Saturday, January 22, 2011

In touch

While discussing the first chapter of Kevin Kelly's new book What Technology Wants with my senior seminar, we started talking about the well-worn topic Social Networking: Bane Or Boon?

A few days earlier, I had sat quietly fuming as the five dozen freshmen in our program fell all over themselves in an introductory class session to denounce Facebook and cyberspace in general as the root of all evil.  Not for themselves, mind you -- for their less enlightened peers, and especially for their younger siblings.  "I didn't get a cell phone until I was sixteen," one young man interjected, vis-a-vis the inappropriately early introduction of cell phones into the lives of the next generation.

I was amused -- the haphazard adoption of new communications technologies in the last decade thus being turned into ironclad and commonsense principles of The Way Things Should Be -- but also annoyed.  Never having not been connected, the eighteen-year-olds were disturbingly quick to identify connectness as the central problem of their time.

Kelly helped my seniors put it in perspective.  I paraphrase, not having the book in front of me: "At the exact moment when Americans were said to bowl alone, millions were gathering online."  I looked it up.  Sure enough, Putnam's famous essay is dated 1995, and what else was happening in 1995?  The World Wide Web was entering its adolescence, having come into the lives of the early adopters just a couple of years earlier.

I never fail to be astounded at how quickly the predictions of doom shift.  Fifteen years ago (and for the previous several decades), the ruination of American society was our increasing isolation from each other -- we sat before our TVs passively imbibing, amusing ourselves to death, building houses without front porches and cities without coffeeshops or gathering places.  Now the ruination of America is that we can't live without each other, that we communicate incessantly, that we are losing the ability to be alone, that we have way too much to say and feel entitled to be heard.

This afternoon I sat at the playground while my kids constructed two elaborate fantasy parks in turn -- one for each of them to run -- complete with tickets, attractions, rewards, challenges, and prizes -- and I knitted while occasionally making an observation on Twitter.  A thousand miles away, my husband was standing in line at a movie, making his own observations -- a conversation with our friends and acquaintances, tangentially directed at each other, in real time.  Between our tweets flowed the observations, news, appeals, jokes, items of interest, and other ephemera of the conversations we've each chosen to listen in on -- some people we know, some we simply find enlightening.  We are connected.  Being connected, we are presented with opportunities to care, to touch, to help, to encourage, to critique.  Is this not exactly what the doomsayers of the previous generation felt was slipping away forever?

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