The Power of Affiliation


In 1994 I was asked to moderate a panel discussion at a professional conference. It was a rather routine task. I was to read a set of papers in advance of the conference, introduce the panelists and facilitate a discussion among participants. As I prepared, I was interested to learn that two members of our panel had collaborated on a paper and were attending the conference all the way from Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

At about this time, I was offered my first corporate e-mail account. It was quite primitive by today’s standards. For those who remember the early days of electronic communication, before the advent of Windows-type operating systems, this was a rather crude text-only version of internet-based communication.

An e-mail arrived one day with a name I did not recognize at first, but upon reading the message I realized it was from one of my new Dutch colleagues. It was the first international e-mail I had ever received. The panelist was suggesting that she wanted to electronically send me a copy of the paper I was to read. This was to be done by something called FTP (file transfer protocol). She explained how this would work, and with a little help from the IT staff on my campus, the paper magically appeared on my screen. This was so cool. The electronic delivery was more interesting than the paper.

I was truly impressed by the speed and convenience of an electronic document, and could begin to imagine how this would impact the future. Fax machines were supplanted very quickly and e-mail attachments soon followed as a preferred method. Social networking has now taken us to a whole new level. All this has occurred in less than 20 years.

What I did not understand at the time, however, was that this technology would begin to reshape the world, calling into question the future relevance of national borders and established boundaries of human communication. Today it is nearly impossible to mediate or moderate global communication.

The National Intelligence Council produced a report in December of 2004 for its 2020 Project. This document, Mapping the Global Future, projects global conditions likely to be in place by the year 2020 (GPO Stock 041-015-0024-6; ISBN 0-16-073-218-2). The impact of technology is described as follows:

Today individual PC users have more capacity at their fingertips than NASA had with the computers used in its first moon launches. The trend toward even more capacity, speed, affordability and mobility will have enormous political implications; myriad individuals and small groups — many of whom had not been previously so empowered — will not only connect with one another but will plan, mobilize and accomplish tasks with potentially more satisfying and efficient results than their governments can deliver. This almost certainly will affect individuals’ relationships with and views of their governments and will put pressure on some governments for more responsiveness. (p. 75)

Growing connectivity also will be accompanied by the proliferation of transnational virtual communities of interest, a trend which may complicate the ability of state and global institutions to generate internal consensus and enforce decisions and could even challenge their authority and legitimacy. Groups based on common religious, cultural, ethnic or other affiliations may be torn between their national loyalties and other identities. The potential is considerable for such groups to drive national and even global political decision making on a wide range of issues normally the purview of governments. (p. 77)

The internet, in particular, will spur the creation of global movements, which may emerge even more as a robust force in international affairs. For example, technology-enabled diaspora communications in native languages could lead to the preservation of language and culture in the face of widespread emigration and cultural change as well as the generation of political and economic power.  (p. 77)

If these forecasts are accurate, then affinity and affiliation may begin to have a more profound impact than we would anticipate. Some of the most common manifestations of these affiliations are found in arts and culture, recreational interests and entertainment. Those with shared interests are finding each other and forming virtual communities. Many of our professional sports teams have decided to form “nations” that cross the geographic boundaries of the typical fan base. But does this foreshadow something more profound?

We are witnessing the formation of communities that transcend traditional loyalties in national citizenship or political ideology resulting in increased regional and global tensions. This kind of realignment presents increasing challenges as relationships rooted in history, language and culture are no longer located geographically, but nurtured and developed globally through technology. If identity is no longer associated with lines on a map, but through affinity and affiliation, how will this impact our understanding of a society?

The news from Tunisia this week reminds us that the power of affiliation, supported by technology, can usher in more profound change than we can imagine.

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11 responses to “The Power of Affiliation”

  1. Jim Zaffiro says:

    Deep thanks to Mark for pointing us towards this vitally important, world-changing phenomenon. By 2020 we will be living in a transformed world, one way or another, for good or for ill.

    Many virtual communities of affinity and affiliation, especially the former, are already becoming powerful forces for positive global change…they are a rapidly growing, virtual and physical global social movement, in and of themselves.

    I highly recommend Paul Hawken’s book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World came into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming, (Viking, 2007).

