Impacts on Communities: Comments on Sclove and Scheuer

Impacts on Communities: Comments on Sclove and Scheuer

by Sara Baase
San Diego State University

From Computers & Society, Dec. 1997, pp. 15-17
Copyright, 1997, Sara Baase Reproduction information

I. Introduction

Will electronic commerce force changes on communities that no one wants? Will electronic communication erode family and community life to the point that people mourn the loss of depth and meaning in their lives? Richard Sclove and Jeffrey Scheuer think so. In their article "On the Road Again? If Information Highways Are Anything like Interstate Highways--Watch Out!" [footnote: In Rob Kling, ed., Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflict and Social Choices, 2nd ed., Academic Press, 1996.] Sclove and Scheuer describe their worries about the impact of electronic communications on face- to-face interactions and the vibrancy of communities. They use the history and impact of the interstate highway system as an analogy, or "cautionary tale." One of their main themes is that the highway system caused (and the "information highway"[footnote: I don't particularly like the phrase "information highway," but I will use it here because it fits well with Sclove's and Scheuer's analogy with the interstate highway system.] will cause) changes that are "involuntary" and that virtually no one wants. In particular, they use the example of a Wal-Mart store draining business from downtown shops, resulting in the decline of the downtown community, a "result that no consumers wanted or intended." They generalize from the Wal-Mart scenario and warn that as cyberspace is commercialized and we conduct more economic transactions electronically, we will lose more local stores, local professional and social services, and convivial public spaces like the downtowns of small towns. Consumers will be "compelled" to use electronic services, "like it or not."

I believe that the Wal-Mart analogy is a good one; the scenario is quite useful for illustrating and clarifying issues about electronic commerce and communications. However, I think Sclove's and Scheuer's interpretation of the scenario has seriously flaws and that its flaws are also implicit in their proposals for avoiding undesirable impacts of the information highway. I will review their argument and explain my objections to it. The issue of the impact of electronic communications (the Internet, the World Wide Web, e-mail, etc.) on community is widely discussed, and, although I cannot go into depth in this short article, I will outline some ideas, rather different from Sclove's and Scheuer's, about community.

II. The Wal-Mart argument and a response

Suppose, say Sclove and Scheuer, that a new Wal-Mart store has opened just outside of town and about half the town residents begin to do about a third of their shopping there, while the others continue to do all their shopping downtown. Everyone shops downtown, and everyone wants the downtown stores to remain. But downtown stores have lost about 16.5will not survive. Sclove and Scheuer describe this as an "involuntary transformation" which no consumer wanted or intended. It occurs, they say, because of a "perverse market dynamic."

Is the decline of the downtown stores the result of a perverse market dynamic? Is it an involuntary transformation? Are consumers compelled to shop at Wal- Mart? I believe the answer to all three questions is "no." The core of the problem with Sclove's and Scheuer's interpretation of the impact of Wal-Mart is their failure to make two important distinctions: the distinction between wanting something and willingness to pay for it, and the distinction between something being coerced or involuntary, on the one hand, and unwanted, unintended, or unexpected, on the other.

Let's consider a simpler situation for a moment. Suppose we poll the residents of a small town with a population of, say, 3000, and ask if they would like to have a fine French restaurant in town. Almost everyone says yes. Two-thirds of the residents say they would eat at the restaurant on special occasions, once or twice a year. Will a French restaurant open in the town? Probably not. Almost everyone wants it, yet there is not enough potential business for it to survive. However, if everyone would eat at the restaurant at least ten times a year, as they might in, say, a pizza place, it would have a chance. Assuredly there is a market dynamic at work here, but there is nothing perverse about it. The fact that consumers want a particular service, store, or product to be available for them is irrelevant if there are not enough people willing do buy enough at sufficient prices to make the business viable.

In Sclove's and Scheuer's Wal-Mart scenario, the downtown stores could stay in business if the people of the town were willing to pay higher prices to make up for the 16.5raise prices, they will almost certainly lose even more customers. The town residents, who all want the downtown stores to remain, are not willing to pay what it costs to keep them in business. But, you (and Sclove and Scheuer) may object: The townspeople didn't have to pay the higher prices before. Why now? Because now the people who shop at Wal-Mart have a choice. Whatever it is that lured them to Wal-Mart for some of their shopping, be it lower prices, more selection, or the convenience of doing lots of shopping in one place, they were, according to their own values, not getting that benefit before. Now that the Wal-Mart has opened, everyone in town would like to continue to have the option of shopping downtown, and half the residents would like to continue to shop at Wal-Mart sometimes. But they are not willing to pay the cost of maintaining both options. Again there is a market dynamic at work, but not a perverse one. The townspeople will not support both the full complement of downtown shops and the Wal-Mart. Sclove and Scheuer fail to identify and appreciate the distinction between what people want and what they are willing to pay for.

