I arrived Sunday afternoon, August 24, for a short visit to Israel, my first since 1986. Gustavo Mesch and Ilan Talmud, sociologists at the University of Haifa, invited me for a conference on computer networks and social networks. Click here for a photo slideshow from my trip.
I was a little worried about terrorist bombings. OK. More than a little. I avoided taking buses, and I rented an international cell phone to take with me so I could check in with my wife and son once a day and they could reach me. Contrary to my expectations, the flight was full and the hotels I stayed in were not deserted. Few were conventional tourists, however, as a taxi driver/guide explained. Many were on official solidarity missions, including a group of 40,000 French who had just finished their visit. It was striking that every restaurant had a security guard at its entrance, as did every building at the University. There were roadblocks at entrances to the University, on the highway to Jerusalem, and at the entrance to the airport. Israelis are used to it in the same way that Americans are used to airport security: it seemed to be pro-forma most of the time, but I did have to present my passport when I was riding in the back of a taxi, and had to empty my bag and turn on my computer once when entering a University building.
On Monday morning, I had just enough time to wander through the empty shouk in the Arab Quarter of the Old City, before it opened for business, to the Western Wall. The security guards at the first entrance I tried directed me to another entrance, down a small alley, where they directed me to a third entrance with an x-ray machine for my backpack. Once through security, I found hundreds of people, apparently ferried in through a different entrance by car. Apparently, Bar Mitzvahs at the Wailing Wall are a well-organized industry; there were about a dozen going on, replete with videographers.
My next stop was the offices of New Israel Fund and Shatil. NIF funds non-profit social change organizations. My 1986 visit was a study tour arranged by NIF and I started contributing money last year. Shatil is a 20-year-old arm of NIF that provides various management support services to NIF fundees. It has played a huge role in creating a vibrant civil society in Israel, rather than depending solely on government programs or international donor projects. I spoke with Shatil’s webmaster, Hanan Cohen, and NIF Associate Director Ellen Goldberg about the possibility of adding a technology planning/training/consulting arm to Shatil, along the lines of NPower or perhaps even affiliated with it.
Hanan is a very interesting guy. He grew up on a Kibbutz, didn’t finish high school but taught himself computers beginning on the Kibbutz’s PDP-11. He now lives in an urban Kibbutz, where 18 families pool their income, allocate it according to need, and own property collectively. Despite these great differences in our backgrounds, we are part of the same digital culture. He knows about the same tools, the same social trends, and even the same geek celebrities. Hanan attended the conference I spoke at, and he gave me a ride.
At the conference I had the pleasure of getting re-acquainted with Prof. Sheizaf Rafaeli, who I had met a couple of times on his frequent summers and sabbaticals at University of Michigan B-school. One of his students, Yael Levanon, made an interesting presentation about a study of email list usage for two suburbs. Sheizaf posed an interesting design challenge over lunch on the last day. Israeli High School students have a “volunteer” service requirement but there is not a good system for placing them. Currently, parents are arranging for their children to work at organizations they know about, but it’s not clear what the children of less well-connected parents do. What kind of information system could help? Further conversation revealed that further requirements analysis is needed: it’s not completely clear what the real stumbling blocks are. Not enough good placements? No way for students to find them? All the students vie for the same placement? At the end of the conversation, I hazarded a guess that a Hebrew version of friendster.com might be the best support tool, to basically rely on connections as before but with a slightly wider reach into one’s social network.
Bill Dutton made a case for thinking about societal changes not in terms of more or better information but rather reconfigured access to information, people, services, and technologies. I’d heard it before, but this time it clicked for me. I’ve been using the metaphor of “information flows” which captures the ideas of access to information and people, but not really the latter two. More on the information flow another time.
I also got to hear Barry Wellman’s networked individualism spiel one more time. The essence of it is that the bounded group is not a very useful unit of analysis, because people have multiple affiliations and the people they are connected to are not often connected to each other. We had some interesting discussion during the Q&A about what people might affiliate with to gain a sense of identity if not the traditional bounded groups. I suggested that we might expect an increase in allegiance to things like nationalities, races, religions, gender, etc., what Wenger would refer to as imagination-based modes of belonging. Heidi Campbell had an interesting suggestion that shared experiences rather than shared membership might become increasingly important, citing things like Raves and Flash Mobs.
Amalya Oliver had an interesting presentation about how social collectivities form boundaries based on membership identity markers and representations of unique knowledge domains. In her theory, a social collectivity begins with sites of difference, something that makes people like each other and distinct from others. From there, boundaries form through formalization of sites of difference, through two networking forces. The first, centrifugal force of growth, pushes toward wider domain claims and member recruitment. The second, centripetal force pushes inward toward a crisper domain definition that ensures retention of existing members. When an equilibrium of these forces has been achieved, the boundaries are defined, though they may continue to evolve (presumably slowly).
After the conference, we had a quick tour of Haifa with a professional guide. She showed us the Arab neighborhood, Wadi Nisnas, which has been the site of annual public art efforts by both Jewish and Arab artists. The results of many years are visible as you walk down the street, which is otherwise an ordinary residential neighborhood. At this time of little hope for peace, the guide emphasized repeatedly that in Haifa there was co-existence between Arabs and Jews.