The managers of AVnet, Auroville's intranet or electronic internal communication network, talk about its possibilities and the challenges they face.
In the early 1990s, a few of our far-sighted ‘techies', like Ulli and Theo, felt the time was ripe for a major step forward in communication. By 1990 there were already 200 phone connections and more and more Aurovilians had access to computers, so the idea was to link these computers through the phone lines in order to create an electronic Bulletin Board System (BBS). A BBS, among other things, enables users to communicate on-line, to send emails, to hold referenda and polls, and to form groups to exchange information and discuss issues. In other words, it has the potential to dramatically enhance the community's communication possibilities.
Unfortunately, the first Auroville BBS that was launched in 1994 was not a success due to the poor quality of the internal phone lines. Following the installation of a new electronic telephone exchange, an improved version was made available in October, 1995. While the user interface left much to be desired, this version proved more popular, particularly for emailing: by 1998, 6000 emails a week were being sent from Auroville to the outside world and many more were zinging between Aurovilians. This fulfilled one of the original intentions – to dramatically improve communication within Auroville and with the larger world – but certain potentialities of the system remained untapped. For example, hardly anybody was using the polling facilities to assess the ‘mood of the house'. This was the more surprising as by 1998 450 people were using the system (which was now called AVnet) and there was a groundswell of deep dissatisfaction in the community with our conventional meetings.
In May, 2000, Manoj decided to kick-start the discussion and interactive possibilities of AVnet by launching Pulse. This was a monthly question to which people were invited to respond electronically. (For the record, the first two questions were “Should Auroville organize exhibitions outside Auroville?” and “Should an entry fee be levied to visit Matrimandir to cover the costs of adequate visitors' facilities?” 65 people responded to the first question, 123 to the second.) Subsequently, Manoj was invited to design the first fully interactive version of AVnet, allowing participants to respond to postings, and this premiered on 1st January, 2002 . A second version followed in September, 2003. “Since then,” he explains, “it has undergone constant modification.”
Today, more than 1,000 people are registered on AVnet, of which about 90% are Aurovilians. The possibilities and offerings provided by AVnet have also expanded. They include announcements, meeting reports, newsletters, an event calendar, access to the Financial Service and the library catalogue, diary (for personal sharing), bazaar (the electronic market-place), archives of important reference material (like the Auroville Foundation Act and the mandates of various Work Groups), private spaces for Work Group communication and discussion, common interest forums and City Express (an open space for comment and discussion). You can even access the weather report and world news headlines. It has to be said, however, that some of the possibilities – like the opportunity for Work Groups to hold discussions and share material on-line – remain vastly underutilised.
The proponents of the original BBS were clear about their intentions. They wanted to improve communication but, beyond that, they saw it as a means to strengthen community and increase collective participation in decision-making. How far have these aims been fulfilled? “I know,” says Manoj, “that people like Ulli, who was instrumental in the development of this electronic network, are disappointed that AVnet has not done more for community-building and collective decision-making. However, when the first interactive site was launched in 2002, I made a personal projection that 2007 would be the turning-point for this medium to become the vehicle for community decision-making. Now we are at a crucial moment because we have reached a critical mass – on average, 190 people visit the site every day – and awareness is growing of its possibilities while, at the same time, the physical Residents Assemblies are becoming obsolete due to lack of participation. What is missing at the moment is the knowledge of how to go about defining the next step. But I think it is only a matter of time before we have an on-line Residents Assembly. After all, at present AVnet is the only daily forum for public exchange and discussion in the community.”
Not a safe space
However, one of the problems is that the main site on AVnet for community discussion – City Express – is not perceived by many as a safe or interesting space to air one's views as some of the postings and comments are overly aggressive or puerile. “The problem with City Express at present,” explains Manoj, “is that it has a dual function and these functions clash with each other. There is information-sharing, which could be the basis for discussion and decision-making, but it also operates as a kind of psychological safety-valve for those people who, for one reason or another, feel frustrated and angry.” “And this mixture is what often happens in our General Meetings,” adds Annemarie who, along with Manoj, manages AVnet, “so in this AVnet is mirroring the mental and vital atmosphere of the community.”