    To convey the richness, serendipity, even stunning beauty of this emerging movement, and also to help it in its efforts to consciously self-organize and grow, Hawken also set up (World Index of Environmental and Social Responsibility).

    Hawken also devotes the last 100 pages of “Blessed Unrest” to sharing a constantly growing catalogue into the hundreds of thousands– perhaps over a million– organizations, movements, affiliations and affinity groups operating in these realms AND increasing finding each other and connecting, virtually, via the internet and social media technologies: joining forces for positive change (blessed unrest).

    A better world is emerging, at least in some pockets of “Blessed Unrest,” and any of us can be part of it: just “care, click, connect, and collaborate in creating a restorative, healing planetary community.

    • Retired faculty member says:

      I count myself as one who supports the evolving global communication, and I recognize that much of my professional work in the past 15 years has been possible only because of the existence of transnational communication and cooperation. Even so, I must admit to a certain amount of concern with the inherent errors of omission or commission which exist in many of the global communications which I see.
      Perhaps it is only the skepticism of one who has been traditionally educated in, and who has communicated primarily in the information of the sciences, but I am concerned about the factual errors that appear all too often in the web messages which I recieve and respond to. All communication is not equal, nor are all ideas. The question is, can unlimited freedom of expression retain the attributes of accuracy and reliability that we have valued and should continue to value? Do we know more and more about less and less until we finally know everything about nothing?

  2. Tom Iverson says:

    The number of communication lines have increased beyond imagination and more importantly the ease at which they can be used. As Jim has indicated, “the possibilty of a better world is available to us”. However, there always has to be one, who is communicating with whom? Is there communication occuring among those millions of groups or are they just talking within their own group. Putting it in very simple terms, do the fans on the Vikings communicate with the fans of the Besrs or they just talk to the fans of THEIR own team. How do guard against becoming a very tribal nation or world?
    As with anything new, we need to learn how to use it for positive outcomes and I am only putting up a red flag for us.
    Let’s make sure we do not lose the value of communicating directly with one another by talking (I hope that is not a unique idea) and realize we can learn from those for whom we do not have much affinity.

  3. Jeff Kisner, '77 says:

    Thanks, again, for another insightful piece, Mark. I’m troubled, and I suspect others in the Central-affiliated community are equally so, by the exponentially wider gap between those affiliated by www resources and those that are affiliated by poverty and other forms of marginalization. IMO, public policy debate must always first consider the impact of decisions on this sector of our planet. The gospel of the reign of God compels me to pose this question whenever we advocate particular legislation. Certainly, my alma mater has a stake in bridging the digitally-affiliated divide.

  4. Kelly Shaw, '88 says:

    The technological advances via the Internet are, indeed, amazing, and I look forward, with some hesitation, to what the future might bring. I am not, however, as optimistic as my former professor Jim Zaffiro, as I couldn’t help recall Thomas Friedman’s “flattening” thesis and the challenges that that such “flattening” brings to the United States, and the West.

    I, too, fear that the digital divide that Mr. Kinser mentions here is problematic, for it pits the “haves” vs. the “have nots” and further separates liberal democracies from those nations trying to “catch up.” Certainly, the Internet has been used to build communities and positive networks, but the anarchy that is the WWW can as easily be used to build communities opposed to “positive global change” as used to build positive affinity and affiliation.

  5. Kyle Eason, '89 says:

    Thanks, Mark! Second time reader, first time commentor.

    Insightful entry and comments all around. I don’t have much to add except to say that today at Denver’s annual MLK walk through the heart of the city there was a sizable and vocal contingent showing much concern and awareness about the situation in Tunisia. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Tunisian flag flown publicly until today. Perhaps this is one more example of heightened global awareness?

  6. I’m aligning somewhat with the fear factor today as NBC and Comcast get an OK to merge and net neutrality is undermined by corporate dominance. Money (power) and access are issues as we enter into this brave new world.

  7. Andy Thompson says:

    Net neutrality is one more way government will try to intervene to “control” the conversations we have and to somehow manage/manipulate commerce. Digital technology is altering the way we do everything; government likes predictability (read: the ability to control). The web has proven to be extremely liberating for millions around the globe. I think of China, Iran, Cuba and other places where governments could control the printing press and broadcast communications but somehow the internet finds a seam, and allows light to shine into the darkest corners of human existence.

