Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Twin Oaks & Television

I have a three-lettered acronym that comes in handy as a process consultant: OBE. (No, it doesn’t mean Order of the British Empire, though that’s a useful bit of crossword trivia.) In my argot, it means “overtaken by events.” I use it to describe situations that are difficult to resolve, yet which become moot when circumstances shift.

For example, learning how to type accurately was an important secretarial skill when people relied on the technology of mimeograph machines to create inexpensive copies (it was an absolute booger correcting mistakes on a stencil, necessitating costly delays). Today, in the era of high-speed photocopiers, no one uses stencils. With computer word processing and inexpensive printers, it’s no big deal to rework a document and crank out a fresh original if someone discovers a typo. Although it’s more important today that everyone learns to type—it’s hard to imagine functioning without email or access to the Web—the need to type accurately is largely OBE.

In general, people live in intentional communities with the purpose of altering their lifestyles to something more in line with their values than they can readily find among mainstream options. It’s what makes them “intentional.” While communities vary substantially in where they draw their lines, for the purpose of this article I want to focus on the history of television at Twin Oaks, which is a well-established income-sharing community in central Virginia that celebrated its 41st anniversary last June. Twin Oaks members have always been deliberate about how much they let outside culture seep into their environment, and yet the floodgates are never closed completely.

Last August I was at the community to participate in their annual Communities Conference, affording me an occasion to visit with long-time friend Valerie Renwick (an Oaker since 1992). I asked her, as friends will do, what was happening at the community these days. Among other things, she gave me a thoughtful reply about their evolving relationship with outside media.
Like a number of communities trying to create alternative culture, there has traditionally been a lively debate at Twin Oaks about the evils of television. In its early years, the community simply didn’t allow one on the property—it was viewed as too large a conduit for promotion of the kind of values the community was trying to be an alternative to, such as manufactured demand, violence, vapid dialog, materialism, and social isolation (ever try to have a meaningful conversation in the same room with an active television?). While most people will admit that television occasionally offers programs of value, on the whole this was felt to happen not nearly enough to justify all the other crap that would come through the transom. It was an interesting line to draw. While magazine subscriptions went uncensored and there was no attempt to limit radio reception, TV was banned as too insidious.

[As a long-time member of Sandhill Farm, another egalitarian community, I am highly sympathetic to this debate. We’re a 34-year-old group and have never owned a television. Just ask my kids how weird that was. Now both adults, there were careful when growing up about how much they shared of their Sandhill upbringing with their peers. How would they explain no TV? And while I have an excellent relationship with both of my kids today, and visit them frequently, both also own large, flat screen TVs.]

Sometime in the 80s—when Twin Oaks had about two decades under its belt—the community was anonymously gifted a large screen television, and the community accepted. (There was an intriguing rumor that the donor was none other than B.F. Skinner, the Harvard psychologist whose Utopian novel Walden Two inspired the creation of Twin Oaks. It was purported that Skinner offered the television as an educational enhancement, and I never learned if this story were true or apocryphal.) While some Cassandras descried it as a Trojan Horse, the community (after considerable debate) decided it could benefit from the television recreationally. It cleverly disabled the tuner, rendering the unit useful only for showing videocassettes. These had become popular by that time and it would be much cheaper to bring videos home than to watch discretionary funds be eaten up by trips to area movie theaters.

The movies shown had to be vetted for acceptable values, and screenings took place only on certain evenings. For the most part, this middle-ground position has worked well and the practice continues today. Technology, however, as it is wont to do, kept evolving and the equation got considerable more complex with the advent of personal computers and miniature televisions.
While the community kept pace with the Information Age by providing an increasing number of computers available for member use in public space, it was inevitable that machines would start moving into people’s private rooms, where there was unfettered access to the cornucopia of information and visual stimulation of the World Wide Web. Today, publicly shown movies are still screened for appropriateness, yet there is no control whatsoever about what members are watching in their own rooms. Valerie remarked to me on her uneasiness with this erosion in the community’s control of cultural influences.

A particularly poignant event occurred in the late 90s that highlights the emotional flaring that’s possible when values and technology collide. I want to tell the story of my eponymous friends Dale and Fulano.

[While “Fulano” is not in my normal pantheon of androgynous pseudonyms, I’ve selected it here because it was a distinctive favorite of my recently deceased friend and Twin Oaks founder, Kat Kinkade. Kat, this bud’s for you!]

Though neither lives in the community today, they were both well-established members at the time of this incident. Dale was mild-mannered, yet highly principled. Fulano was creative and fun loving. Both were seen as upstanding community members.

It happened one day that Fulano was discovered to have smuggled a small television into his bedroom. While clearly against the community norms, he figured no one would notice and what harm was he causing anyway? He was just quietly watching movies in his own room. Dale was pissed by this flaunting of community norms and Fulano’s apparent insensitivity to the community’s carefully worked position regarding how much mainstream culture was allowed to permeate the community’s cultural membrane.

While Fulano was promptly asked to remove the television (and did so), Dale still seethed and was contemplating what he felt might be appropriate consequences for this flagrant violation of agreements. At this critical juncture (are there ever any accidents?), it came out that Dale, a devoted Trekkie, had occasionally been secretly entering the community’s public television space after hours and privately watching videos of Star Trek, the Next Generation. Oops. You might say Dale was hoisted by his own Picard.

In the ensuing decade, personal computers have gradually become a normal feature in members’ rooms at Twin Oaks. It’s a done deal. Aided by community-wide wireless hubs, people have Internet access in their own bedrooms. While private televisions are still outlawed, who cares? It was this back door development that Valerie was unhappy about.

Today, Twin Oakers, like a lot of us, still wrestle with questions about what constitutes healthy culture and how to manifest it. That said, concerns over how much someone is watching Jean Luc outwit aliens is OBE. Just do it in your own room.

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