We live in a time when we have “friends” throughout the world but we don’t know our next door neighbor.
We wave at our neighbors but we don’t talk to them very much and certainly not about anything significant. But we’ll text people in other cities. We’ll link in with them or we’ll book our faces with them or we send them an Instagram. Some still twitter to share things with people we’ve never met. But we just wave at our neighbors—-and what was their name again?
My grandfather didn’t invent the internet but he might have set in motion the sorry state of affairs outlined by Media writer Eric Burns almost thirty years ago when he wrote, “Every improvement in the technology of communications during the last century has led to greater isolation among people. It is a remarkable paradox, as if every improvement in the technology of hygiene had led to greater illness, every improvement in the technology of transportation had led to greater distance.”
If you need proof, put your cell phone away when you’re walking along a busy street and watch the crowd and see how many people are walking while they’re talking on the phone or texting or checking emails, never looking at the people around them, not even talking with friends or associates walking with them.
“It began with Rural Free Delivery that brought the mail to the person,” wrote Burns.
One of my grandfathers was a rural mail carrier in Mitchell County, Kansas in the 1920s and 1930s, delivering mail to people such as my other grandfather, a farmer.
“Before RFD, the person had to come to the mail, which was deposited for him at a centralized place. Usually the place was a general store; usually the person was a farmer who would kill two birds with one stone, picking up his mail at the same time he shopped for groceries and supplies,” wrote Burns, who noted the farmer also would “socialize, visit with the other farmers and their families who were at the general store for the same reason. And this was one of the few chances such people had to pass time with their neighbors; their farms were many miles apart and their days too busy with chores to allow for casual dropping in. It was a lonely life. Ironically, the inefficiency of the postal system made it less so.”
But, he says, when people like my one grandfather started delivering the mail to farmers like my other grandfather, the farmers had more time to farm and the general store as a social institution died. He cites one of this writer’s favorite historians, Daniel Boorstin, who wrote, “From every farmer’s doorstep there now ran a highway to the world. But at the price of dissolving the old face-to-face communities.”
Then along came radio to make things worse. It brought entertainment and information into the home. It wasn’t necessary to go to town for those things. And it killed the Chautauqua movement and eliminated more face-to-face interaction.
The telephone system had improved to the point where—as NYU Professor Neil Postman put it–
“a strange world of acoustic space in which disembodied voices exchange information intimately and in specially developed personas” developed. The telephone did not require face-to-face communication. Then television. Then home video. Then computers. And e-mail. Burns quoted Henry David Thoreau: “Lot! Men have become the tools of their tools.”
The progression suggested by Burns in 1988 was continued in 2012 by Dr. James Emery White, the former President of the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts and senior pastor of the Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He wrote of “hyper-connectivity” in his blog, saying analysts are split on this “bane of the so-called millennials, the generation born from 1981-2000.”
“Some feel it will make millennials ‘nimble analysts and decision makers.’ Others feel it will mean an inability to retain information, a tendency to be easily distracted, and a lack of ‘deep thinking capabilities’ and ‘face-to-face social skills.’” White leaned toward the latter and cites a UCLA study in 2007 that showed “the internet is weakening our comprehension and transforming us into shallow thinkers.”
He, too, quotes Boorstin: “The greatest menace to progress is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge,” which leads him to compare the words “hyper” and “hypo.” HYPER means “above,” or “over,” he says. HYPO means “below” or “under.”
He concludes, “So while it is an age of hyper-connectivity, perhaps we should also acknowledge the inevitable result. Hypo-intellectualism.”
Other analysts can cite other reasons for our contradicting lifestyles that isolate us from those next door to us but bring us influences from far away. This observer, for instance, thinks the window screen, not the rural mail carrier, is a major factor in this social, and therefore political, decline in thought. And the contradicting effects of the debilitating involvement in Vietnam and the glorious success of the Apollo space program changed out national outlook to inward thinking. But screened windows, a war, and a space program are discussions for another time.
Why go through this pondering?
Because something has to explain why this nation is in the political mess it is in, particularly at our state and our national levels. Self-absorption is one thing. But self-absorption about our self-absorption can only make the situation worse because studying our navels only drives us further inward and farther away from the general store and the Chautauqua.
Even this entry is an example. We could be having this discussion around a table at the general store if such a thing existed. Or in more contemporary times, the coffee shop (free Wi-fi available). But instead, we are connecting hyperly.
I think that today, when I see my neighbor, I will cross the street and talk to him, not wave.