Monday, June 26, 2006

Does Technology Divide or Unite?

Fascinating question this morning (to me, if no one else): does high technology promote or undercut close personal ties? First the article, from Reuters:

Americans' circle of close friends shrinking
By Amanda Beck
Fri Jun 23, 3:04 PM ET

Americans are more socially isolated than they were 20 years ago, separated by work, commuting and the single life, researchers reported on Friday.

Nearly a quarter of people surveyed said they had "zero" close friends with whom to discuss personal matters. More than 50 percent named two or fewer confidants, most often immediate family members, the researchers said.

"This is a big social change, and it indicates something that's not good for our society," said Duke University Professor Lynn Smith-Lovin, lead author on the study to be published in the American Sociological Review.

Smith-Lovin's group used data from a national survey of 1,500 American adults that has been ongoing since 1972.

She said it indicated people had a surprising drop in the number of close friends since 1985. At that time, Americans most commonly said they had three close friends whom they had known for a long time, saw often, and with whom they shared a number of interests.

They were almost as likely to name four or five friends, and the relationships often sprang from their neighborhoods or communities.

Ties to a close network of friends create a social safety net that is good for society, and for the individual. Research has linked social support and civic participation to a longer life, Smith-Lovin said.

People were not asked why they had fewer intimate ties, but Smith-Lovin said that part of the cause could be that Americans are working more, marrying later, having fewer children, and commuting longer distances.

The data also show the social isolation trend mirrors other class divides: Non-whites and people with less education tend to have smaller social networks than white Americans and the highly educated.

That means that in daily life, personal emergencies and national disasters like Hurricane Katrina, those with the fewest resources also have the fewest personal friends to call for advice and assistance.

"It's one thing to know someone and exchange e-mails with them. It's another thing to say, 'Will you give me a ride out of town with all of my possessions and pets? And can I stay with you for a couple or three months?" Smith-Lovin said.

"Worrying about social isolation is not a matter of nostalgia for a warm and cuddly past. Real things are strongly connected with that," added Harvard University Public Policy Professor Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone," a book on the decline of American community.

He suggested flexible work schedules would allow Americans to tend both personal and professional lives.

I've always been under the impression that the new technologies and the increased affluence associated with the post-World War II era tended to make people more isolated. Where people used to sit out on their porches or stoops after supper, they purchased TVs and VCRs and video games and stayed inside. Social Security and better retirement planning allowed people to live only with the nuclear family, rather than with older parents, aunts and uncles.

But that covers the period from, let's say 1950-1990. After that the universality of personal computers, the Internet, webcams and phones, and cell phones gave people much better ways to associate over distance. Communities like MySpace and others have promoted the development of web associations. DailyKos seems to be the textbook example of how modern technology promotes association, and the success of web-based candidacies shows that there is real unity through web-based communications. And while I have not finished 'Army of Davids,' I know that Glenn has talked about the development of the '3rd place' - a new kind of 'hangout' where people can linger in familiar settings, with familiar people.

So it's perhaps a little surprising to me that people are still more isolated than 20 years ago. Technology does make us less dependent on others, so it could be reinforcing existing patterns. Or is it that - as the article notes - better-educated, higher-earning, white people (who are probably disproportionately technology-enabled) tend to have better networks. So perhaps technology is a force to unite. What's behind this, and what will it be like 20 years from now?

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