Lisa’s CCK08 Wordpress Blog

October 1, 2008

Individualism and the Loss of Moorings

Filed under: Week 4 — Lisa M Lane @ 10:30 am

Given my reaction to the other Barry Wellman article we were assigned for Week 3, I confess I groaned when I saw that the Networks for Newbies PowerPoint was his.

There were useful things here. The idea that nodes in a network can be organizations, groups or nations as well as people, works for me. But then we got into the ideas that society is moving from Little Boxes to Individualized Networking and slide 18, where I realized Little Boxes are highly idealized. The world he describes never existed, and thus should not be used as a historical foundation unless the conclusion is a similarly idealized networked world. As with several things we’ve been reading, I’m never sure whether the author is saying that this is how things are or how they should be. The implication in Wellman is that there was once a locally connected world, and then it passed through a transitional period of “glocalized” connections (when? Levittown in the 1950s?), and now we are in the Brave New World requiring/demonstrating/promoting Networked Individualism.

Since Wellman’s “Networked Life before the Internet” (slide 41) comprises 99.99% of all human history, it might be a good idea to look a this historically, not just in terms of Little Boxes, but more broadly.

There have been several times in Western Civilization (and we should all be clear that most of this is confined to Western cultures) that perceptual shifts took place which undermined local connections. Let me present two.

During the Hellenistic Empire (following the death of Alexander in 323 BC), the Greek ideal of the polis was battered by a larger cosmopolitanism. Because of the networks created by Alexander’s conquests, and the manner in which he solidified them, the world got much bigger not only for Greeks but for Persians, Jews, and many others.

c. Holowlegs at Flickr

Alexander, traveling with a group of scientists and scholars, had his generals intermarry with royal women along the way (yes, often by force). His generals thus established dynasties (such as the Ptolemaic dynasty that produced the Hellenistic queen Cleopatra) and a system whereby anyone who wanted a role in the new trade networks had to speak and write Greek. Common currency and open trade routes helped assure prosperity if you chose to buy into the system.

For many, the new cosmopolitanism caused an identity crisis. Instead of seeing yourself as a member of a kinship clan or a polis, you began to see yourself as an individual and a citizen (cities, more than a few of them named Alexandria, were the hubs or nodes of this network). The Hellenistic philosophies of Cynicism, Stoicism and Epicureanism provide examples of the variety of responses to this (all emphasize the life of the individual). The art of the period, full of emotion and individuality, also express it. There was a sense of alienation in the cities and a need to find connections, as classical Greek ideas were seen increasingly as obsolete “knowledge”. The founding of Christianity is related to the feeling of alienation in a large world. (If you’re really into this, I lectured on it recently in class and my slides are here.) Ultimately the Eastern and Western Roman empires would divide, with the eastern individualism falling to the spread of Islam, and the western succumbing to the rise of the Roman Church.

The second example, and perhaps more of a lesson to us now, would be the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century. Again, trade networks were at the heart of the shift, because with trade goods travel ideas, in this case from the Arab world, which had preserved and enriched the works of classical Greece, the Hellenistic emprie, and Rome. Some of the ideas threatened the Roman Church’s hold on what constituted proper knowledge, but all of them enabled ideas of individualism to take hold after centuries of medieval communitarianism. Community had been terribly important to people in medieval times; their networks were local and even spiritual goals were subsumed to the needs of the community. Only the scholars, writing in the universal Latin language, had possessed a broader network.

Man put in the position of pitying
God, in Michaelangelo’s Pieta.

But the “new” ideas threatened the old holistic view. Classicism (think Petrarch) led to humanism (think Pico della Mirandola), and people (at least middle class people and scholars) began to promote the ideas of humanity as individualistic.

With that idea came a loss of moorings, a sense of sadness as the security of medieval Christiandom, with its sense of community responsibility and its promise of individual salvation, was shaken. As pointed out in a wonderful documentary on Renaissance Florence, you can see the sadness and loss in the art and hear it in the music. Morality now had to be determined by individual human beings rather than the Church, the mouthpiece of God. The result was Machiavelli’s The Prince (power for the sake of power), war for political instead of religious reasons, and with the Reformation the possibility to kill each other for both political and religious reasons.

When a culture perceives a shift from localism to cosmopolitanism, there is thus a tendency to glorify the individual, to see him/her as the heart of the system. In that tendency there is a loss of community values and goals. There is an argument about what constitutes knowledge, and who controls it. There is also a moral void, which gets filled by something, often a centralized power. In our description/promotion of a world shifting from local to “glocal” to individualized networks, it would be foolish to ignore both the historical similarities and the possibility of moral crisis.



  1. Your last paragraph could have been in the CCK08 introductory materials. I wonder whether this is another iteration, or whether our current individualism is just an extension of the Florentine Renaissance. What was (if anything) the community center that replaced Renaissance individualism as the Roman Church replaced Hellenistic individualism?

    Comment by Jason Green — October 1, 2008 @ 11:27 am

  2. Lisa, I agreed that PowerPoints are too terse to be assigned in class, as a stand alone. This was done as a service to those who had taken my Networks for Newbies workshop, and wanted something to refresh their memories. You might want to look at my Barry Wellman, “Physical Place and Cyber Place: The Rise of Networked Individualism.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 25,2 (June, 2001): 227-52. Among other things, this agrees with you that the ideal types are well, ideal types, and there was a lot of boundary crossing in other periods. It also discusses GloCalization.

    Comment by Barry Wellman — October 1, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  3. Barry, I found your paper at . Thank you for suggesting it.

    Unfortunately, it only confirmed my concerns (both here and in my earlier post) about the amoral nature of declaring such individualism as on the rise without judging it to be inadequate to human needs.

    You write near the end, “This is a time for individuals and their networks, not for groups. The all-embracing collectivity (Parsons 1951; Braga and Menosky 1999) has become a fragmented, personalized network.”

    I do not see any “all-embracing collectivity” historically, but there have been ideals of social community. In continually demonstrating the ways in which networked individualism is becoming supreme, your major points not only seem to avoid the moral implications of such a selfish world, but also support it. I am deeply disturbed by the moral implications (or lack thereof) in those items of your work I’ve read so far.

    And the PowerPoint was no big deal — it was a clear outline; I got the points. They were not stand-alone to me, since I had read your Little Boxes article in Week 1.

    Comment by Lisa — October 1, 2008 @ 7:32 pm

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