“most Americans today feel vaguely and uncomfortably disconnected.” Robert D. Putnam from Bowling Alone (2000)
Walk the bustling streets of a crowded city, sit in a coffee shop, and you can not help but notice pervasive emptiness. Human disconnection permeates public space.
“New York-Style Fisting” 1
New York City is a place long known to produce deep-seated misanthropic feelings. A year back, a friend moved there and was ecstatic upon witnessing his first New York shouting match. Two people, in no uncertain terms, publicly expressing enmity. Or the time I visited myself. Upon my friend’s excusable second request for a young woman’s name at a boisterous nightclub, the woman responded with, “Am I a f***ing broken record?!”. In economic terms, the overwhelming supply of people abates demand for any single human being.
Where Did it Start?
Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone, asserts that our “vague, uncomfortable disconnection” started with our parents generation. I disagree. Our disconnection started further back during the American Revolution. A time when America’s forefathers ardently fought for America’s individuality. This idea was then dispersed to the masses through the Civil Rights movement. America’s idiosyncrasies began to manifest itself as “disconnection” when it was transformed by the creations of Silicon Valley.
To be fair, America has come far. From the depths of Japanese internment in the 1940s and separate drinking fountains in the 1960s, we have created a culture where most feel comfortable asserting pride in their ethnic heritage. Americans, as John Elway so concisely summarized, “feel comfortable in their own skin.”
However, the advent of “selfies” and a blizzard of self-promotional Facebook posts forces one to wonder if this explosion of self-identification and confidence has contributed to a declining social structure. For each self-shot picture of yourself or promotional post about your buddy’s gig you have unwittingly contributed to the devaluation of human interaction.
A new app, Tinder, has acknowledged and embraced abundant supply of trivial human contact by creating a trading market based solely on physical attractiveness. The value system is simplistic, binary. Heart or no heart. I have noticed (and maybe even been guilty of) people clicking blindly until they got bored. We are eroding the value of human contact.
The Binary Relationship
We have erred in our belief that we can write code for the construction of a fulfilling relationship. We have invested in the delusion that we can create digital shortcuts to human connection.
Human connections have little to do with fiber-optics and high-resolution images and everything to do with physical proximity. What has happened to front porches, lemonade stands, kids playing in the park? And what about the archaic art of hand-written letters laced with smudges, illegibility, and other traces of human fallibility? Why have we allowed binary expression to prevail?
Perhaps other generations felt this distance. Perhaps this is something humans will grapple with forever. Or maybe, just maybe, we need to limit constant spoon-sized servings of humanity and hold out for heaping, meaningful slices of kinship.
1 Trademark, Dwight Lutz