Bowling Alone

It's warm. Our heat index is somewhere in the upper nineties and I's not even reached the hottest part of the day. A good thing to do on a day like today is to sit; relax, rest, do that which requires almost no physical movement at all. The best part about this is that while you sit, you can also read.??

That's right. There's no better opportunity for some cognitive stimulation than when it's 90+ outside (and perhaps inside for those unfortunate souls without air conditioning).??

I've taken this opportunity to read a 1995 work from Robert Putnam called "Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strage Disappearance of Social Capital in America". This lecture was actually a precursor to a book Putnam later wrote called Bowling Alone. His work seeks to identify the factors that are responsible for the significant decline in social capital in America.??

He identifies social capital as the civic "engagement in community affairs" (p. 664), or the networks created by the engagement in groups or possibly created for specific purposes or to achieve a goal. This social interaction produces a civic efficacy that leads to a more productive civic body; Putnam concludes with a quote from his predecessor, Ithiel de Sola Pool, stating that the decline, caused by technology, "will promote individualism and will make it harder, not easier, to govern and organize a coherent society."

The question that struck me comes from his assertion that technology will reinforce a generational trend that has produced a society very detached from each other. I question, "How can the socially charged, connection-dependent technology of today – becoming increasingly ubiquitous – be responsible for continuing a trend toward individualism and a decline in social capital?"

First, some observations. Recent elections, national and state, have produced results that do not demonstrate a significant degree of disparity between candidates. Runoff elections, manually recounting ballots, and elections in which official's seats remain unfilled due to the prolonged nature of elections that are essentially 50-50 suggest a trend that Putnam was getting after. In teaching social studies to high school students, I have proposed this inquiry as a public policy issue. What does it mean when popular elections fail to choose a candidate? Is it because the candidates have attributes that are equally appealing across ideologies? Or, rather, is it suggestive of the apathetic nature of the civic body? With a population that has become disengaged civically, elections (regardless of how many people actually vote) become a coin-toss. See John Stossel's 20/20 report on why it may be unfruitful for some to vote.

The trend identified by Putnam pointed to the television as the single most responsible culprit in causing the loss of social capital. Television, as a technology, has forever changed society in many ways, particularly through the mass communication mode. It is responsible for delivering the realities of a distant war in Vietnam and for demonstrating the power of intellectual achievements when the approximately 600 million people around the world watched Niel Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin dance on the Moon. Can television really have also caused the disengagement of citizens from their civic nature?

Putnam's arguments are compelling, specifically his assertions regarding the role of television on time displacement (time spent watching TV is irrevocably removed from the available 24 hours of the day) and the effects on children (TV consumes as much time as all other discretionary activities combined, effectively de-socializing youth).

However, the question remains, "What about the technologies we enjoy today?" Certainly these technologies cannot be compared to the "brain-drain" nature of the TV. Putnam suggested that the current social capital "low" is a generational effect??caused by television. There is no way to alter or counter such a significant social change or development. This suggests that it will be a half century before the current generation imprinted with current socially-driven technologies can counter this effect. However, are we sure that this generation of youths, the Y-Generation??(weird calling them that, because I don't get much inquiry from them in the classroom…) are using the technology in a way that will produce an increase in social capital? I am not so sure that the social nature of the technology they use is inherently creating a more engaged civic body.??

This opens up opportunities for further research to see what conclusions, if any, have been made regarding a generational shift back toward civic engagement due in part to social technologies. Keith Hampton from MIT, along with Barry Wellman from the University of Toronto, has attempted to tackle this very question. In his publication, "Neighboring in Netville" (2003), Hampton concluded that a wired, "always-on" community demonstrated a reversal of the trend observed by Putnam and "intensified the volume and range of neighborly relations" (p.305).??

Much has changed since 2003. A major shift in the community nature of social networking sites has exponentially increased the contacts we have. These may or may not be substantive affiliations, but they do speak to the work to be done in analyzing the impact of technology in society.??
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One comment on “Bowling Alone
  1. Anne Bruce says:

    Personally I don’t think that the technology of today is directly leading us towards individualism, but indirectly through pitting us against each other through competition and "one-upance". It’s all about who’s technology is better, and what they can do with it. For instance a social group bound by a common connection such as family ties, or employment can suddenly feel at odds with one another just by simply revealing who their cell phone carriers are, or by whether or not they prefer to "Tweet" or update via Facebook, or if they use (God forbid) Myspace. Does it really matter that I’m a PC and you, my dear brother, prefer a MAC? Are we at odds because I have a Droid phone through Verizon and you own an iPhone run through AT&T? I think the companies that promote those gadgets would like us to feel that is so.

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