“Clearly,” says Manoj, “there is a need for a space where focussed discussion and decision-making can take place and a space for releasing pent-up tensions, but we will have to find a way to segregate them.” This raises a tricky issue. Does AVnet need some kind of central, top-down control to ensure that sites like City Express operate well? Annemarie and Manoj shake their heads. “AVnet is fundamentally different from other websites where the information is put out by a selected group of people who choose what others should know,” explains Manoj. “AVnet is a vessel which merely holds what comes into it, and structures and processes it so that it's easy to understand what has been communicated. As managers of AVnet we create new possibilities – like the possibility for Work Groups to have their own on-line space – and then we see if they correspond to an actual need. If they don't, we take them out and try something else. But there's no coercion. I see AVnet primarily as a tool for the collective to organize itself in a situation where there is no overall command and control structure. The network is like the nervous system and the software is the brain which organizes whatever data comes in. The community can then reflect upon this and evolve its own organization.”
“Regarding City Express,” adds Annemarie, “we do have some ‘Rules of the Game'. They include an agreement not to publish false, unsupported or deliberately partial information, slander and gossip, anything commenting on national or international politics, and any derogatory statement about someone's nationality or religion. If somebody contravenes them, we quietly point this out and this is generally enough. We also introduced a rating system which allows people to rate contributions and feedback to City Express on a 1-5 scale. The rating for one article may not be significant, but now we have summarised the ratings people received over a two year period and this gives some very interesting information!” “What we've noticed,” adds Manoj, “is that people tend to rate contributions either 1 or 5. In other words, it's clear that the responses are from the vital with its strong likes and dislikes. Still, the two year results are a good indication of what people feel about the postings of regular contributors.”
Actually, just as happens in Residents Assembly meetings, City Express tends to be dominated by a few voices, and the PULSE questions receive, on average, no more than 60 responses. And even if 190 people are accessing AVnet daily, many of these may be using it for financial transactions rather than on-line discussion. So can one really talk about an on-line community? “Certainly,” says Manoj, “for those who visit regularly, the sense of on-line community is very strong. And even if most people are passive witnesses, they represent a power. What is happening now is that a few individuals choose to post on City Express because they know they have this big audience. This can be addictive and serve purely personal ends. But if the posting is a challenge to a Work Group to be more transparent in sharing information, the presence of this silent majority puts pressure on that Work Group to respond.”
At the same time, Manoj agrees that the biggest challenge at present lies in empowering this silent on-line majority and getting them to express themselves. “There's a default setting in this community, an unconscious habit, which assumes that if there is a problem somebody else will clean it up. It also has to be acknowledged that AVnet is different from other media where you can publish and be relatively insulated from people's responses. Here you are exposed to the feedback straight away, and if it is negative this can be very uncomfortable. I think a new generation is coming up that can separate out the junk and negativity and not allow it to affect them, but I've had to make an effort to face it and learn from it, to make dealing with my ego-reaction a part of my growth. Of course, on a collective level it would be wonderful if everybody expressed themselves in a harmonious and civilized manner, but this is still a dream. So if individuals are willing to take the step to publicly say they agree or disagree with something or somebody they should have some kind of protection. For example, if a contributor doesn't want to see feedback from a particular person, or doesn't want to receive any feedback at all to a posting, this should be possible. This is essentially a software development challenge.”
The question remains: does the fact that more people are not actively using AVnet represent merely a software challenge, or does it reflect a deeper problem within the community regarding how we relate to each other? In 1993, Ulli expressed his hopes like this. “Community needs to happen on two levels: on the practical, physical level and on the larger, inner level which is very difficult to grasp. But I think that once we have created the material basis for community through tools like the Bulletin Board, the other level will be able to evolve and express itself.” Today this sounds over-simplistic. For while AVnet is potentially a superb vehicle for exchanging information and just keeping in touch, it has also exposed and even amplified the many cracks and dysfunctionalities in our community. No doubt, a safer electronic environment can nudge us on our way. But if AVnet is truly to foster community rather than fragment it further, it seems the change will first have to happen within each of us. Only then, perhaps, can we look forward to a radically different kind of communication: one based on authenticity rather than the play of the ego, on the recognition of our inner oneness rather than a fixation on outer differences.