The second question about the scenario is whether the decline of downtown is an "involuntary" transformation. Although no one in the town wants to see the downtown decline, the actions that may lead to that result are all voluntary. When the new store opens, no one is forced to shop there. The impact on the downtown stores may not have been obvious to all the townspeople at the beginning (although now it is common enough that they might have anticipated it), but an unexpected or unintended result is not the same as a coerced result. No community organization or committee of residents planned the result, but that does not make it involuntary. In a free society, individuals make millions of decisions based on their knowledge and preferences. This decentralized, individualized decision-making produces a constantly changing pattern of stores, services, and investments (not to mention social and cultural patterns). No one can predict exactly what the result will be, and no one intends a particular picture of the economy or society, but (apart from government subsidies, prohibitions, and regulations), the actions of the consumers and merchants are voluntary.

What about the people who want to continue to do all their shopping downtown? If many downtown stores close, are these people compelled to shop at Wal-Mart? No more so than the Wal-Mart shoppers were compelled to shop downtown before they had an option. No more so than the people in the small town are compelled to eat something other than French food. On the issue of electronic communications, Sclove and Scheuer say that, as local businesses decline, people will be compelled to use electronic services, like it or not. Is this accurate? These people are no more compelled than cyberspace enthusiasts were compelled, like it or not, to use what they may perceive as dull, inefficient, inconvenient in-person services before the option of electronic services was available. What we are talking about here is change and the different likes and dislikes of different people. Change creates new options; some survive and some fail. Change causes some old options to disappear. Those who prefer a new option see it as progress. Those who prefer an option that a change eliminated view the change negatively. Neither side's preference is inherently or absolutely better than the other; people have different likes and dislikes, different priorities, different life styles. If the change results from a government subsidy, or a government decision prevents it, then the people who preferred the opposite are coerced. If Wal-Mart acquires the land for a new store via eminent domain, forcing local merchants to give up their property as part of some "redevelopment" program, then the change is involuntary and people are being compelled. If the result flows from the myriad of decisions made by consumers and producers in a free market, it is not coerced. It is the process, not the result, that tells us whether people are being compelled. People who have to change their shopping habits because the available options have changed may be unhappy about it, but that is different from coercion. It is, in fact, because we live in communities with other people, not clones of ourselves, that we cannot each expect to have exactly the mix of shopping options (or other community characteristics) we want.

III. Sclove's and Scheuer's proposals

Sclove and Scheuer present three "guiding principles" for remedying what they see as the negative impact of electronic media on communities: "No innovation without evaluation," "no innovation without regulation," and "no innovation without participation." The context and details imply that they intend their proposals to be mandatory, enforced by government. I will comment on a few of the proposals.

Sclove and Scheuer give two examples of regulations they approve of: adjusting charges for the information highway to discourage its use one evening a week, and using revenue from a special tax on electronic shopping and consumer services to subsidize local community projects. Coming from people who expressed so much concern about things "involuntary" and about people being compelled to use certain services, "like it or not," these proposals are astonishing in their casual denial of freedom and choice. Like it or not, you have to pay a higher rate for Internet access on Monday evening, even if that's the only evening you are off from your restaurant job. Like it or not, you have to subsidize community activities you do not participate in, because you prefer electronic shopping. Sclove and Scheuer do not seem to see coercion when practiced against people whose preferences differ from theirs.

In their discussion of the principle "no innovation without evaluation," Sclove and Scheuer acknowledge that businesses evaluate the demand for their new products and services. The evaluation they recommend is "analogous to environmental impact statements," where political bodies can prohibit projects if the statement does not meet their approval. Again, we have a proposal that involves a huge degree of coercion restricting the freedom of both businesses and consumers. But there is another serious problem with this proposal. Determining the long-term impacts of a new technology is extremely difficult, and even if we can describe likely scenarios, some people will see them as desirable and some won't. Let's consider evaluation of new communication technology.

