A Better Kind of Space

  There is one country whose flag you will not see flying outside the United Nations headquarters and whose athletes will not compete in the Olympic games: "Cyber Yugoslavia," population 16,573. That's because it exists only in cyberspace. The lack of any physical contact between its "citizens" hasn't stopped "Cyber Yugoslavia" from adopting the trappings of real countries: a flag, a constitution, and even a national anthem of sorts. The plan is to petition for UN membership as soon as its "population" reaches five million. While it may sound bizarre, the people behind this "virtual nation" are not alone in how they have forgotten the requirements for creating real communities. The impetus behind the founding of "Cyber Yugoslavia" were the wars that tore the former Yugoslavia apart during the 1990s -- fractured into separate states like Serbia, Bosnia, and the like. That left people like Zoran Bacic, the virtual country's webmaster, without "a physical land." So they created an idealized country, one that avoided the conflicts and other messiness associated with physical proximity, simply embracing the old name. "Cyber Yugoslavia," of course, is a clever gimmick. But it is the poster state for the Internet age: what happens when people are linked together only by their keyboards. As Quentin Schultze of Calvin College writes in Habits of the High-Tech Heart, Americans imagine cyberspace as a "location for recreating community." We see this belief on display in the millions of websites that bill themselves as either a community or part of a larger community. The problem is that while information technology can help us communicate with others, it cannot build what Schultze calls "communities of virtue." "Virtual communities" he says, cannot build "moral lives of gratitude and responsibility." The reason is that social networks based on shared interests, like the Internet, do not require us to think about more than ourselves. On the contrary, in cyberspace, it's easy to forget that anyone else -- any real people -- really exists. In the online world, there is no need to be neighborly, hospitable, or generous -- not just because you can't be held accountable, but because it is not possible. The "community" is not physically held together, and the mode of interaction precludes acts of meaningful self-denial. The practice of virtues like self-denial shapes character and builds friendships -- friendships that, in turn, hold us morally accountable. It just can't happen in cyberspace. Similarly, cyber-communities lack what Schultze calls "orality." E-mail is a very different form of communication from actually speaking to another person. Listening to a person talk, especially on an intimate level, is not the same as reading their messages. Our disposition and our willingness to be present to them all change. It's actual communities that require us to think about the needs and interests of others. And it's in real communities, starting with the family, that character is formed. And for all the talk about Internet diversity, only a real community -- one based on shared space, not just interests -- can teach us how to live with people who are different from us. As Schultze reminds us, this is the biblical model for community. Messy? Sure. But if our goal is real virtue, then there is no avoiding real people. This commentary first aired on March 5, 2003. For further reading and information: Chris Nuttall, "Birth of a cybernation," BBC News, 6 August 1999. Quentin J. Schultze, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age (Baker Books, 2002). BreakPoint Commentary No. 030304, "More Than Duct Tape: Cyberculture's Values." Paul Mitchell, "Gods and Their Kingdoms," BreakPoint Online, August 28, 2002. J. Budziszewski, "'Little Platoons'," BreakPoint WorldView, March 2003.


Chuck Colson



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