When Robert Putnam’s 2001 Bowling Alone came out, I thought it was just a delayed liberal response to the Reagan boom. But then, 11 years later, a sociologist whom I greatly respected, Charles Murray, came out with his profound Coming Apart, in many ways validating what Putnam argued. That got my attention. Now, Jessica Brown, in theweek.com, broadens the Putnam/Murray arguments with a new probing of human connected-ness in the wired age. To put it bluntly, we’re on the verge of a loneliness epidemic, with ramifications far beyond mere personal isolation and depression. In part, this tech-induced epidemic may explain the utterly bizarre and insane violent reactions to the Trump presidency and the fascistic frothings of the new American Brownshirt Movement formerly called liberals.
As Brown points out, human interaction is hitting all time lows. Putnam more than a decade ago warned against this when he noted that once-common social activities such as bowling and bridge are no longer popular. While it appeared for a while that gaming rooms—at least for young males—might offer a type of social interaction centered around video games, those too dried up as more and more gamers played on-line. (How many of you remember the video arcades that were common in so many malls, now abandoned?”) People over 40 used to laugh at a table of four teenagers, each on his or her cell phone, not talking to each other. But 20 years later, it threatens both a Borg-style mentality and a shocking lack of connectedness to other people. Some 25% of Vancouver’s residents, in one survey, reported being lonely—a percentage almost certain to grow as more jobs are filled by robots and automation. And one proposed solution, car-pooling, is comical given that liberals have done everything they could to demonize cars over the past 30 years—despite the fact that public transportation is held in as low regard as ever.
Murray’s research sheds socio-economic light on this phenomena by noting the stark divisions being perpetrated on the non-industrial economy by elites infatuated with “tech” and “clean” jobs. Under Barack Obama, the American coal industry and its workers were almost made extinct, saved just in time by Trump. American steel, auto, textiles, and other core industries may have just escaped death by fewer than 100,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, the myth of the college education being the be-all and end-all of job security has finally been exposed for the fraud that it’s always been. As the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco notes, the gap between college educated and those with only a high school degree has remained about the same since the mid-1990s. But by the late 1980s, a much more significant chasm has developed between those with merely a college degree and those with a post-graduate degree, nearly doubling. Other studies show that wage growth in technological skill-areas has flattened.
Researchers have already pondered the impact of so many college-educated laborers who are, or at least feel like they are, underemployed. This feeds the isolation brought on by the internet society, and in part has spawned the rise of social media and all of its pathologies. Whatever value social media has in spreading information and news fast, it also has created a generation of liars, or, at the very least, exaggerators. Just peruse people’s pictures on Facebook, for example. Then there is the widely-publicized online bullying, the incessant gossiping, and the outright fraud and invasion of privacy. But a vast expansion of social media was inevitable given the decline of genuine relationships. These were made worse by the “soccer society” in which parents transport kids to every athletic activity imaginable, further purring off genuine independence. Not surprisingly, in May 2016 the number of young adults living with their parents exceeded that of young people living with wives, husbands, or even “partners.” More desocialization there: it’s highly unlikely a 25-year-old will bond with parents in the same way he or she would with peers. More isolation. If you’re only options are Mom and Dad or Alexa, Jack will not grow up to be a well adjusted adult.
Given these trends—depression at prospects in the labor market (thanks again, Obama), the tech isolation, and the delayed adulthood—it is not surprising that younger people are both alienated and searching for any form of socialization. All that is necessary to send them off on a protest march (a social activity if there ever was one) is fake news hyping “Russian hacking,” “stolen elections,” “ global warming,” or the horrors of enforcing American borders. Fake news, which at one time would have been discarded by adults at the dinner table, by pastors from the pulpit, or by employers telling their younger employees they can do what they want on their spare time, but they can’t spread that manure at work, are all a thing of the past. The Brownshirt Movement (I refuse to allow them to name themselves, so I refrain from the “A” word) is a natural outgrowth of all this de-socialization, isolation, and phony news.
Consequently, the next time you see the black-clad fascist marchers assaulting people, while it’s doubtful in this history-bereft society that the first images coming to mind will be the SS and the SA, at least think of Robert Putnam and his bowling alley. You might ask Alexa where the nearest one is.
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