The Challenge of Community by Joel Dietz

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“Community,” it’s a word that sounds great but is difficult to implement in practice. Partially, probably what we mean is that warm feeling when the people around us show they care about what they are doing. When we shop at the local market and are greeted by familiar smiling faces, we experience a bit of community, something that we hope would extend to the rest of our lives.

Usually it doesn’t. Either we find our place as a cog in a giant machine or we rebel against “the system.” Social organizations, as documented in numerous books, including “Bowling Alone,” are on the wane.

Modern online social networks, most notably Facebook, ostensibly fill in the gap. They allow you to easily connect with people across the globe. It creates a multiplication in the number of links. That said, although I participate in and run many Facebook groups, I would not think to refer to them as “community.” Many of these newly created links are weak.

Many people have gone back to localized or explicitly “community” oriented solutions, like community currencies. Although to a certain extent these provide additional resilience, they often add costs. If you build custom infrastructure this likely isn’t going to be as robust.

Another frequently realized issue of “community,” is that it’s super focused on the community that you see, rather than the one that you don’t. That means that a lot of the larger global problems, like environmental issues, are entirely neglected. People are super focused on their space, their issue, their guru, you get the idea.

So we see a natural divergence between localized community with strong links and large social networks with weak links. One of the classic ways of “scaling” community has been via ethnicity. In sociobiological literature, this is sometimes referred to as the “K value.” We respond at some level to common kinship, possibly at the genetic level.

This is a method that has clearly worked historically. Virtually all large societies had some common kinship core, something that was even emphasized by philosophers like Confucius, who explicitly advocated for starting with your family and branching outwards. Even warrior nations like the Mongols setup their own united ethic core.

The American republic was the first major experiment on an alternative, rational model. In it’s first iteration it was largely propelled by common religious beliefs, the practice of religion that could not be done in a traditional context. The second iteration was done on the basis of virtue, which among other things meant a strong emphasis on individual rights.

The post World War Two solution was actually explicitly uniting people on the basis of economic interest. There were a lot of people thought that business was the best and perhaps only way to end wars. The more dollars passing between hands, the less bullets.

Many people have been intensely dissatisfied by this privileging of capital. Is it the richest that should decide our collective future by virtue of their wealth? Can everything valuable reduced to money? What about the intangible yet beautiful things that we share?

I puzzle these things myself as I walk around in the heart of Silicon Valley. On the streets of Munich there was musicians playing his violin under the subway tunnel, another chanting with his harmonium that I befriended. On the streets of San Francisco there is a lot of trash, whistling in the wind. I prefer the violin.

At the very least, it seems that accumulated capital doesn’t necessarily create community. It may even undermine community. Perhaps today’s uber-successful VCs feel like they are the Jews of the Second World War, at risk because of their incredible success. But maybe they should be worried about a different type of risk, the vampiric tendency of capital to suck up value rather than create.

It’s with this note that I embrace the French example, exemplified by growing networks like OuiShare. As Antonin instructed me, the true basis of collaboration is reducible to a single word, “love.” If we are giving because we love, then it is good, The growth of anything good begins on this principle. We extend ourselves because of that love.

This plants a seed. Maybe it is one that requires capital to water it, but for any greater flow, this is the way things go. As T.S. Eliot noted in his masterpiece, the Wasteland, we are desperate in the desert. It has been a long time since things rained. And yet, with OuiShare and other networks, there is the sound of thunder in the distance.

When rain falls, there is necessarily some accumulation. Some trees grow bigger than others. Some even provide shade for many. This indicates that principle of growth is larger than any single person. The joint efforts of many is necessary.

Is this the “age of community” as the title of OuiShare fest ( indicates? I believe on the fringes of consumer society we are starting to jointly invent something newer and better, something with emergent properties that arises out of the collective passions of many and spills out and over through the basis of love.

I also can’t imagine any better place to do this than Paris. Vive la France! Vive Collaboration!

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