by James Wallace Harris
Today we like each other by clicking a Facebook icon and share by inviting others to view images and videos that trigger our strong emotions. Oh, we still share by getting together for an activity or like each other with hugs and kisses, but it seems less often, doesn’t it?
In David Brooks’ latest column at The New York Times he says:
When communication styles change, so do people. In 1982, the scholar Walter Ong described the way, centuries ago, a shift from an oral to a printed culture transformed human consciousness. Once, storytelling was a shared experience, with emphasis on proverb, parable and myth. With the onset of the printing press it became a more private experience, the content of that storytelling more realistic and linear. As L.M. Sacasas argues in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, the shift from printed to electronic communication is similarly consequential. I would say the big difference is this: Attention and affection have gone from being private bonds to being publicly traded goods. That is, up until recently most of the attention a person received came from family and friends and was pretty stable. But now most of the attention a person receives can come from far and wide and is tremendously volatile.
In primitive societies, whole groups would live in one big room. Over time families moved into their own separate dwellings, but often were multigenerational. Then we invented the nuclear family. And now people often live alone in apartments. We connect by computers to create virtual social bonds. It’s kind of weird when you think about it.
This also reminds of the classic 1909 science fiction story by E. M. Forster called “The Machine Stops.” Eighty years before the WWW Forster imagined humans ultimately living alone in rooms connected to each other by a machine. Read this story, it will amaze you.
These trends sound like a sad progression of human evolution, but I believe there are reasons why we’ve chosen our paths. Primitive people worked together with a common goal of survival. Everyone had to contribute. The same was true to a lesser degree during the era of multigenerational families. Even during the early era of nuclear families, we had much to keep us together. But once everyone had a different job that took them into a different direction, and we developed our own personal interests and goals, things came apart. Even as late as the 1950s and 1960s families still had a lot of shared experiences. With only one television parents and kids would gather around it in the evenings. They ate their dinners together while watching Ed Sullivan or Lassie. Kids would go to school, and parents would go to work, but they still found countless shared interests to spend time together.
What separated me from my family in 1962 was a clock radio. But also my father worked two jobs and my mother one, so they disappeared for most of the day. Yet, when they were home, I began retreating to my room to listen to Top 40 Rock ‘n’ Roll and reading science fiction while they watched The Beverly Hillbillies with my sister.
Brooks dates our divergence with the computer, but I think it came earlier with other technologies. When I got that clock radio and my sister got a portable record player we went our different ways. By the 1970s many families had multiple television sets, so each family member took to their separate rooms to watch only what they loved. We stopped making the effort to sit through shows other people loved. In the 1980s personal computers came out and we divided again. Walkmans, MP3 players, audiobooks, tablets, smartphones, they’ve all given us ways to isolate ourselves into pursing highly unique art forms.
Think about all the interests and hobbies that only you love. Above is a photo of what currently separates me from other people. My fascination with reading old science fiction short stories and studying their history culls me off from the rest of humanity. By Brooks’ distinction, I’m defined by both print and digital technologies, but I also love hearing these stories read by professional narrators, so that connects me with an oral tradition too. But when I listen, I’m wearing headphones that shut me off from the rest of reality, although I’d love to know someone who’d like to listen to the stories with me.
When Susan, my wife comes home from work we sometimes eat together, and sometimes not. We faithfully watch the NBC Nightly News and Jeopardy that we recorded on our TiVo, and then she goes to the living room to watch her shows and I stay in the den to watch mine. We got married in 1978, and through 2008, we had one television set, and we’d watched the same shows together every night.
In 2008 Susan took a job out of town, and for ten years we watched television separately and we learned exactly the kind of TV that resonated with our personalities. I developed a number of friends who came over to watch TV with me, and I learned that friendship was a VENN diagram of shared TV shows. No two people have exact tastes. When Susan moved back permanently last year she brought her own TV, so we had two. We also had two Rokus, and subscriptions to several streaming TV services that allowed us to watch exactly what we want to watch when we wanted to watch. We had also learned to binge-watch different kinds of shows. Taste in TV now separates us.
We do find other ways to share. We’ve been doing game nights with friends. Last night was a game night, and the four of us all talked about the TV shows we watched. It was kind of funny because our tastes overlapped in various combinations. If I wanted companionship to watch my TV shows, I might need to call a dozen different people, and some nights I’d still be watching TV alone.
When TV was broadcast, most of my friends watched the same shows. Now with over 500 scripted TV shows being produced every year, friends connect by the few unique shows we each share a love to watch. And I often feel I disappoint people when I tell them I don’t like the shows they love. It was damn surprising how much The Game of Thrones united people.
