A woman who had been living in a quiet Pontiac-Michigan neighborhood was recently found dead in her garage. Her body had mummified. She had been dead for six years! In other words, for six years this woman had not been seen or even glimpsed of and no one had taken notice. For six years this woman’s mail had been piling up at the post office and no one had taken notice. For six years this woman had not filed a tax return and no one had taken notice. For six years this woman’s yard had been left fallow and no one had taken notice. For six years this woman had not turned on a light and no one had taken notice. Only when Pia Farrenkopf’s bank account finally ran dry, and certain parties no longer received their automatic payments, did anyone take notice.
An extreme example, for sure, but does it not serve to make a fair point? Are we not becoming a nation of strangers? Are we not becoming ever more separated and alienated from each other? Are we not looking after each other less and less? Are we not increasingly going it alone? And is not technology a big part of the problem?
Take, for example, the Internet – texting, friending, liking, tweeting, instagramming, surfing, snapchatting. Do these technology-enabled activities tend to foster rich, meaningful relationships, or do they do the opposite? Take the ATM and online banking. Because of these two conveniences, we don’t know anybody at our bank. We can’t call Shirley three minutes before closing on a Friday afternoon and ask her to cover an inadvertent overdraw for us. Because of Amazon.com, we don’t know anybody at the mom-and-pop bookstore on Sycamore, and they don’t know us, or what we like to read, and so we can’t talk books and ideas or about each other’s latest bout with shingles. Because of there being a TV in every bedroom, we don’t watch the same programs as families, or build the same pop-cultural references, so we have that much less in common to share and discuss and build memories on. Because of GPS, we no longer get lost and experience chance meetings or serendipitous discoveries.
And then there is individualized music and games in the SUV, instead of group discovery and conversation. And then there is computer-based instruction instead of classroom interaction. And then there are self-service checkouts. And then…
In 1950, David Reisman (a sociologist) publish The Lonely Crowd, which identifies and analyzes the loss of social cohesion which was evident almost seventy years ago. As you point out, it is now far worse.
Yes, yes, yes! I think about the deleterious effects of our digital “relationships” every day. I remember, for instance, the deep pleasure and bonding when I went to our neighbors’ house as a kid and we all (grown-ups and children) sat in the same (darkened) room to watch TV. And the difference between watching a movie in a theater and watching it all by yourself on your personal electronic device is huge. (But it makes watching the movie more like reading — so what does that imply?)
I try to build in as many face-to-face rencounters as I can. And I’m trying to make more phone calls instead of sending email.