Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Community Died Long Before Smartphones

Baby boomers and older are quick to claim that smartphones and social media are killing off interpersonal interactions. They waste no opportunity to criticize.

Younger generations might say that smart phones and social media are giving us a community we never had.

Vibrant, local communities with lots of interpersonal interaction--always a mainstay in human culture--died in America long before smartphones and social media.
When my mom was growing up, kids played freely in the neighborhood and families sat on front porches and talked. It would take my grandmother all afternoon just to walk a couple blocks to the local store, because she would stop and talk with folks on their porches the whole way there and back.

My parents could "remember a time" when folks lived like that. Gen X and younger have never known that time. My generation has been starved for community and has been working overdrive to rediscover it. Folks are reclaiming walkable urban areas, experimenting with intentional living arrangements and building tiny houses. There are all manner of efforts afoot.

When my grandparents were young, it was customary to spend weekends going to dances with live bands. Today, many young people are locked in the loneliness of their homes watching Dancing with the Stars. This changed long before smart phones and social media.

Television, air conditioning and other technological "advances" have destroyed community. People willingly imprison themselves in their own homes, not talking to (or even knowing) their neighbors, each person engaged in her or his own private form of entertainment. People would rather buy their own books than use public libraries. They would rather build and maintain their own private swimming pool than use a community pool. A home owner will purchase his own lawnmower, even though he'll use it at most one hour each week in the summer. Having anything at all shared in common elicits a response of revulsion from most Americans.
My grandparents were farmers in Ohio. They lived near other farmers. No single family owned all the necessary farming equipment. A group of families shared with each other and had to (gasp!) communicate so that it could be properly scheduled and maintained. Each piece of equipment was needed for only a small window of time each year, so each item could be rotated between them as needed.

I drive a lot through the South. Almost every house is decked out with a ginormous, wide-open porch--some porches have almost as much square footage as the adjoining house itself. Yet, I have never seen a single person actually using any of them. At one time, people depended on porches to survive blisteringly hot summer days and for community interaction. Those porches were abandoned long before smartphones and social media.

I was at a Cracker Barrel restaurant with my family this past summer.  It was a scortchingly hot day.  It was almost unbearable directly under the sun in the parking lot. On the way out, we decided to occupy a row of rocking chairs on the spacious porch. With a gentle breeze, it was quite nice. We could have sat out there all day talking without being the least bit uncomfortable. It's not that A/C hassaved us, it's that we forgot how to survive without it.

You can complain that young kids are constantly attached to their smart phones. But you might be better served asking why their lives are so deprived of human interaction that they have been sucked into the internet so strongly. Drive through most US suburbs, cities and small towns, you won't see kids playing in the yards, families talking on porches or town folk gathering for public entertainment. This is completely antithetical to how humans have always lived. Children grow up desperately lonely and disconnected from others. Along comes the internet and suddenly they can be plugged in to people all over. Can we blame them? Then yes, over time, they lose (or never develop) the skills at interpersonal interaction.
If you never practice interpersonal socializing, then you don't develop the skill. My grandparents on both sides could strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere. Yet, I rarely talk to strangers when I'm out in public. However, when spending significant time with my extended family, I find myself getting into this mode, and it feels good.  It is something that is natural to humans, but it has to be practiced to be maintained. I suspect that people today reach for smartphones and social media to fill a void, and then once there they lose the ability to interact with those around them. It then becomes a downward spiral and we move further and further away from what we most desperately need.

I remember when the power went out for several days after a storm. Folks emerged from their houses and began talking over backyard fences. They shared ideas and helped each other out. Their TVs were out cold and they were hungry for human interaction. The first fledgling attempts at neighborliness were budding, and we pledged to keep it going long into the future. However, when the power came back on, these efforts died out quickly and never returned. This was long before social media and smart phones.
If we are going to reclaim interpersonal community interactions, we have to go back a lot further than smart phones and social media. Instead do what people have long advocated for:  Throw out the TV and other technological "advances" that coax us into being so isolated.  Smartphones and social media addiction is perhaps not the cause of isolation, but perhaps a symptom in response to it.

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