you can really communicate from. An important role of the physical community is to empower social community-at-a-distance, traditionally with facilities like roads, telephone lines, and access to an airport. Now, access to broadband communications is now becoming another important determinant of property values in the US. I happen to be lucky because of where I live. A fiber optic cable runs down my street, Glezen Lane, and Federal Express trucks ply up and down the lane all day long. Like many of our neighbors, our main workplace is our home. With our three phone lines, 10mbs cable modem for Internet, three cell phones, fax and Ethernet LAN in the house, we have as good communications as can be found in any IBM office.

New communities and nations

Nations have served as important large communities, defining all kinds of social, economic (and some times religious) rules of behaviour, enacting such rules into laws, and enforcing them through its police powers. Nations had absolute sway over what went on within their borders. What came into the country was monitored by custom officers at borders and airports. Now, new cybercommunities cross national geographical borders. Intellectual properties flow freely across the Net, knowing no borders. It is next to impossible for a country to monitor them, block properties that it does not want to admit, and tax others. And this is at a time where intellectual properties represent more and more of the value in the world. If the Communications Decency portion of the Telecommunications Act is upheld in the courts, hundreds of overseas sites can continue to provide pornography on the Web freely to anybody in the US who wants it. Restricting it electronically would require even more draconian laws, such as Singapor and China are trying to enforce.

The disappearance of geography on the Net probably has other serious implications for nations and their relationships with communities. Readers are welcome to submit their own examples and discussion of this topic.

Some questions

  1.  What are the limits of technology-generated communications in generating community? Are cyber-communities without real human interaction inherently two-dimensional? How much face-to-face human communication isrequired for what purposes? Can broadband communications become so realistic as to allow development of continuing intimacy without physical contact? Or are we already there without broadband, as exemplified by people who fall in love and find their partners purely through e-mail?
  2. Nations and national borders appear to have ever-diminishing importance. Is there a possibility that the importance of nation will shrink to minor status, with a multiplicity of non-geographically defined communities and political and social entities taking the major responsibility for the workability of the World? What are the best current examples of this happening? What are the opportunities and dangers?
  3. Mega-corporations are already operating on a worldwide basis, shaking loose of their geographical definitions and of the controls and constraints of local governments, markets, and labor conditions. How will or can the democratic nature of Internet serve to limit or condition the impact of concentration of economic power? What is the possibility of virtual corporations out-competing large structured corporations? Scenarios, anybody?
  4. How are the meanings of our treasured concepts like democracy and freedom likely to evolve in the emerging cyberworld.of the future? Will freedom come to include free access to most of the information in the world, absence of moral censure, freedom to reach out to any other part of the world at any time, freedom from working in 9 to 5 jobs?
  5. How can an cyberspace be used to give a new meaning to traditional communities that are now geographically dispersed by diasporas, like the Jews, the Sikhs and the Basques? What about those peoples separated by national borders like the Kurds? What about the many groups who have been clamoring for their own nationhood. Will they be satisfied by being cyber-nations?
  6.  Can cyberspace effectively strengthen local community, build more participation, generate more commitment to improving the local quality of life in a town or city? What about efforts to involve citizens online with local social issues, like New York Online has been doing? Do larger initiatives like and Digital City have any merit outside of being commercial marketplaces? Hundreds of towns and local communities now have their own webs. What good do they do? What could be done that is not being done now?
  7.  What about Cybercommunity and morals? Cybercommunity and politics? What has been experienced so far? What are the new possibilities?
  8. What rights should governments have with regard to regulating the cross-border flow of information into and out of their countries? Should they attempt to restrict pornography by passing laws blocking US access to sites with IP numbers known to provide pornography? Would such measures be effective? What would be the price of such measures? What are the implications of free and duty-free flow of intellectual properties to and from anywhere in the world?
  9. What happens when cybercommunities define the meanings and forms of expression of Intimacy, Marriage and Family? Cyber Times Editor Rob Fixmer brought this question to my attention in reviewing this column, and its implications are possibly earth-shaking: A basic precept of Anthropology is that the meanings and forms of expression of these matters are defined by the community in which the intimacy, mariage or family exists. Given the impact of cybercommunities, there can very different meanings and forms of expressions of these basic social relationships in the same geographical community. While this kind of hetrogeniety already exists in parts of the US, geographically-defined cultures in many parts of the world are still relatively homogenious. Will the Net threaten or spell an end to those stable and homogeneus cultures? Are there really new forms of intimacy that can develop and survive only in cyberspace? Will we see physically-separated cybermarriages and cyberfamilies?
  10. What are the implications of the vanishing of geography for religions? Can tight geographically-defined religious countries like Iran sucessfully block the formation of threatening alternative cybercommunities? If so, what price will those countries pay in terms of international participation? What religions will best lend themselves to expression via cybercommunities, and which ones worst? Will there be new cyberreligions? If so, what will be their characteristics? The first major religious cyberwar was perhaps the battle in recent years between the pro and anti-Scientologists, made famous over the conflict about online publication of the Scientology sacred texts. Will there be other religious cyberwars?
  11. What can we do to take charge, given the new technological possibilities, ? Do you agree that we can mold what Cyberspace does to us - how it shapes our lives and how it shapes our communities - to suit our values? If so, what should we be doing about it that we are not doing now?


Post-note February 2008

about my Great-Great Grandfather's community and how cyberspace has impacted my relationship to it.

After more that 100 years of family separation, last year via the Web I discovered a link to a cousin in Calabria, Nicola Giuliano. While my grandfather was a young man his family had migrated from Squillache to San Pietro a Maida, a tiny village nestled in the Calabrian hills. Nicola is now the vice-mayor of San Pietro a Maida. I formed a relationship with Nicola via-e-mail and phone. And I visited San Pietro a Maida last summer with my two youngest sons Mike and Joe. The evening we arrived, ninty six members of the Giuliano family met us in an incredible family reunion in a restaurant. It was the first re-connection to that part of my family since my grandfather Vincenzo left San Pietro a Maida for Naples to take a steamer to New York in 1902. I now videoconference with Nicola via Skype. And my wife and I have plane tickets to visit San Peitro a Maida again this coming May. It is a good example of how cyberspace has made possible for me access to a wonderful family and a new physical community .

Back to top

I have written a number of other works which touch on themes in this paper from various viewpoints, both serious treatises and fiction stories.  I encourage you to look over the items I have online by going to my Writings Index Web Page.