Walking through the old town of Geneva, I was once again struck by the plaque showing the meeting place of Henry Dunant, Gustave Moynier, Henri Dufour, Louis Appia and Theodore Maunoir. Near the Cathedral, on the wall of a simple building, the plaque marks the apartment where the idea for the Red Cross began.
Geneva has often been called the capital of multilateralism. With about 30,000 international civil servants and organizations like UNOG, WIPO, ILO, UNHCR, UNHCHR, WTO, ITU, WHO. IPU, WMO, UNCTAD, WEF and the ICRC, there is reason for the Genevois and Swiss to be proud of a small city being at the center of so much international activity. (Even if you are not familiar with all the above initials, please bear with me for my argument.)
I now have a Kindle, iPhone, 3 computers, a television with 248 channels and can read off my wife's iPad. I am, I suppose, properly wired in terms of modern technology. Having all these devices certainly does not mean I can use them optimally; I am rather technologically challenged, but it does mean that I have left the pen and paper era, somewhat reluctantly I might add. Besides my personal, painful conversion to modern technology - I am not sure my writing and reading have improved with all these devices - I wonder about the implications for society of these changes.
Much of the success of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movements has been attributed to social networks. Instead of snail mail, Facebook, Twitter and other rapid communication systems can get information out instantly. Want to organize a sit-in? You can message thousands in seconds who will hopefully turn up the same day. Quite recently, political theorists were divided between individualists and communitarians; the first believed strongly in the strength of personal effort, the second more in group activity. The question we are posing is the role of social networks in the individual-communitarian debate.
Individualism we understand as the product of a single person's efforts. We lionize Steve Jobs as a genius for his personal efforts while giving less credit to his 10,000 hours of preparation during schooling as well as those who worked with him. Individualists believe that the role of government is to allow people to lead freely chosen lives. Communitarian believers look to groups for social interaction while emphasizing values that are commonly shared. Social capital, in this sense, has been defined as the collective value of all social networks.
Is there a difference between a group of friends meeting at a bridge club with thousands wired together in an ad hoc chat room? The face-to-face bridge club is social in the traditional sense; the wired group comes together around a given issue with no face-to-face intimacy or deeper commitment. In Michael Walzer's terms, the bridge club is a thick association while the chat room is rather thin.
I have an ongoing debate with a friend about this issue. He maintains that traditional associations are finished, that technological groups are replacing the face-to-face. While I may accept that argument, I wonder and worry that the nature of the wired groups is not the same as the face-to-face. Video conferencing has not been successful; I accept Skyping my daughter and granddaughter only as second best; I miss physically hugging them.
I sense that no one will win our debate. There is also a generational consideration to be taken into account. But there is no question that the individualists' argument is grounded in advanced Western liberal societies that has been rejected by many cultures around the world. The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements were certainly helped by technological advances, but, I believe, their successes will depend on deeper, thicker associations based on deeply held shared values. The medium is not the message, but only a tool for the situated self.