SXSW Interactive 04

Exclusive Web-only 'Austin Chronicle' coverage of the wonks, the weekend, and the wilder side of cyberspace

Thinking, Writing, Moving, & Shaking

Ethan Watters talks about his book, Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment; geek guru Howard Rheingold talks about organizing on the move

Monday, March 15
When writer and journalist Ethan Watters heard sociologists, psychologists, and other academic types talking about the flaws of his generation, he began to wonder. According to old-school traditional thought, he should have been on the marriage track with a wife, kids, a mortgage, touching all the bases along the road to retirement in well-timed, consecutive order. But he wasn't, and he was happy. Should he be worried?

Watters decided he was just fine. But descriptions of his generation as a new generation of slackers didn't feel right. So, as a member of the creative class of San Francisco, he decided to research and write a book on the subject. His appearance at SXSW on Monday was an opportunity to talk about his book, offer reconsiderations since its publication in 2003, and hear reader reaction.

Watters' generation – roughly between the ages of 20 and 40 – shows a paradigm shift when compared to his parent's generation. His generation is likely to be unmarried longer, unlike his parents' generation, in which marriage happened young (and the divorce rate soared). Careers are not measured in the number of years to the proverbial gold watch, but in the jumps required to maintain active freelance work.

The most important aspect of his generation is a shift in definitions of family and community involvement, the main point of contention among social critics. Watters contends that since a member of his generation is more likely to be geographically remote from his or her nuclear family, social networks that are much more complex and layered than the days when dad joined the Elks Club or mom joined the League of Women Voters are necessary. Technology has made it possible to become linked to an ever-widening community that self-orders into concentric circles of friends, ties ("shadow," "weak," and others) that can expand or compress as needed. These Urban Tribes are linked by a common use of technology (text messaging, e-mail, uses of the Internet) that can communicate and come together as needed.

"What holds these social networks together are harder to see," Watters says. But the results of these self-organized networks appear in culture as the rave scene, critical mass bike rides, Friendster,, Flashmobs, and similar connections that result in a public display of community.

"On any given night, I can tap into a social network and drop myself in and feel connected," he said.

Of course, now that he's married and a father, this drop-everything-and-go behavior is not as easy, but is still an ongoing, vital means of navigating urban life to build supportive collectives.

end story

How well and to what extent collective action can be built is still unknown, according to Howard Rheingold. His Monday afternoon keynote, Mobile Communication, Pervasive Computing, and Collective Action, provided an opportunity for the sage to reiterate a common theme throughout the conference: themes he first wrote about in Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. In this highly regarded, 2-year-old book, he first introduced the idea of using technologies to "amplify human talents for cooperation." Text messaging, e-mail, and other technologies are used the world over to help people find each other, share information, and, as necessary, gather for social or political action. But, Rheinhold cautioned, along with the positive uses of technology is the opportunity for misuse or even ill will. Rheingold is the last person to suggest policing these technologies, preferring user vigilance to Big Brother crackdowns.

"The greater people understand what these dynamics are, the greater their hand will be in shaping these technologies," he said.

Though he was unable to reveal much about his current work in progress, he indicated it was a project that brings scientists together in an open source environment to share and develop research.

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