Saving community from technology

20 June 2019

I bring you this TWOG (TWeet 2 blOG—no human intervention) dictating into my iPhobe1 with my head down, so that you can read it on a sidewalk with your head down, bumping into strangers.

Individualism runs rampant in society while community runs down: we isolate ourselves to the detriment of our social relationships. Blame the technologies that were developed to serve us: they have been driving us away from each other. The consequences could be dire.

Let’s start with the wheel, which, quite literally, made it easier to drive away from each other. Just throw our belongings into a wagon and roll off to some private place.

When the printing press came along, we no longer had to go to some monastery to read a book. We could buy it, take it home in our wagon, and read it in isolation. (When the flashlight was invented, we could even do that under the covers.) 

Eventually we developed various motorized uses of the wheel. The railroad took us further and faster away from our communities, albeit riding together. But the automobile took care of that: we could speed away from the masses all alone, albeit en mass.

Of all the technologies, the automobile is perhaps the epitome of our individuality. We wrap ourselves in this hunk of metal and tear along some highway, bearing down on the car in front that is passing at the speed limit.  Some nerve. “Get off my highway!“

This is called “tailgating.” Have you ever been tailgated on a sidewalk? Of course not. This is community: you can turn around and say “Hey buddy, this is our sidewalk.” Actually, of course yes. Now we are tailgated constantly on sidewalks, and worse, by all those people texting, head down (making use of a newer technology—see what I mean). “Hey buddy, get up: you’re in my way!”

In fact, we no longer need so many sidewalks. Thanks to the automobile, we can live in the suburbs, where we can drive from our driveway straight to the local mall, to shop. But not in a market. The word used to designate the place where we congregated on Saturday morning to talk and shop—this was the heart and soul of community. Today the word market designates a heartless cyberspace where we buy and sell electrons.

The radio brought entertainment into our homes, as voice. Television added image, so that we no longer had need to go to a theater, let alone to a drive-in. We sit on a couch like a potato as it all comes to us.

The telephone was maybe more of a game changer. When we first moved to France (in an airplane—another get-away technology), phones were hard to get. So there came these unexpected knocks on the door: a colleague dropping by to chat, someone else wanting to ask a question. How quaint! Then the telephones arrived, and took care of that. My French friends stayed home and phoned.

Now we have the social media, which should be called the anti-social media. Why call? Who needs voice? Find a sidewalk, put that head down, and text, text, text. Just be careful to step around that guy we knocked over.

All the new electronic devices— laptops, pads, phobes, whatever—have certainly put us in touch. I refer to our fingers, with a keyboard, while the rest of us sits there, for hours, working at home and shopping from home or else playing videos at home, all of this all alone. No need for those malls, let alone those sidewalks. “Ah,” you tweet back, “but can we ever network now!” Sure, so long as you understand that a network is not a community. (If you don’t, try getting your Facebook “friends” to help paint your house, let alone rebuild your barn.2)

These technologies may be extending our social networks in amazing ways, but they are doing so at the expense of our community relationships. We are so busy texting and tweeting that we barely have time for meeting and greeting. Where is the technology for meaning?3

Of course, there remain places where we can still connect with real people. Elevators, for example, even at home, with the family. But to do that, we would have to lift our heads, however momentarily. Why bother? Just to greet a neighbour we never met? Or talk with a colleague to whom we are texting anyway? Or connect with the kids? (Good luck: try getting them to raise their heads.)

Guess what? Community matters. We are social animals, dependent on our relationships to live full lives, even to survive intact. Collaboration is necessary to get things done, but don’t expect it from the binary bits of an electronic device. In his New York Times column in 2012, Thomas Friedman reported asking an Egyptian friend about the protest movement there that failed: “Facebook really helped people to communicate, but not to collaborate,” he replied. Friedman added that “at their worst, [social media] can become addictive substitutes for real action.” That’s a serious problem.

Face it: our cherished technologies cage our social relationships. We need to restore community—at work, at home, and on the sidewalks of society.


1 I made this typographical error recently, when hitting one of the tiny keys on my iphobe.
2 In fact, the word community has become fashionable to describe what are really networks, as in the “business community” or the “medical community”—“people with common interests [but] not common values, history, or memory.” A century or two earlier, the word “seemed to connote a specific group of people, from a particular patch of earth, who knew and judged and kept an eye on one another, who shared habits and history and memories, and could at times be persuaded to act as a whole on behalf of a part” (Giridharadas, 2013).
3 In an article entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”, Marche claimed that, thanks largely to ourselves, “we suffer from unprecedented alienation…. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society.”

© Henry Mintzberg 2019. Extended from a passage in Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center.