Forgive the length of this post: it’s my first one and I guess I’m a little pent up.

I was flipping through the book Wikinomics at the bookstore the other day, intrigued by the title and hoping to find a nuanced assessment of how the virtual workplace and free-agent employment is changing the landscape of economics and our culture. I was disappointed to discover that the book seemed to polarize the discussion of the virtual workplace along the old same unhelpful line: the virtual, collaborative workplace is wholly good and here to stay, and the only ones who resist or criticize it are the old stick-in-the-mud corporation-minded business owners or cultural elites who have everything to lose in this new model. In other words, the virtual workplace represents progress, and its critics are simply afraid to lose the power and commodities they gained under either the bricks-and-mortar corporation model or the publisher-as-quality-control model.

Wikinomics reads with all the blind fervor of a political manifesto for the virtual workplace – it dismissed concerns about work relationships, for instance, by simply saying that a person’s new community would be a virtual one via email and shared online projects – glossing over the very real concern about the importance of tangible relationships with PEOPLE, who you can physically see and touch, and who know where you live. Say your colleague in California has become your “best friend,” as a result of deeply shared interests and time spent collaborating on online projects (and spending time with whom has caused the neglect and dissolution of other face-to-face relationships). Is he going to be able to help you move into your new house in Virginia? Is he going to be able to meet you for a drink when your relationship with your significant other is on the rocks (no pun intended)? Perhaps on Second Life, but not in the real world. Virtual relationships are the junk food of relationships, speaking in terms of long-term sustainability: they enhance the enjoyment of everyday life, but they do not sustain us. Unfortunately they mask our hunger for real relationship enough so that it may feel like they sustain us, especially if they’re all we’ve got, but if we could see the state of our soul, it would be seriously malnourished. We may not look like we’re starving- we may even look indulgently overweight – but we’re only filled with empty calories. We’re only relating with information at best; facades at worst.

Switching sides, I was educated under the assumptions of the reverse perspective (but same pole): intellectual elites turning up their nose at the virtual workplace (especially virtual publishing or blogs) because there was no “quality control” – just mass chaos and mediocre thought. Virtual learning was by nature a hack job; self-publishing was for second-rate writers whose work just wasn’t up to real publishers’ standards.

But it takes the same kind of blind faith to believe that the profit-driven mega-publishing companies are sentinels of quality control. If what you have to say is risky, and won’t make money, it won’t get published by the big names. Writers have figured this out a long time ago, and now there’s actually a venue for them to disseminate their ideas that isn’t dependent on profit. One can’t help but remember Thomas Paine and Common Sense, and how the ubiquitousness of the printing press (an instructive parallel to the internet in terms of communication technology) galvanized the loosely-linked colonies under a single idea – revolution – when most had resigned themselves to capitulate to the King’s commands. Accessible grassroots technology made that happen – not the nod from the powers that be (or were).

The common fallacy here is that both sides, the ardent supporters of mass virtual collaboration and the resistant elites, assume that the virtual world, as “progressive” and “popular,” is a monolithic entity that can’t be assessed and limited and changed. It’s either good or bad – and keeping the conversation in such black and white terms reveals that we have already fallen prey to what Neil Postman calls “technopoly” – when technology controls society, rather than society controlling technology as a tool. If technology is a tool, then we are its masters, and we can discern (either face-to-face in meetings or in the virtual workplace, take your pick) what this particular tool is good for. Once we determine what it’s good for, what its proper use is, then we learn how to use it well, and how not to use it in destructive ways. For example, we might wholeheartedly use the internet to disseminate ideas, but we might not use it as our primary source of relationships. The internet – and all of technology, for that matter – does not have a mind of its own. We must not uncritically accept whatever is possible – or whatever is already happening – as progress and therefore inevitable. “The latest thing” is not our master. Technology is not our master. We must master it, and get nuanced and specific about what precisely is helpful and harmful. Only then can we use it responsibly and sustainably as the powerful tool that it is.

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