Saturday, March 05, 2005

Experiment in Community

community :: society :: governance

I live with three very different people; that's three, including
myself. We are all different, and we decided to try living together as
a social experiment. Personally, I am interested in decentralized
social and governmental systems: distributed power, distributed
decision making, etc. I am an optimist in that I believe that a
"sufficiently large" collection of people "educated" on a particular
topic will collectively make statistically wise decisions on that
topic, no matter the variations in individual decisions. To me, this
seems one (of possibly uncountably many) functional definitions of
democracy. It may come off as elitist (and to some, that's okay) due to
the use of the term "educated" but this in no way refers to social,
economic, or any other form of privilege. I use the term very generally
to connote experience, knowledge, and understanding of a certain topic.
Of course, there is that ambiguity "sufficiently large"...

Anyway, I digress. Social experiment. Understanding of social systems
via practical experience, with willing participants that are aware of
the process, the goals, etc. We have hit the "growth" stage now, i.e.,
problems. And in a discussion with one of the members today, I was
asked how I define "community." This was an interesting question... I'm
always talking about this concept, this abstraction; I'm always
listening to others talk about it. We all seem to agree that we're
talking about the same thing, but here was my chance to see, in fact,
if that's the case. I paced around the room for a while, like an
autistic child about to make a break through. Here's how I defined it:

A community is a group of entities that interact for the common benefit
of all entities in the group through exchange of information between
entities and the compensation for deficiencies and/or efficiencies of
individual entities.

I'd never thought of it like this before, and it really took me by
surprise: community dynamics is an engineering problem! Of course, I
say this with all the humor it deserves ;-) And this revealed the
nature of the problem between two of the individuals in our social
experiment: two of us are unwilling to compensate for each other's lack
for the common benefit of the group. We are therefore failing as a
community, in that we cannot satisfy the definition. This awareness was
a painful moment for me, as I have been greatly looking forward to this
adventure. It's early still, so there is hope. The biggest difficulty
we may encounter is motivation: if we don't feel in our bones that we
have to work with these differences in order to survive, we may
not put in the required effort.

Community interaction is not an endeavor of self. In the "West", we've
got plenty of that! We are all about the individual. I find this
particularly true of Americans, and have been guilty of such for much
of my life. We feel that many (all!) sacrifices somehow lessen "the
self" and are therefore tantamount to the complete violation of our
most precious principles. Practical experience in communities that meet
the requirements of the functional definition above show us something
quite the reverse: personal sacrifice for the benefit of all improves
the quality of life for all members of the group, and sometimes
especially for the one who sacrificed.

In these "modern", post-tribal times and for the most part, we are no
longer bound to each other by the glue of survival needs, forced to
live in communities and tribes, getting along out of necessity. As
such, it may be that Quality of Life has become the new definition of
Survival. And in fact, our survival as a sane and happy society may
require that quality of life be perceived as such.

Curious now, I have looked up the definitions of community on WordNet:

    * community -- (a group of people living in a particular local
    area; "the team is drawn from all parts of the community")

    * community -- (a group of people having ethnic or cultural or
    religious characteristics in common; "the Christian community of the
    apostolic age"; "he was well known throughout the Catholic community")

    * community -- (common ownership; "they shared a community of

    * community -- (a group of nations having common interests; "they
    hoped to join the NATO community")

    * profession, community -- (the body of people in a learned
    occupation; "the news spread rapidly through the medical community")

    * community, community of interests -- (agreement as to goals;
    "the preachers and the bootleggers found they had a community of

    * residential district, residential area, community -- (a district
    where people live; occupied primarily by private residences)

    * community, biotic community -- ((ecology) a group of
    interdependent organisms inhabiting the same region and interacting
    with each other)

I particularly like the last one, from the ecological point of view.
Being an adherent to a Tibetan Buddhist school of philosophy, I enjoy
the point of interdependence.

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