Bowling alone with the web

As a society, we probably think we're getting smarter and growing together through the web. The opposite may, in fact, be true.

Tech Culture

Despite some not-so-obvious arguments ("Media that's targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for"), the transcript for a recent Clay Shirky speech reveals some highly intriguing thoughts. The basic gist is that society's collective crises of togetherness give way to more productive management of such crises. We learn how to cope with rising complexity, in short.

Shirky argues that gin was society's early response to the Industrial Revolution ("I can't deal with this, I'd better drink"), and that modern society's response to modernization (More people entering the workforce, etc.) is the sitcom ("I can't deal with this, I'd better watch TV"). I don't know that he's pinpointed the correct "outlet" on our frustrations, but it makes sense that it would take time for societies to effectively channel abundance.

Chris Anderson comments on Shirky's speech, suggesting that "it takes a generation or two to figure out how to properly use some resource that used to be scarce but is now abundant. In this case that resource is time...." Anderson believes we've found our way beyond the TV to "fill [our time] more productively, and to greater satisfaction."

I'm not so sure. In fact, I think the opposite is happening, at least in my life. I've already commented once on my addiction to the web. Unfortunately, my kids are learning the same addictions from me and from my wife.

The other day I came home to find my kids engrossed in Webkinz. (If you don't know what they are, consider yourself blessed.) Webkinz are the Cabbage Patch Dolls of the 21st Century, except that unlike the Dolls, Webkinz require active management, offline and online.

My kids have become slaves to Webkinz in the same way that I am a slave to this blog and to email. I have ever increasing amounts of "free" time, all of which is spoken for before I wake up by all the email and blogging I did the day before. I watch almost no TV (except soccer), but is my time better spent? I don't think so.

Perhaps one other rule for Anderson and Shirky is that society is ever convincing itself that it uses its time and means better than the last generation. We think we're progressing through some Hegelian dialectic toward greater truth. We may be doing so individually, but we're not doing so socially.

The web strikes me as a good, Shirkian example of a technological response to society's crisis of faith in social connections ("I'm feeling alone, I'd better 'friend' promiscuously'"). Perhaps down the road it will become useful in bringing us together. For now, it feels like it's helping a planet "bowl alone" while helping us make believe that we're "bowling together."

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