The theme has become something of a joke after the publicity given to the Atlantic's "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" article, but yesterday NPR offered another suspect for the death of civility. It asked, with a possibly winking headline, "As Headphones Invade The Office, Are We Lonelier?"
Headphones or earbuds are becoming common in the workplace. Not just for listening to music on a break, they allow people to tune out their co-workers all day long. But in many cases, those same co-workers are still communicating — online. ...
"We're getting used to a new way of being alone together," says Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She's concerned that all these snippets of information, texts and posts are connections, not conversations. She says technology is letting us hide from one another.
The horrified fascination with loneliness — when will Washington declare war on it? — goes back to the 2000 book Bowling Alone and has intensified with the greater use of smartphones, hook-up sites, iPads, Twitter, etc.
I'm not convinced that loneliness is on the rise. I suspect that it's always been pervasive in free societies (as opposed to places with arranged marriages and the like) and that we're just disappointed that we haven't figured out a way to eliminate it.
• Land use and transportation policies that encourage people to move farther away from jobs, families, and friends. Not everyone wants to live in Manhattan, but the high value of homes in walkable neighborhoods indicates a demand that isn't being met.
• Zoning laws and regulations that discourage "hangouts" like neighborhood bars, where previous generations socialized. (See yesterday's post on Boston nightlife.) Overhearing your co-workers' conversations with other people from 9 to 5 is not a substitute for unwinding with a beer after work.
• The changing nature of work, which now involves more short-term employment (less time to get to know co-workers) and more "farmed out" tasks. Here, technology is partly to blame. When I freelanced as an editor in the '90s, I almost always went to my employer's office; now I do everything via email. But cost-cutting — hiring freelancers rather than full-time workers with benefits, paying for an hour or two's work instead of a full day at a desk — also comes into play.
Given all these broad social changes, there's a blame-the-victim aspect to tsk-tsking when people embrace communication devices like smartphones. Yes, we've all done silly things like text someone in the next room, though I suspect a lot of this is done with a sense of playfulness rather than social phobia. (How is it different from leaving handwritten notes on a co-worker's desk or on your refrigerator at home?) But I doubt that the typical Facebook user is turning down dinner invites and snubbing neighbors in order to spend more time online. More often, Facebook is a tool for getting around the logistical problems that prevent us from connecting with people, if only on a brief and superficial level.
As I wrote last year ("Big shots who don't need social media don't understand why us nobodies use it"), there's a whiff of elitism when Fran Lebowitz and other people accustomed to sycophants look down on social media and new commuication technology.
Last year, I attended an NLGJA convention alone in a strange city (OK, Philadelphia's not that strange). I'm not great at socializing, so I might have spent a lot of time in my hotel room if not for the Facebook updates and Tweets from other conventiongoers seeking company at bars and restaurants. In my experience, the more "snippets of information," at the NPR story put it, the less lonely we get.
As for another complaint in the NPR story, that the typical work meeting has become a "parade of laptops" with no one paying attention, I raise the possibility that many conference-table confabs don't deserve attention. Before laptops and smartphones became ubiquitous, speakers were accustomed to captive audiences; now they have to engage listeners or lose them. I suppose that makes a lot of people's jobs harder, but it wasn't Facebook or the loneliness epidemic that made them boring.
UPDATE: Christopher Mims makes a similar argument to mine in "How Facebook Saved Us from Suburbia."
Humans are a social species, and we will use any outlet we're offered to connect with one another. Cultural shifts, the flight to the suburbs and our short-sighted investments in fossil-fuel based infrastructure put up barriers to social connections that we are only now coming to grips with. For all the hand-wringing over how we connect online, it's clear that the one unalloyed good social networks have accomplished is a net increase in our interdependence.