Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Cyberspace Community: Yours, Mine or Ours?

by Carl Hunt

Perhaps the biggest source of both gratification and aggravation in the growth of cyberspace is innovation…continuous, emergent innovation: it constantly surprises us!  What we ultimately observe in human, technological and cultural interactions often does not resemble the original purposes we had in mind when we built and deployed cyberspace realizations of our great ideas.  The communities within cyberspace just seem to take over and something new emerges.

Whose communities are these that change our intents and purposes?  Why don’t we have better control over our ideas and creations?  Just who owns cyberspace in the first place and do “they” control these communities?  Why do these emergences keep happening?

We have spoken about emergence in past blogs (here and here, for example), but we haven’t yet discussed it in terms of community, an all-important concept for cyberspace dwellers to accept and adopt.  People, interacting with other people and our technologies, show us routinely how adaptive and often unpredictable we truly are, particularly when we start forming the connected collectives we call community.

Whether these collectives and communities are in the virtual worlds of cyberspace or in the real world (whatever the differences are anymore), who owns them and who governs them?  Do we as humans own cyberspace or does it ultimately own us within the communities we build and occupy?  Could we at least suggest models of how these things work together?

One thing we have seen is that cyberspace is a breeding ground for adaptation and innovation, accelerating the processes of ecological coevolution as we have discussed in the past.  And since we can in fact begin to build models of these interactions, we can see that the outcomes of these adaptations and exchanges are truly emergences.  We can also see that these emergences apply to communities, as well.

SENDS is about leveraging these outcomes of emergence in the context of biological, sociological and technological events.  Emergent behaviors, products or processes are outcomes that are greater than the sums of their parts: the very nature and richness of the interactions that bind together to produce novelty and innovation ensure the amplification of the essential qualities of cyberspace.  Oh yes, emergence is something more than a simple sum of parts.

Cyberspace communities accommodate and reflect emergence in ways that we as humans have simply not been able to visualize before.  Technological innovations are mashed up to produce products not originally conceived, enabling new opportunities and processes for their uses and new communities to embrace and propagate them, and the cycle begins again.  New communities then form and so it goes, on and on…this is emergence in action!

Emergence is empowered by the connectivity of cyberspace in ways no other environment or domain of existence has ever done before, and we can indeed begin to model it, as we suggested (here and here).  But, communities and the dynamism they represent start to really add complexity to the models.  That’s why it’s so hard to say whose community is whose and who really occupies or controls it.

It’s worth trying to struggle with the concept of community within cyberspace, and we are going to do it in these blogs.  We’re going to leverage the insights we gain from the calls for assistance from contributor Bob Schapiro, for example, and find ways to express cyberspace as community, embracing emergence as a concept that reveals rather than obscures. 

We may not answer all the questions raised in this blog today but we’ll answer some of them.  And in keeping with good science, we’ll raise even better and more focused questions that help us explain and predict just what is happening in cyberspace and in community.  We may even reach some level of community sensibility!

Editor's Note: We want to thank Atlantic Magazine correspondent James Fallows for mentioning SENDS and the SENDS blog in a recent piece (noted in the right margin of this blog).  Jim's work in helping people understand the effects of cyberspace and the applications of modern technology have been terrific over the years.  Thanks, Jim!