The Digital Cathedral in the Age of Democratic Sustainability

How can the digital revolution and the new social media it has spawned nurture the development of democratic sustainability? By democratic sustainability I mean a social and political process that engages citizens as active agents of social change in the complex task of balancing economic prosperity, effective environmental stewardship, and social justice. As Paul Hawken notes in Blessed Unrest, the democratic sustainability movement has emerged “from the bottom up,” becoming “the largest social movement in all of human history.” It “grows and spreads in every city and country,” writes Hawken, “and involves virtually every tribe, culture, language, and religion, from Mongolians to Uzbeks to Tamils.”

Moving toward democratic sustainability has less to do with technology than a massive change in human consciousness, one that encourages systems thinking and transforms the relations of people to each other and to natural world. Nonetheless, tools are necessary to facilitate this task, and the rise of the Internet and digital technology has provided us with new and potent means to do so. As Hawken observes, “There have always been networks of powerful people, but until recently it has never been possible for the entire world to be connected.” Even as we acknowledge the “other side” of the Internet—its potential to splinter thought and concentration, take time away from reflection, and exacerbate a growing nature-deficit-disorder among youth—its unprecedented ability to construct global movements beckons.

Community is the essential concept underpinning sustainability. Whether an ecosystem or social system, the dynamics of interconnectedness and interdependence are what make growth and health possible. In medieval society, the cathedral embodied this understanding of what was known at the time as the “Great Chain of Being.” An awe-inspiring structure, the cathedral by its physical presence affirmed the vertical hierarchy that held medieval society together, and its construction gave individuals in the community a clear and compelling sense of their place in the world and the links that bound them to each other. “Building a cathedral,” says Robert Scott in The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral, “entailed an ongoing, difficult, yet energizing form of collective enterprise in which people could take enormous pride and around which they could rally a community.”

In the 21st century, instead of the Great Chain of Being, the World Wide Web is the predominant social metaphor. We are moving, as Thomas Friedman puts it in The World is Flat, “from a primarily vertical (command-and-control) value-creation model to an increasingly horizontal (connect-and-collaborate) creation model”. We have yet to discover, however, the digital equivalent of the cathedral-building experience. Although organized along a different axis, we still need “an instrument for creating, strengthening, and extending forms of communitas,” says Scott, if we hope to create a sustainable civilization.

Note: To read the complete article see “The Digital Cathedral in the Age of Democratic Sustainability,” Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments, no. 25 (Spring/Summer 2010): 208-15.

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