Massive counter-factuals always make me a bit nervous: “if we didn’t have computers…” is the gateway to another universe in which so many things are different from the world we live in that it’s hard to evaluate the hypothetical alternative. “If we didn’t have computers…” we wouldn’t have the same kind of global economy (no complex online trading systems), we wouldn’t have a foreclosure crisis (without computer-modeled derivatives and default swaps the bad loans would never have been made), and your local newspaper would still be beholden to the typesetters’ union. “If we didn’t have computers…” is a world in which the historical path unleashed by the industrial revolution reached a dead end, or branched in some direction that is, from here, unimaginable. Whether that path would have led to a world in which we’re leaning across our picket fences to swap potato salad with the neighbours, or one in which we holed up in our individual compounds and waited for the apocalypse…well, I don’t know if I’m prepared to weigh in on that one.
What we can discuss are the roots of our current crisis is de-socialization….a crisis that has been pretty convincingly attributed not to computers, but to another screen: TV. In Robert Putnam’s research on declining social capital (the community involvement and social ties that hold societies together), TV emerged as the chief culprit. Both Putnam (with a little help from me) and others have investigated whether computers contribute to that decline, or mitigate it. The most compelling evidence I’ve seen suggests that the use of the Internet supplements rather than displaces people’s offline social interactions, and correlated with people participating more actively in offline activities.
Brenda’s tweet reminded me of the disconnect between people’s subjective experience of the Internet, and what research tells us about its social impact. Social media may feel like the answer to the role the Internet plays in accelerating and distracting us from our community lives, but that acceleration and that distraction long predate the advent of the personal computer and the Internet. If anything, social media and online interaction offer the most promising antidote to the social disconnection that has characterized our modern lives.