Another year, another step toward insularity

16 Aug

sign-in-google-cakeIt’s my birthday this weekend and, while I’ll certainly be celebrating with an adult beverage (or 20), I can’t help but get a little sad this time of year. As I creep toward that omni-present 40 – an ambivalent milestone I’ll hit next year – I can’t help but notice that I seem to see less and less of people I used to consider close.

The ravages of older age take more of a toll on us all each year, with previously good friends now finding all of their time taken up by kids and family, a never-ending crush of career-related busy-ness, or just plain, simple laziness. And try as I might, I can’t just blame others for this drifting contact because I’m certainly guilty of it as well.

This year, I’m feeling the birthday doldrums a little more acutely than usual since I’ve just about finished up the manuscript on my next book, Humans 3.0, which is all about how technology is affecting human nature. I’ve spent the past two years delving into the topic and, what started out as a rather optimistic journey into the beneficence of technology, has also veered into its deleterious effects.

I haven’t been able to avoid the fact that progress, technologically driven as it is, is causing people to drift further and further apart. The evidence is substantial. People are getting married less, having fewer children and therefore smaller families. They’re increasingly living away from their parents and instead shipping them off to retirement homes. Social groups like Kiwanis are shrinking, which goes hand in hand with the overall decline in advanced countries of religion.

Perhaps the most depressing statistics are those regarding how many close friends people report to having. As a 2006 study in the American Sociological Review found, the number of close confidantes a typical individual has shrank by a third between 1985 and 2006, to about two from three. The number of people who have zero close friends doubled in that time frame, to 25 per cent of respondents.

“This change indicates something that’s not good for our society,” said Lynn Smith-Lovin, professor of sociology at Duke University. “Ties with a close network of people create a safety net. These ties also lead to civic engagement and local political action.”

There are perhaps many explanations for this trend, but it does correlate nicely with the technological explosion – especially of the internet – over the past few decades, which invites a sobering conclusion. Technology has opened our circles dramatically and allowed us to make connections never before possible, but it sure looks like all those friends and followers we have online really don’t matter all that much, at least in terms of the most meaningful relationships.

Here’s a depressing way to test this: take your birthday off of Facebook (I did so years ago) and see how many people remember when the actual date rolls around. It probably won’t be many. Sure, it’s nice to have a whole bunch of well wishes on your wall on that special day, but do they really mean anything if they’re the result of automated notifications?

The newfound extroversion many of us have found online thereby looks to be having a paradoxical effect in the real world: We’ve become uber-social online, but at the same time we’re also pulling back IRL (in real life) relations. The poignant question, then, is whether technology is driving these wedges between people, or is it simply bringing us closer to our truer natures?

I’m tackling such quandaries in my book, but like I said, I can’t help but get a bit blue knowing the direction in which the trends are pointing. I’m not quite sure what the long-term answer is, but I definitely do know the short-term one: bring on the beer!


Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Uncategorized


5 responses to “Another year, another step toward insularity

  1. Patrick Owens

    August 16, 2013 at 8:13 am

    I wish you a happy birthday. If it’s any consolation, I don’t think technology is the only, or even the principal, driver behind some of the demographic changes that you have cited: smaller families, the reduced span of the extended family, etc. These trends have been noticed for decades. Perhaps your book will identify where technology has contributed to these trends, but the trends were there anyway.

    You might also consider how technology has worked positively to enhance the human and family experiences. For just one humble example, I know a Canadian man who has followed the growth of his grandchildren in Israel through the use of video hookups. Without technology, he could never have had this contact. And they would never have known their grandfather.

    • Peter Nowak

      August 16, 2013 at 12:03 pm

      Hi Patrick – yes indeed, prosperity, longer life expectancy and growing individualism are probably the biggest factors in all of these trends, with all three being directly affected and driven by technological advance. I do also spend a decent amount of time (several chapters worth) on how technology is also leading to an explosion of creativity and communication. What I’m not yet sure of is whether we can that without paying the serious price mentioned above. I’d like to hope we can, but we first need to realize it before we can address the issue.

  2. russellmcormond

    August 16, 2013 at 8:14 am

    Happy Birthday,

    That said, I think many quite different things were lumped together. The decline of organized religion is a very different thing than the decline of community (of interest or geography) or family. I don’t want to comment much on religion, except to say that I consider any decline to be a good thing.

    Some of these groups were very insular/tribal, with people needing to do full time acting to “appear” to be part of a group they never were. This may statistically show up as people being members of that community, but anyone who was actually different in any way were still as lonely as they would be without the group — and in some communities, I could even say physically and emotionally safer without them.

    I also think we need to look at demographic changes. As we all get older, we have fewer closer relationships than when we were younger — for a variety of reasons (change is harder as we get older, existing friends die/leave/etc, stamina in keeping relationships going, etc). We have an “ageing” population, but the baby-boomers are a “football” shaped demographic which are going to skew any statistics that doesn’t account for that — of course as the boomers get older any trait that would normally be attributed to that age group will appear to be larger within the overall population than an adjusted statistic would.

    Then there is western culture and the “rugged individualism” coupled with specific economic theories which treat sharing as if it were a bad thing. For this we could stick to the sharing of physical things (how many lawnmowers, cars, etc does any given community need), or we could talk about the growing cults around entitlements to exclusivity around knowledge or communication (growth in what people think should be included in “privacy”, statutory monopolies, spectrum/broadcasting, etc, etc).

    Obviously I’m agreeing we have problems we should be concerned about, but don’t think all the things you mentioned are problems or otherwise related to each other.

  3. Alasdair

    August 18, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    Which day is your actual birthday? I’ll try to remember for next year. 😉

  4. jaspal marwah

    August 22, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    Some good points Pete, yet I only stumbled upon your b-day post through a circuitous route starting with catching up on Open Media’s new technology-oriented and -driven campaigns. As a facebook-less person, may i say happy belated birthday. You’re right, that does seem better without automated reminders… though it’s really not the same without the beer and perogies.

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