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Silly Techno-Bashers
If I hear one more person talk about how the technology is alienating all of us...! (Especially about how the Internet alienates us.) There couldn't be anything more ridiculous. If you're social, you're going to socialize. I've been socializing on the Internet since the early 90s when I met Marlon Brando, who became a friend, in a chat room on AOL, and my friends Terry Rossio (whose movie with an AOL acquaintance from those days, Bill Marsilli, just came out), and Melissa W., who posts here, and who also became my lawyer...and many, many others who are still in my real (non-virtual) life. I never would have met them without the Internet. Since the days of blogging, I've made many other friends -- blog friends first, and real life friends later -- and some people I consider good friends, but have never actually seen in person.

In keeping with this thinking, there's an piece by Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good For You, on Thomas Friedman's lament about our...sigh...disconnected society. Friedman had been riding in a car from Charles De Gaulle airport with a driver who talked on his mobile phone and simultaneously watched a movie on the dashboard for the entire trip. Friedman, on the other hand, was writing a column on his laptop and listening to his iPod. Oh, boohoo.

Johnson writes:

This is the lament of iPod Nation: we’ve built elaborate tools to connect us to our friends – and introduce us to strangers – who are spread across the planet, and at the same time, we’ve embraced technologies that help us block out the people we share physical space with, technologies that give us the warm cocoon of the personalized soundtrack. We wear white earbuds that announce to the world: whatever you’ve got to say, I can’t hear it.

Cities are naturally inclined to suffer disproportionately from these trends, since cities historically have produced public spaces where diverse perspectives can engage with each other – on sidewalks and subways, in bars and, yes, in taxicabs. Thirty years ago, the typical suburban commuter driving solo to work was already listening to his own private soundtrack on the car radio. (If anything, cell phones have made car-centric communities more social.) But for the classic vision of sidewalk urbanism articulated by Jane Jacobs, the activist and author, the bubble of permanent connectivity poses a real threat. There can be no Speaker’s Corner if everyone’s listening to his own private podcast.

I take these threats seriously, but let me suggest two reasons I am a bit less worried than Friedman is about the social disconnection of the connected age. One has to do with the past, the other the future.

First, there’s a tendency to sentimentalize the public spaces of traditional cities. More than a few commentators have remarked on the ubiquity of the white earbuds on the New York City subways as a sign of urban disconnection. (Steven Levy summarizes and rebuts these objections elegantly in his recent book “The Perfect Thing.”) I rode the subways for almost 15 years before Apple introduced the iPod, and I can say with confidence that the subway system, for all its merits, was not exactly a hotbed of civic discourse even then. On the good days, most everyone was engrossed in their newspaper or their book. (On bad days, we were just trying to steer clear of all the subway vigilantes.) Now at least we have an excuse for not talking to each other.

It’s telling that Friedman draws upon that very distinct form of social contact – the cabbie and the fare – since there are few other conventional urban situations that regularly produce substantive political conversation between strangers. The barstool conversation and the public hearing also come to mind, but I’m fairly sure the iPod hasn’t infiltrated those zones yet.

...So the idea that the new technology is pushing us away from the people sharing our local spaces is only half true. To be sure, iPods and mobile phones give us fewer opportunities to start conversations with people of different perspectives. But the Web gives us more of those opportunities, and for the most part, I think it gives us better opportunities. What it doesn’t directly provide is face-to-face connection. So the question becomes: how important is face-to-face? I don’t have a full answer to that – clearly it’s important, and clearly we lose something in the transition to increasingly virtual interactions.

But just as clearly, we gain. I think of the online debate over the Atlantic Yards project here in Brooklyn – hundreds of voices working through their differences in sometimes excruciating detail. I’ve made a few volleys in that debate, and while it’s true I haven’t had face-to-face encounters with the other participants, the intensity and depth of the discussion has been far greater than any conversation on any topic that I’ve ever had with a stranger on a subway. The conversations unfolding across these sites are, for the most part, marvelous examples of strangers exchanging ideas and values, even without the subtleties of facial expressions and vocal intonation, and the ideas and values they’re exchanging all eventually come back to a real-world place. Yes, they can sometimes get contentious. But so can Speaker’s Corner. Contentiousness is what it’s all about.

Posted by aalkon at November 30, 2006 11:13 AM

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I like the comment "a tendency to sentimentalize the public spaces of traditional cities."

Posted by: doombuggy at November 30, 2006 6:26 AM

I love technology! I also really enjoyed Johnson's book.

Um... if Friedman was so upset about not feeling connected to his cab driver, he could have, um, talked to him instead of working on his column? I bet the guy would have been less inclined to talk on his cell the whole time if Friedman had seemed like he was going to talk to the guy. (As for the movie being on, hasn't he ever heard of MST3K?)

Posted by: Melissa G at November 30, 2006 8:38 AM

My issue with cell phones is:

1) A lot of time the connection really sucks, and you can hardly hear each other. My life already provides enough "static";

2) I don't like being swept into someone's penchant for multi-tasking. If you're going to call me, sit the fuck down somewhere and focus on the call. I'm sick of getting these girl-on-the-go calls from my fag friends in Weho ("Oh, hi, I was just lying here getting my butt crack waxed in preparation for my interview with David Geffen tomorrow, and I just wanted to check in with you about how all of this is really making me feel.") Please. Alienate me.

Posted by: Lena at November 30, 2006 10:31 AM

Another thing that is missed by this piece seems to be the beneficial side of the ipod era - that for those of us who live in crowded urban areas, it's helpful to be able to psychologically isolate oneself from others. Because it's difficult to be physically separate, one way to get away from others is to listen to music on headphones. If one wishes to engage with others, technology can facilitate that as well, to the extent of the user's interest and efforts. Anyone who truly believes that technology isolates people in a negative way is of course free to put down the laptop, cell phone and ipod (and to miss calls, emails, and to listen to the ranting of the crazy people on the streets).

Posted by: justin case at November 30, 2006 10:31 AM

To back up your point, Amy, Technology doesn't isolate people; People isolate people!

Posted by: Jim McCarthy at November 30, 2006 1:51 PM

> I like the comment "a tendency to
> sentimentalize the public spaces
> of traditional cities."

Zactly - They used to do that for farms.

> If you're going to call me, sit the
> fuck down somewhere and focus
> on the call

Yes yes!

> my fag friends in Weho

It's also a problem with bulemic, bipolar never-marrieds from Noho.

> it's helpful to be able to psychologically
> isolate oneself

That too.

> People isolate people!


> talked to him instead of working

That's true, but I think this is one of those twisted American things. See "making friends" in this page (loads slowly):

Americans like to think they can become friends with anybody quickly. One of the ways they do this is by thinking that while we all have precious beliefs, one opinion's as good as another. I think this is all part of a corrupted appreciation of the Christian principle of turning the other cheek.

I *like* living alone in my mother's basement here, building model airplanes and watching daytime TV.

Posted by: Crid at November 30, 2006 3:39 PM

"it's difficult to be physically separate"

That's one of the reasons you'll almost never hear me complain about driving in LA. It's a great way to get some time alone, catch up on the news, and sing my lungs out to Madonna.

Posted by: Lena at November 30, 2006 8:30 PM

Oh, Jesus. That cabdriver probably wouldn't have spoken to him anyway, even without his gizmos. Those of us who don't feel like talking don't have to anymore. And no machine is gonna keep someone who actually wants to connect with another human being from connecting.

Posted by: Monica at November 30, 2006 8:39 PM

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