Hacking Alone

I was powerfully struck by an article I read a few months back in The Atlantic Monthly (April 1996). Entitled "Kicking In Groups", it considered the thesis of an article by Robert Putnam (a professor of government at Harvard) called "Bowling Alone", and some of the studies that came before it.

The story starts in 1958 when sociologist Edward Banfield studied the difference between the poverty-stricken and backward villages in the southern tip of Italy and the comparatively prosperous and advanced north. Banfield's conclusion was that the culture of the south ran contrary to members of society banding together to act for the common good. Instead, they were oriented towards "Maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family: assume all others will do likewise". They were more competitive than cooperative - and poorer for it.

Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" article built on this to show that the roots of the difference go back to 1100 when the north, never knew the centralized, autocratic, vertical-power-structure rule of Normans, and instead had small autonomous republics for many centuries. While the southerners lived in a hierarchical society, with every family dependent on the patronage of landowners and bureaucrats, the northerners depended on one another for work, for help, for money; they formed hundreds of low-level, horizontal-bond organizations such as guilds and credit associations that built mutual trust instead of competition. He wrote "Good government in Italy is a by-product of singing groups and soccer clubs."

This established, Putnam turned to the United States in the 20th century and did not like what he saw. The title comes from his statistics that show such organizations as bowling leagues, church membership and union membership, have been declining for decades - and the numbers of individual bowlers increasing.

The Atlantic Monthly review went on to take issue with Putnam, arguing that the statistics mostly show that the 20th century has seen most people move from small towns and farms into big cities - but that is another story. What struck me was the similarity to what most old-timers see happening to the Net and the computing community in general.

Since the machines were invented, people have tended to band together for the common good of all computer users. Academic conferences did not exist to charge CEO's $1500 to attend, and certainly not to generate copyrighted content that costs $500 to remove from shrinkwrap; the proceedings were available in libraries. The whole point of every SIG, from the Homebrew Computer Club of the 70's to CUUG today, is to get together to share knowledge, share work, and also to enjoy like-minded company and knock back a few brews. Cooperation, not competition.

The Net took this tendency, gave it a turbocharger and a fistfull of steroids - and an unlimited long-distance card. USENET extended the spirit of SIGs from mere computing problems to everything from how to make perfect lasanga to how to mend a broken heart.

As soon as the Net appeared on government and corporate radar, they immediately dismissed this activity as amateur play and began asking what important things could be done with it. Important things, of course, involved the flow of money, preferably large amounts of it.

Tell me, when you hear "Telephone system", do you think "Ah, yes, that tool that exists so I can call 800 numbers and buy things"? Of course not. It was built so that people could talk to each other.

A few wish to buy things from each other, and indeed, your phone bill might double without the commercial users; but it would exist nonetheless, so you can call Aunt Martha on her birthday.

I have no more problem with the proposed commercial uses of the Net than I do with commercial users of telephones; but just as the first eighty years of widespread phone service had a government-imposed rate structure that made commercial users subsidize such worthwhile societal goals as encouraging rural users and home users, so should the next decade or three of the Net.

By far the greater value to society -albeit one that doesn't show up in accountant's dollar figures- of the Net is as a public library and forum for personal connection and discourse. Just as good government in Italy for nine hundred years owed a debt to singing and sports clubs, a better society for all of us can come from clubs like CUUG that mostly meet in cyberspace.

Like the people of northern Italy, we find a sense of trust and reliance upon one another; people to turn to with problems, people who can find you resources, opportunities for work, people to share your trials and your triumphs.

The hierarchical structures that the Norman conquerors imposed on southern Italy mostly seem to have served the few people at the top of the structure, rather than society in general. I think about that a lot when I see a very few corporations shaking out as the providers of software, services, and entertainment content on the Net.

Editorial writers do a lot of "viewing with alarm". In the big papers, they View With Alarm the crime rate and the federal deficit. I View With Alarm the wavering interest in CUUG SIG activities and the tiny percentage of members that work at developing new CUUG services and systems.

What can you do if you agree? Well, you can keep an eye on the cuug.* newsgroups, and for crying out loud, if you can answer a question, do so! If you have one to ask, try us first rather than commercial support. Better yet, look for an interest of yours that doesn't seem to be served and try starting a group or a web site to serve it. And, especially, you can call Scott Barker about helping out with the projects of the new CUUG membership committee, or call me about doing an article for the newsletter.

Or at least, go join a bowling league.

Roy Brander

Return to issue index     CUUGer Index     CUUG Home Page