It is easy to find quotations from scientists evaluating new technologies like radio, television, telephone, and computers that are so off-base as to be hilarious. For a more serious example, consider the discussion of speech recognition by a computer scientist who specialized in artificial intelligence. In his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason, Joseph Weizenbaum argued against development of speech recognition. Speech recognition was so difficult, he wrote, that software for it would require enormous computers and enormous expense (hence it would be available only to the government and perhaps very large corporations). He could not imagine any beneficial applications. "What can it possibly be used for?" he asked. It can be, and is, used to train air traffic controllers and to learn foreign languages. Disabled people use speech to control household appliances and, in place of a pen or keyboard, to write. It is relatively inexpensive and available on pocket organizers. Weizenbaum was mistaken. That's okay; "prediction is difficult," Neils Bohr is reported to have said, "especially about the future." People whom Weizenbaum's arguments did not convince went on to improve speech recognition systems and develop the applications in use today. But the point is that Weizenbaum is an expert, the kind of person who would be on the panels evaluating innovations, under the Sclove and Scheuer proposal. Decisions made by such panels are as likely to be wrong as to be right.

Following their discussion of "no innovation without participation," Sclove and Scheuer say that what information highway enthusiasts and entrepreneurs see as obstacles and "red tape" in their proposals is really democracy at work. Democracy is fine for many kinds of decisions, but not all. We do not vote on what church people will go to, and we do not vote on what books they will read (nor whether they be print or electronic). We do not vote that a pizza place in a small town must serve French food one night a week. We do not vote on how people invest their money. We do not vote on how people spend personal time.

Although Sclove and Scheuer state their principles in the form "no innovation without" x, y, and z, the result is likely to be "no [or little] innovation." Their proposals are disturbing in their degree of confidence in the ability of experts to predict the future and to decide what's best for all of us. And their proposals are ironic in their degree of coercion, given their criticism of changes they see as involuntary. I believe Nadine Strossen's comment about censorship applies equally well to Sclove's and Scheuer's proposals: "Private persuasion and counterpersuasion embody and promote essential human rights values, whereas governmental coercion is antithetical to them."[footnote: In Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights. Strossen is the president of the ACLU.]

IV. What to do about communities

I love nature; I have been thinking about moving to a small town (for many of the benefits Sclove and Scheuer see in them), and I've been in a Wal-Mart only once. I appreciate the concerns Sclove and Scheuer and many others have expressed about the problems of protecting the viability of communities and "time spent in nature." Here are, briefly, some thoughts on this problem.

First, don't worry so much. VCRs did not kill movie theaters, book sales have been rising impressively over the past several years, and children who use computers are spending less time watching television. A Times Mirror survey found that Internet users are at least as social as nonusers. Sclove and Scheuer cite references about the virtues of "nonelectronically mediated human experience." Are there really many people who don't know that a hug beats an e-mail smiley face?

Many individuals and organizations contribute to the education of the public about negative features or impacts of a technology. Community groups, professional groups, and activist groups can play educational and organizational roles in diminishing negative impacts of the information highway. If we don't like the anticipated impact of Wal-Mart, or electronic shopping, on our community, we can organize a boycott. If we want teen-agers to leave their screens one evening a week, we can organize other activities for them. These methods don't work as completely as laws and regulations exactly because they are voluntary and some people don't agree with us. Respect for other people means no manipulation, no coercion, no artificial restriction of their choices. While we do all that we can to promote the values we hold, we must accept that others have different values.

I agree with some of the points Sclove and Scheuer make about the interstate highway system. It was not built in response to consumer demand; it was subsidized by the government, in response to lobbying by car manufacturers and road builders. Using the power of eminent domain, the government ripped through neighborhoods (often poor and minority neighborhoods). One lesson from this experience is that we should minimize the role of government in the information highway. We should reject all subsidies. If companies believe that their services are valuable and consumers will demand them, let the companies risk their own investment dollars on developing them. If developing the infrastructure is "too expensive" for industry to pay for, if consumers are not willing to pay the cost, then perhaps it shouldn't be built, or should be built more slowly.

Face-to-face interactions with other people are wonderful and essential to a happy, balanced, humane life. The places where we find such interactions are changing, but I do not see them diminishing to a serious degree. Sclove and Scheuer say that as we spend more time communicating electronically, people may "mourn the loss of meaning and depth they remember from pre-electronic life." This strikes me as plain silly. I teach computer science, and I use e-mail and the Internet regularly. Meaning and depth don't come from computers. For me, they come from interaction with my students, from long hikes in parks or wilderness, from a visit with a 43-year old friend who, after building a successful career as an engineer, just had her first child, and from giggling with my husband. There is no reason why I or anyone must trade these in for the option of using electronic communications.


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