Place and non-place

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Stewart Dutfield
Marist College

As it appears in the field, technology affects places in many and often unintended ways. Most visibly, it tends to dilute the richness of local social interaction and participation. To achieve the opposite effect—amidst a changing environment and multiple perspectives on the nature of social ties—a community network infrastructure needs a guide for action.


Technology, and the marketplace in which it grows, have tended to work against the social relations that tie together people living in the same region.


A community communications infrastructure must constantly navigate between the technology's hazards and its potential for enriching social ties. Commonly recognized hazards of the online world include: (1) what Putnam calls a "poverty of social cues," (2) inequality of access, (3) technical limitations of individuals and organizations, (4) distraction by remote interactions from immediate surroundings, (5) paucity of spontaneous and serendipitous contacts, and (6) groupings based upon narrow common interests.

Over time, technology and the marketplace will relieve some pressing issues and present others. For example, few people in the US live where they cannot obtain ISP service on a toll-free telephone call. Where rural networks once worked to provide online access to bulletin boards, both large and small service providers now exist to connect people to the Internet. This mass connectivity tends to dilute our sense of connectedness to place. The telecommunications industry may provide the basic connectivity but leave us either in a "walled garden" or out on the street and left to find our way. In either case, most resources competing for our attention will tend to further dilute our ties to where we live. This way lies the “new television.”

As a community communications infrastructure works to enrich local ties, it struggles against those tendencies in the technology and the market that work against locality. There is no one way to conduct this struggle. If there were, then “PLACE AND NON-PLACE” would not be a pattern but simply a policy recommendation. From the tension between place and non-place, a community communications infrastructure can create an alternative to our becoming anonymous cogs in a great machine.

A successful community communications infrastructure will change its local environment. Technology and the marketplace change quickly, and in doing so present new challenges. A vision of what constitutes the enrichment of local ties for acts as a guide for action in a changing environment.

A vision is not a “mission statement,” a plan or a goal. It is, rather, an impetus for movement in a desired direction. It helps us learn to attain our goals. It propels us forward from current reality, but does not predetermine what we will build or achieve. As Peter Senge writes, “It’s not what the vision is; it’s what the vision does.”


For each community communications infrastructure, build a common understanding of the vision for enriching local ties within the context of a de-localizing technology. Make that understanding explicit and refer to it when deciding on courses of action. Maintain a clear view of current reality in the technology, in the market, and in the locality.

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