I really enjoy having friends over to watch shows together, but that seldom happens anymore. For ten years my TV buddy Janis and I shared a love of several shows and we’d get together and watch them 3-4 times a week. But Janis has moved to Mexico, and most of my other friends don’t want to come over to watch TV that regularly.
I have a handful of internet friends who also love the old science fiction anthologies, and we have a group email address we use to discuss them. I’m also in two online book clubs where we discuss books daily by email. I guess these replace my water cooler friends from my work days.
Facebook is constantly attacked in the news nowadays, but it’s a very useful tool for keeping up with family and friends. Knowing that someone else likes the same cat videos as I do is nice. Not much of a bond, but at least it’s a shared affinity. What really bonds people is raising a family or a career that forces you to work intimately with other people. Susan and I never had kids, and my work days are over. My friend Mike and I work on a computer/web project together, and that’s a great way to connect.
It’s funny, but I think the single thing that brings me and my friends together now is our collective worry about getting old, and our constant talk of bodily functions. Nothing bonds aging baby boomers like a conversation about constipation.
Lately, I’ve wondered about retirement villages. Would moving to a 55+ community would create new kinds of social bonds? I’ve wondered if it would create the social structures I had back in my K-12 years. Would playing Pickleball and Four Square everyday undo all the specialized isolation that TV and computers created? Who knows, maybe I could find other people to watch Perry Mason, or even share a love of 1950s science fiction like these guys:
7 thoughts on “Like and Sharing Society”
Most people seem to be adapting. Face to face interaction was always a mixed bag. Communicating digitally gives you control. The power to ignore people who annoy you is a great tool for achieving inner peace.
The oral tradition as a cultural phenomena ended long ago, but it continues for some groups: religion, family stories, ethnic traditions… Those repeated stories were refined over time and perfected, usually not for truth but for life lessons, e.g., the Eve and Snake story was initially only spoken and follows the fable tradition—having the snake talk should make that obvious. The lesson is not that snakes once talked but even in paradise, some people find ways to be unhappy. People wishing to avoid such lessons use any excuse to miss it.
Printing was also a deliberative process. As a writer, I now how much I work to get things right and how accountable I feel. I also know nothing I write can be perfect.
Our electronic media culture and modern journalism—as an intelligence analyst for 43 years, I remember reading only one article I found informative, that was in The Atlantic—is fast and thoughtless, what be scribbled on the door of a latrine stall while the author was more seriously engaged. Yet that is where most people get their sense of today’s world.
God bless you in your search for happiness.
I am living in one of those retirement communities, but I don’t live in the main building, I live back in a house. So, in a way, I have the best of both worlds. A lot goes on that doesn’t appeal to me so I don’t share. I don’t play cards or pickle ball or any of that. I am in the book club, the writer’s group, and go to the pool frequently. I generally go to the Town Hall meetings once a month. I always go to the monthly art class. Also, I am in a chime choir. Well, I guess I do quite a bit actually, but some people over there are busy all the time. They go out to eat once a week. There is a little theater where movies are shown. Sometimes, there are afternoon entertainments and usually an evening party once a month. Sometimes, but not always, I go to those. But the things I like most to do — working on my diamond paintings, playing piano, reading, watching Big Bang re-runs, I still do alone. But it helps to be here — opens my solitary life a bit.
Sounds like you have a good situation, Carol. What appeals to me about retirement communities is the ability to withdraw when I want solitude, and join in when I feel social.
I love your photo of your books. Very colorful! My son organizes his books by color: red books with red books, yellow books with yellow books, etc. Of course, I’m more traditional. My books are in ABC order.
I’ve tried to arrange those anthologies by the years they covered. So at the upper left are books that cover the 19th century. Then books that cover pre-1939. Then the annuals that start with 1939. But it’s far from perfect because of overlap of coverage.
Great article you wrote here. And the separation definitely pre-dates the computer.
Growing up we had one TV and we all watched TV shows together. Then at some point we got a 2nd TV. A tiny black & white in the kitchen. Mom would watch Murder She Wrote, Knotts Landing, Murphy Brown, Mary Tyler Moore on the tiny TV in the kitchen because OF COURSE Dad got to watch HIS shows on the color TV in the living room. LOL By that time I was holed up in my room listening to vinyl from the time I got home from school until time to go to sleep.
Now I’m back, living with Mom who is 92. Dad died in 2011. I work all day which means Mom is alone all day, reading and napping, so I do MY reading/interneting, etc in the living room with Mom in the evening while she watches her TV shows. Occasionally there are shows we both like and I will set aside my book or laptop and watch with her. But no matter what I force myself to spend the evenings with her. Not that I don’t like her or don’t want to be around her, mind you. I’m just an introvert who would rather be in my comfy chair, in my room…ALONE. LOL