    Freedom is a frightening thing to many of our existing institutions and interest groups. Would the NEA embrace the notion that digital learning via iPads and other tablets might mean fewer teachers but more engaged, turned on students?

    The internet is also utilized by our enemies, but that makes it even more important that we not cripple ourselves technologically in the process of trying to control the message and/or messenger.

  8. Jeff Japinga says:

    I share and commend many of the thoughtful reflections and questions offered by others, and add this one: how will, or should, all of these new, primarily electronically-developed affiliations impact on the historic affiliations of a person or institutions? When we “witness the formation of communities that transcend traditional loyalties,” does that say anything about or impact on those traditional loyalties, many of which have in some way profoundly shaped the identity of that person or institution? Here, I am thinking specifically about Central’s connection and affiliation with the Reformed Church in America (although it could be many other examples). I happen to highly value that connection, and think it’s important both for the church and for the college that it be maintained and strengthened. Is that connection replaced by new, more trendy affiliations, or are the new a value-added complement to the old? How do we understand the interplay of historic and innovative as we look to the future?

  9. Chris McMorran says:

    A lively and informed discussion like this makes me proud to be a Central alum (’95).

    I would like to add a few comments.

    First, I echo others who credit technologies with enabling me to do my job. I can conduct research on Japan and remain engaged with global scholarly debates, all while working in Singapore. How else could this be possible?

    However, I am troubled by some issues connected with the ways these new technologies organize our allegiances and our time.

    The first is a reaction to President Putnam’s question: “If identity is no longer associated with lines on a map, but through affinity and affiliation, how will this impact our understanding of a society?” I would argue that technology often enforces the lines on a map in troubling ways.

    The September 2010 arrest of a Chinese ship captain by the Japanese government, because of his proximity to a dot that falls on either side of each nation’s map, is just one example. The subsequent rhetoric on both sides showed that voices from the internet were often more impassioned and nationalistic than those of their governments. The vitriolic and anonymous language made possible by the internet enables the spread of falsehoods, inconsistencies, and hateful speech that should sadden us all. It also shows that nationalism is not dead and it shows no sign of weakening.

    On a similar but lighter note, I also worry that improved technologies forestall sincere attempts at cultural exchange, through their claims on our time. Central has reason to be proud of its study abroad programs. But I wonder how improved technologies impact the experience of studying abroad. One might anticipate the ability to keep in touch with new friends after the semester or year is finished. However, what of the experience itself? Lacking internet access in China in 1994, we rode our bicycles around the streets of Hangzhou or flew kites from the roof of our dormitory. We engaged with locals in simple conversations and met exchange students from African and Asian nations I couldn’t have found on a map. We went for long hikes, and sometimes we did blissfully nothing but sit and watch people. In hindsight, this latter “nothing” turned out to be my life’s calling.

    Would I have discovered this, or improved my Chinese, or played basketball with Chinese students if I had the technologies of today? How much time would I have spent updating my Facebook status, emailing my family, or catching up on U.S television programs? What would I have missed? Would I have learned as much respect for the Chinese and as much about myself without those hours doing things away from technology and away from the U.S.?

    College administrators and professors have expressed similar concern about students on campus. With a finite number of hours in a day, time spent calling home or updating one’s status directly impacts time that could be spent studying, not to mention getting to know classmates, professors and the local community. Does anyone at Central still take time to play an uninterrupted session of frisbee golf? I certainly hope so. (See this op-ed for a plea for college freshmen to “ditch your laptop”:

    My concern is that technology tends to solidify those allegiances we already have, and it distracts us from the potential relationships, experiences, and mutual understandings that are often only possible face to face and without technology.

    • Retired faculty member says:

      Chris raises several interesting questions, each of which causes us to assess how technologies may change or impact our affiliations over time.
      Time for reflection, bicycle rides and kite flying, and making friends with exchange students from other countries were and are important to all of us. It is important that students experience these types of informal, close personal contacts and affiliations with students from other cultures. It is certainly true that one cannot depend upon receiving these new relationships from most journalistic reports dealing with many of these diverse countries and cultures. Individual experience remains a necessity to understand different ideas and cultures.