When there’s no new episode of Rachel Maddow to watch when I go to the gym, I’ve been biding my time on the hamster wheel recently by watching the TED talks that are available online for free on iTunes. Hey, got to work that cocktail party chatter gathering in somewhere. One I watched today is a year old, but I thought it was fascinating. Stefana Broadbent presented her research on how social networking and technology are creating little pockets of intimacy in people’s work lives. It’s 11 minutes long, but well worth watching.
There’s a lot of hand-wringing these days about how modern people are lonely and isolated, and I agree with a lot of that hand-wringing. But where I draw up short is the desire to blame technology. I think the “blame technology” tendency has a lot to do with resentments and fears people have about things they don’t necessarily understand. (Which is one reason I think a lot of people have contradictory, weird ideas about contraception technology, because the “magical” aspects of technology mix with sexual fears to create a potpourri of bullshit.) But technology’s ability to shape human behavior can’t be understood without the context of culture and power. In this case, I think Broadbent makes a convincing case that the technological developments blamed for people’s isolation—namely the car and the television set—probably had less impact on their loneliness than an entire culture built around the idea that the worker’s personal life is an imposition on their ability to work. Not to say that the car and the TV set don’t exacerbate the problem of lack of community, but the problem originates with a culture that wants you to forget your family and friends the second you walk in the door at work, and try to squeeze time with those people in at the margins.
What Broadbent recorded was that the explosion in communications technologies are instead restoring a little bit of what was simply part of life 150 years ago—constant contact with your intimates during your work day. If you’re over 30, you’ve probably marveled at how much the work day has changed because of this, and as Broadbent notes, it’s extremely different from the era when even personal phone calls were not part of life at work. (And still aren’t in many blue collar jobs.) It used to be that once you were in the office, the outside world simply didn’t exist. Huge news events could happen and you wouldn’t find out, and you were mostly ignorant about what your friends and relatives were up to during the day. Now, between text messaging, cell phones, IM, and social networking, we spend huge portions of our days keeping lines of communication with our intimates open.
But of course, since the isolation was the product of culture, we can’t expect culture not to strike back. Broadbent notes how people who work in many low status occupations, like bus drivers and factor workers, are facing increasingly punitive monitoring to make sure they don’t check in with family and friends during the day. Broadbent treats this like a human rights violation, and I’m inclined to agree. If people are getting their work done, monitoring them to make sure they don’t use their downtime to talk to people they love is only going on in order to debase them and suggest that their personal lives don’t count. I’ll go a step further and argue that the monitoring is valuing debasement and control of working class people over actual economic concerns like profit and saving money. It uses resources to monitor workers, after all. But more than that, I’m skeptical of the idea that unhappy people are better workers. People who can’t communicate with loved ones often spend a lot of their mental energies worrying about those loved ones, in my experience. Communication that you can control doesn’t offer nearly the distraction that your colleagues can offer by barging in and demanding your attention whenever they want, too.
A lot of attention is paid to the struggles people have with making friends in our isolating society, and I think that focus is important, but it’s also important to ask if the other part of the equation is that people aren’t keeping the relationships they do have healthy. A culture that expects people to use down time at work to update Facebook and text message their partners and friends is one where people are probably going to have that many real relationships to keep them buoyed. I’ll add that touching base with loved ones during the day can make a person feel less lonely overall; merely having someone at home isn’t enough if you feel like a lot of their life is mysterious to you.