The Death of the American Community, 2016


We laud social networks for shrinking the effective distances between friends and family who live hundreds and thousands of miles apart, enhancing virtual community activism, and enabling grassroots movements to flourish. They are a way to share images, videos, text, and memories. We spend hours each day, browsing for that nth news nugget, piece of irreverent commentary, or viral video; commenting, as we do, with likes, hearts, smiley faces, and esoteric emojis.

And yet, when we are unconnected – off the grid, as they say – we feel strangely, uncomfortably alone. Reality most certainly differs from virtual reality so of course we are discomfited; we are what we repeatedly do.

Harvard Professor Robert Putnam saw this coming as far back as the year 2000, when he noted the decline of civic engagement and social connectedness – fewer dinner parties, less involvement in PTAs, unions, civic and fraternal organizations. His landmark bestseller, Bowling Alone, is filled with data and analysis from thousands of conversations over many years. He comes to the disarming conclusion:

By almost every measure, Americans’ direct engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply over the last generation, despite the fact that average levels of education–the best individual-level predictor of political participation–have risen sharply throughout this period. Every year over the last decade or two, millions more have withdrawn from the affairs of their communities.

This is damaging for social cohesion; outgoing communities and neighborhoods tend to have lower crime rates, for example.

Much of this is due to the proliferation of leisure through technology such as television and the internet.

Television has made our communities (or, rather, what we experience as our communities) wider and shallower. In the language of economics, electronic technology enables individual tastes to be satisfied more fully, but at the cost of the positive social externalities associated with more primitive forms of entertainment. The same logic applies to the replacement of vaudeville by the movies and now of movies by the VCR. The new “virtual reality” helmets that we will soon don to be entertained in total isolation are merely the latest extension of this trend.

In an interview with CSPAN, Prof. Putnam presciently remarks:

To be more creative in thinking about how we can have electronic communications contribute positively not detract from or subject from real face-to-face social connections. I think there are ways in which television itself can contribute to community activity by shining spotlights on opportunities for people to get involved. But I also think that the internet opens up the possibility. It doesn’t guarantee that we’ll make use of it, but it opens up the possibility of not creating some fictitious cyber, you know, virtual community throughout in space but using those techniques to re-enforce real face-to-face connections in our community. Community bulletin boards, for example, or neighborhood networks.

Sadly, these remarks were made 16 years ago. Since then we have seen these warnings ignored again and again and again. At Kazi, we embrace Putnam’s thesis and believe that we will be the change.

It will be a long road but we have the desire and the need to make it happen.

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