Thursday, September 29, 2005

On community, trust and social software

I'm finalising next term's syllabi, and in shifting the focus of the urban cultures course to mobilities, communities and citizenships, I've been thinking a lot about Jean-Luc Nancy's and Alphonso Lingis' work.

In Being Singular Plural, Nancy defines existence as always already co-existence, where our 'being' is only ever our 'being-with' each other. Like Sennett's description of public space as where we negotiate the unfamiliar and the different, Nancy's 'being with' is not about dwelling amongst those just like us, the familiar and the safe, but about "abandonment and exposure" to the unfamiliar and risky in each other and the world around us. This is indeed a political maneuver, and one which privileges heterogeneity over homogeneity. Or as Davis puts it in Laughter; or, Chortling Into the Storm:

"Jean-Luc Nancy's Inoperable Community and Maurice Blanchot's Unavowable Community both offer a post-humanist take on 'being-with.' They describe a community that exists not in the common work effort but rather in the moment of 'unworking,' in the hesitation, the backspin, the crack up. It exists as what is in-common before any projected telos. The members of a post-humanist community, Nancy suggests, find communion across the exposition of their own unsharable finitude, which becomes the very condition for their commonality."


I've also been re-reading Alphonso Lingis' The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. I'm most interested in the idea that real value is found not in what we have in common, but in what makes us different. I like his discussions around being bound to someone - or something - that offers us no truth. Like Nancy, Lingis focusses on death or finitude as an integral part of being-together, as something we have in common despite all our differences.

**

I can't help but notice the fundamental difference between these definitions of community and the ones I see informing mobile 'social software'. After all, most applications start from the point of view that community emerges from common interests and goals, and almost always builds on pre-existing connections. (It is networked after all, they argue.) This encourages researchers and designers to say that community per se can't be built, but the conditions in which it 'naturally' emerges can be, or at least be supported.

(The technology-as-platform position shares much in common with the city-as-stage position, and both stand apart from any notion that we can't help but to be community, or urban - in Lefebvre's sense and not in opposition to the rural - or technological, etc. because they're always already part of being social.)

**

One of the topics that researchers and designers often bring up when they talk about supporting social interaction is trust, where trust connotes a certain amount of stability and safety, offering shelter from chaos in much the same way that public behaviour is controlled. In Lingis' book Trust, he argues that the trust inherent in travel can show us how its value is found in experiences such as bravery, lust and joy. Contrary to the familiar trust between friends and family, on which most social software is modelled, Lingis passionately evokes this notion:

"Trust laughs at danger and leaps into the unknown."


Again, what makes this interesting is how much it differs from the idea that we form community along lines of similar or shared efforts. Instead, these kinds of community and trust revel in the unpredictable, the unexpected, the unknown, the irreconcilable. Their value is in what they teach us about things falling apart, about encountering and negotiating difference, about existence as difference and repetition, where repetition implies multiplication rather than preservation, about change. In these communities the sensual life prevails--and it is gloriously risky and difficult to control.

By defining community as something that requires we already know each other (by either one or six degrees of separation) and that we share interests, efforts or goals in common, and by committing these assumptions to architecture and code, we effectively deny people using these applications the ability to find community and trust in 'others,' and ultimately discourage people from changing, or becoming 'other' themselves. In this scenario, the radical promise of connection and cooperation between different people is undermined by conservative notions of connecting and cooperating only with people like us or, in some twisted expression of personal freedom, only with the people we choose.

[Note to self: remember to post notes on Derrida's book about Nancy and touch and its usefulness for understanding embodied interaction.]

3 Comments:

Anonymous Francois Lachance said...

It struck me that there is a Gallic angle to the question of the vocabularies we use to describe concepts of "community". In Canada, translating from English to French, one translates "community" as
"collectivite". A "communaute" in French is a more formal entity than a "community". And of course "commune" has a certain resonance....

In English the semantic field of the word "community" perhaps has less like-sounding words in its catchment: commons, communal, commensal. And they either have an institutional or scientific flavour.

Hope this helps with your thinking through the concept formation of
"community" spaces. And any joint thinking that may ensue.

08:23  
Blogger proservative said...

And let's not forget the etymology of community: "munitions," etc, which Peter Connor discusses in the into to THE INOPERATIVE COMMUNITY.

I'm not sure how well Lingis works with Nancy. Lingis (Trust) sounds a bit too active/operative to be aligned too closely with the IC. It sounds a bit more active in the sense of Derridean hospitality which ACTIVELY puts us in the space of being-with, perhaps.

But I have not read TRUST.

But in the context you describe, of applications, etc. Isn't software bound up in efficiency, in operativeness? I have a difficult time understanding a software that is inoperative. Certainly, I can see the work of Nancy as working as a critique of such applications. That would be useful.

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04:59  

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