They will come and build it

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Stewart Dutfield
Marist College

A technological infrastructure may not be sustainable unless the people who serve it—and those whom it serves—have a social infrastructure with the capabilities to support it and benefit from it. The struggle to maintain a physical infrastructure may consume more energy than the effort to enrich social ties and participation.

At best, a community that sees its primary challenge as building connection and participation will regard technology as an enabler of change. At worst, technology may appear as a threat. If technology appears to take precedence, the message of social development will get lost.


Technology depends upon social relationships. Keith Hampton describes a suburban neighborhood that was wired with residential broadband connections when it was built in 1997. He shows that the technology infrastructure helped to increase civic participation for connected residents of this development. However, this participation was not caused by videophones and the online jukebox. Indeed, it was not originally caused by the infrastructure. Much of the collective action in Netville used a simple e-mail reflector (listserv). This service did not depend upon high bandwidth, and was not initially provided as part of the broadband service; it was provided only because the residents demanded it.


Building the capacity of a community to manage its affairs is the concern of those who seek to, as Robert Putnam puts it, “transcend our social and political identities to connect with people unlike ourselves.” Jan Flora offers the notion of ESI—an “entrepreneurial social infrastructure…for developing organizational forms that encourage collective action to achieve tangible goals.” ESI includes: (1) diversity of legitimate alternatives, (2) access to resources inside and outside the community, and (3) network attributes that encourage inclusivity.

Participation is necessary for technical growth and innovation. Doug Schuler writes that “Developers must work with community activists and community development organizations to design new projects and to support and extend existing services electronically.” Every community has its assets, and no community exists without some participation already going on.

In some localities, the same people may be in the forefront of developing both social and technological infrastructure. Paul Resnick points out a virtuous cycle, in which engagement with others changes the social relationships involved, in turn leading to new engagements. Some of these engagements may develop aspects of a community communications infrastructure. Technology can enrich social relationships that lead to non-technological engagements, or it may emerge from relationships which originate in non-technological engagements. In either case, there is no clear distinction between the developers of technology and of relationships.


Developing technological infrastructure is one aspect—among many—of developing social infrastructure. The same people may develop both. Engagement with the community is of primary importance. On some occasions, it will lead to connections and activities unrelated to technology. On others, it will yield possibilities for technology to reflect or enhance the community’s capacity for participation, learning, and problem-solving.

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