More About Communities of Interest

In my last post about WikiLeaks, I used the term, “community of interest.”  What’s this all about?

Let’s start with a very simple analogy:  Primitive humans, in prehistoric times.  These folks quickly formed communities of interest, based on the paleontological record.  Why?

  • Not because they look alike
  • Not because they have a family relationship
  • Not because a psychologist told them they ought to do it
  • Not based on advice from the most recent self-help book…

They formed communities because they were hungry, and catching a mammoth requires a group effort!

What this means, in reality, is that our notion of “community” as a cooperative group working in some sort of altruistic harmony towards a common goal or common welfare, is not a complete definition.

Communities can form for very short-term reasons, and for very selfish ones.  Communities of interest on the internet form and dissolve all the time, and can often have shifting composition and purposes. This mobility of community is an interesting phenomenon. As the youngest generations, those who have grown up with Facebook, Twitter and the like, mature into adulthood, it will be interesting to see how the “moral” idea of community gets changed.

Are we headed towards a world where “community” is defined purely by self-interest?  Will the variety of human motivation survive the era of instant gratification?

The community of interest organized around WikiLeaks is infuriated at what seems to be a conspiracy to close the site.  This could be purely altruistic in nature, or could be motivated by a generalised anti-authoritarianism fueled by anger and frustration in the wake of events such as the recent financial crisis.

Whatever the motivation, the tools of contemporary communication technologies are playing a role not only in accompanying social change, but in driving it.

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The Real Significance of WikiLeaks

The shock value of the WikiLeaks revelations have been dissected and analyzed to death. There would seem to be consensus that we didn’t learn much we didn’t already know from the recent flood of documents exposed by the site. There seems to be less consensus about whether these leaks represent a new transparency or a danger to international diplomacy.

None of these, it seems to me, represents the real significance of WikiLeaks. The real story comes from the spontaneous eruption of support for Julian Assange on the internet. I don’t just mean the spontaneous rallying of public opinion via the net. I mean the guerilla actions of hackers who attacked, en masse, Visa and Mastercard computers when they closed down payment services for WikiLeaks.

We seem to be headed for a world in which the existing power structures – governments, multinational corporations, economic alliances, etc. – are having to face, more and more, parallel structures – call them communities of interest, if you like – that run detours around the usual circuits, and circumvent the usual “avenues of power.”

It’s clear that this is just the beginning.  How far will it go, and is it a good thing?

The Ends of Books

One of these days, I’m going to read the ends of most of the non-fiction books I’ve picked up in the last few years.

The truth is, often I start a book, and one of two things happens:

  • The book is really boring, I put it down and never pick it up again.  This is the easy one.
  • The book is really interesting, it generates so many good ideas it makes my wisdom teeth ache, and all I can think of doing is writing down my thoughts, underlining the great passages in the book, and getting excited about all this.

The second event is the more difficult one – because inevitably, I get so knotted up in my own paths running out in so many directions from a truly stimulating book, that I never get around to finishing the book.

In theory, a book is a portable, random-access, mass storage device.  Emphasize the random-access part.  Non fiction books, today, are not necessarily meant to be read in linear sequence, they are designed more like web sites, ideal for jumping around in, as you search the parts that interest you most.  But I grew up in the era of linear book reading, and I can’t quite lose the habit.  I always think I’m going to miss some important link to something earlier in the book.

This is certainly nonsense, but it wouldn’t be the first, nor the last, nor the silliest of my silly habits.  The result is that I have rarely read the parts in “the back of the book.”  I also harbour the secret notion that this is where the real interesting “meat” of the book is located.  Probably also nonsense, but then, if you spent years dealing with textbooks as part of your education, you understand about the “advanced” stuff being at the end.

So, one day, I’m going to pick up all those unfinished books, and just jump to the end, and read only the parts I’m really interested in.

Meanwhile, some advice for non-fiction authors who want to reach people like me (and I’ll bet they mostly already know this):  Put all your good stuff up front, and use the back of the book for – um – er – backup.

First Rant

I am a technical communicator.

“So what is it, exactly, that you do?”  I hear this a lot from people, even people that know me for many years.

It used to be easier to explain:  “You know, those manuals that come with products, or software, you know, the ones nobody ever reads?  Well, I write them.”

Except, I don’t anymore.  My profession has become something transcendental, mysterious if not actually mystical.  It is a great way to learn all kinds of new skills, and to mix three things that are my passion:  Communication, Culture and Technology.

It is a great profession, and a great time to be in this profession.  And that’s what this blog is about.