John Dewey was an “American Pragmatist”. His major work occurred at the end of the 19th century.  He thought a lot about community and its importance to society;

Dewey was concerned that the institutions of the industrial society and its mass media of communication were destroying the communal basis of individual and group life. For Dewey the industrial age was bringing about a Great Society, which was not a community and did not have communication as its base. In Dewey’s terms communication meant “a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession”. It was equivalent to participation, commonness and the representation of shared beliefs. In this way communication provided for a democratic way of life. Dewey called for the transformation of the Great Society into a Great Community – a united nation with one culture; a great public of common understanding and knowledge – through liberating communication and educating the public. The technologies of communication brought forth by the industrial age, in his view, made this transformation possible, but the problems sprang from their inappropriate use.

At first glance I’m not so sure that it is possible for a transformation of the “Great Society” into a “Great Community” to happen.  The scale is too large.  As a student of anthropology I tend towards the opinion that the maximum size for a group to maintain real social relationships is about 150 – 200  (see Dunbar’s number).  That being said Dewey’s thought brings in all the factors involved in the dynamics of community; participation, commonness, shared beliefs all transmitted from one individual to the other by communication.

The problem was that the technologies of the industrial revolution and the ‘Great Society’ it produced, such as  ‘the assembly line’  eroded community as a social form; “In fact it was found that this process was faster, cheaper and more efficient. There was less overlap of skills or knowledge, every person knew what they needed to do their job and that was it. To help build a car a worker no longer had to know much of anything about cars, in fact you could have a team of assembly-line workers building cars faster than a team of skilled craftsmen, even if there was not one single person on the assembly-line who knew how to build a car himself. A worker could work on the wheel assembly section without having ever seen a car motor in his life.” (R.G. Price, 2004)  The technologies of mass production destroy the shared experience of the group, narrow the individual’s focus and thereby limit communication.

Our way of life is built upon the foundations of the ‘assembly line’.  There is no going back.  The ‘assembly line’ model has become a common template for our thinking.  No one questions the wisdom of dividing labour into small uniform steps and combining these simple steps into a larger process that produces a product that is greater in  construct and thought of any of its deskilled contributors.  Out of it was born the role of  managers and the erosion of democracy (shared decision-making) in production groups.  To go back is to give up the material wealth of our ‘Great Society’ for the doubtful communal benefits of shared experiences.  Our families work like this.  Our schools work like this and so do our communities.

At one point in time, every member of the family contributed to the common pot for dinner.  Little junior was just as capable of bagging a rabbit as dad was.  If dad didn’t have any luck the family ate because of junior’s contribution.  Mom and sis were always out digging up grubs and roots for the pot as well.  There was some division of labour but all labour was valued equally when it came to the cooking fire.  Most people don’t consider that our social forms were all laid down in the context of this reality.  Family and community existed before the industrial revolution. It remains to be seen if these social forms will continue after the industrial revolution has completed its transformation.  Today we exist as ‘hunter gatherers’ forced to assemble integrated circuits for objects that we have come to obsessively desire even though the production of them and the use of them continue to erode our essential natures.

Today when  our young people band together they do so in cyberspace as a collection of individuals with skills in video games like Mortal Kombat.  Cyberspace paradoxically has become one of the few theaters where our kids can be ‘hunter gatherers’ again.  We ‘boomers’ shake our heads not realizing that the very technologies that support our aging corpulent lifestyles are shaping the collective psyche of our kids and grandkids.  I hope there are good retirement and nursing homes in Cyberspace!

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