Monday, November 29, 2004

It takes a village: the www disconnect

It seems Americans don't really know what they're missing, but it does seem they vaguely FEEL and REACT TO what they're missing.

And what are they missing most? More genuine COMMUNITY - a culture of villages, circles of friends, a network of neighbors, a real world of proximity and familiarity that trumps the world wide techy world anyday.

Studies show that American culture is, in general, less social, less satisfied and more neurotic than many other cultures around the world. Sprawl and technology have fostered isolation and supposed independence instead of the real connections we see in ads for which we obviously remain nostaglic. The neuroses come from the huge disconnect between so-called "American values" and Americans' actions day to day and year to year.

It is disheartening to hear how many people would rather wait for the DVD than brave a movie theatre. Americans are training themselves to prefer controlled isolation even as their social lives become more vicarious and even vaccuous. We seem to become more and more a society of fairly unsocial (or to be fair, mildly social, very selectively social) celebrity mongers. Millions seem to know more and care more about movie stars than their own friends and neighbors. Is the former cast of "Cheers" or "Friends" more interesting than your own neighbors? If so, how do you know?

How DO we get the sort of community and connections we want, rather detached as we are by our cars, our computers, the web, sprawl, air-conditioning (which keeps us inside), "home entertainment systems," a lack of front porches, a lack of communal concern, and the ways we communicate in this "virtual" world - often impatient, intrusive and yet shallow, filling our days and many of our chances for solace with the detritus of small talk.

Here's something some of us miss: phones and phone calls that don't follow us every where we go, from the kitchen to the produce aisle and right on into public restrooms. A few of us miss the stamps and ink and postmarks of snail mail, the social fashion of having neighbors and associates over for a cocktail hour in our homes, and yes, dinner parties. We no longer seem to have "circles" of friends, and I'm not sure we really have such a "web" of friends, either. It's more like splinter groups, specialized sects and cul de sacs of friends. Without proper community, we're frazzled, so we parent like crazy, pout, pour a drink, warm something up and eat alone.

I long for a REAL community of kindred spirits - enlightened progressives loosely bound by neighborhoods, visible and eager neighbors, salons and chat groups and friends.

I think of this detachment and disjointedness in our communities often, but the subject came up again this week because of another incident in which I was reminded how hard it is to fully be ourselves via e-mail. And of course most of us reading this blog and others are trying to make up for our lack of close community by letting our fingers do the walking and crawling and surfing out into the virtual ethosphere of the world wide web.

We say "world wide" and we feel a part of something so huge. But the web is more like a crazy and sometimes dimly lit maze of alley ways and dead ends. Posts and contacts come and go too easily. It is too easy to invest too much and then again too little. But we can't really avoid the heavy lifting if we're going to have a village where support and care and connection are really mutual and substantial.

Many of us outside the few richly pedestrian areas of this nation live in ghost town houses and anonymous crowds of shoppers and cars (which handily conceal their drivers and passengers).

We try to make up for this by reaching out in obtuse ways, often appearing abruptly and often disappearing without a fair thee well. Our people skills suffer. Grace and graciousness seem to take a back seat these days to merely flipping switches, as if people were appliances. I often feel so old-fashioned and foolish for being so courtly and mannered in my e-mails whether to friends I've known in person or to people I've met via blogs and e-mail.

E-mail loses a lot in translation. It's all words without eyes and ears, without the nuances of body language and bodies themselves. E-mail is fleshless, and so it tends not to sing and dance. Emoticons don't fix all the problems e-mail is air to, such as tone and sillyness and inside jokes and sarcasm and seriousness, etc., and sometimes intentions get mixed up and feelings hurt. One person's silly flirtation is another person's edgy come on. One person's self-assured openness may seem presumptuous and even agreesive to another. Why? We lack the real village. We are an axious and lonely lot, wanting to 'protect our space' more than we want to close the gaps of intimacy and disclosure in our culture. As we live more vicariously through the media, the more we lose an essential and healthy VITALITY to be intimate and neighborly.

We need the familiarity and gregariousness of a village whether we know it or not, whether we harp on this discrepancy in our culture or not.

Are we getting the world wide (or even nationwide) web or "village" we want and need to be socially connected in healthy and substantial ways?

What compromises do we make trying to reach out via things like the telephone and the web - as opposed to doing things the old-fashioned way?


At 12/01/2004 7:39 PM, Blogger Aleksu said...

That is a tricky one Lawrence.

I've tried several times, it worked once.

Even this blogging thing is one more attempt, stubborn I am.

The first time I sat in front of a computer and surfed the internet I immediatly recognized the possibilities. I wanted to meet people from all over the world, get acquainted with different views.

My first blog was aimed at that, it failed, there is people that are supposed to be looking for the same kind of interaction but at the end all they are looking is for some sort of singles web wide hunting ground.

A lot is lost in the forms of communication that you've mentioned, but I think there is also a lot that we win, like time and space continium rules being retooled.

I think blogging presents a good opportunity to link up with other people akin to us, but we need to nurture the relationship with other bloggers, just like we would do with any other group of friends, colleagues or acquaintances.


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