Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bowling Alone by, Robert Putnam

Americans are living lives increasingly isolated from each other, recent research finds. A quarter of Americans now report that they have not a single person to confide in with their most personal troubles, which is more than double the number reported twenty years ago. Overall, Americans report an average of two close confidants, down from three twenty years ago.

The definitive text on the phenomenon is Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, mentioned briefly in the above article. It’s a thick and dragging read on the concept of “social capital,” i.e. the social benefits we derive from interpersonal relationships. Putnam argues that our isolated lives have undercut America’s reserve of social capital, which in aggregate leads to much less pleasant lives (a neighborhood with poor social connections, for example, is not likely to form a Neighborhood Watch and keep crime down).

One would think that with our increasingly networked lives, via Facebook, IM, email, Twitter, and the like, people would be more connected than ever, but that seems not to be the case. A person can have 10,000 followers on Twitter, but no one to talk to when faced with a scary medical situation, for example. Our communications networks are vast, but our messages are trivial and at least one or two steps removed from actually sitting down and talking to someone face-to-face. How many of us email or IM our co-workers rather than walking over to his/her office?

There's a lot more Putnam says about the problems withering social capital cause, but one is struck by how isolated and less involved we are in our communities than our grandparents were.

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