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Americans Increasingly Insular

"The diminished sense of place and the increased sense of anonymity have together transformed privacy in the call story age. It is easier to hang your feelings or your son's SAT scores out in public if the people around you are invisible."
I'm not sure if "insular" is the correct word. Perhaps "rude", "oblivious", or "self-centered" might be closer to the mark.

Of course there are occasions when a cell phone is an invaluable tool - in cases of accidents, emergencies, and when there is no other way to reach and reassure people of your whereabouts if you are not where you are expected as quickly as anticipated.

However people increasingly use cell phones in public out of boredom and in indifference to the people in front of their faces. Do you cringe when you see someone at the counter of a convenience store, blabbing into their cell phone, not even bothering to make eye contact with the store clerk? How about the incident columnist Ellen Goodman described in the paper today: "[talking incessantly on one's cell phone] . . . has cut down the number of small personal encounters that make strangers feel as if they inhabit the same world. It may not be a safety hazard to talk to one person while ordering coffee from another, but what was the woman's message to her hairstylist when she talked on the phone while he cut her hair? You're invisible?"

Whether meant or not, insulating behavior like this sends the message that, not only doesn't the person we're dealing with on a one-on-one basis matter as much as the person on the phone, we don't care about meeting anybody new or interacting with the outside world except to "get" things from it. Why do we need to make personal contact with others when the buddies we've got are only a cell phone call away? Or if we can sit in our offices and order everything we need online?

There are two other behaviors I find disturbing. It's one thing if a person goes out jogging with a headset and the music turned up. I don't understand why folks do it, since it blocks traffic noise and the warnings they might provide but also distracts from whatever natural beauty might be there all around the jogger which -- I've always assumed -- is the reason they are outside rather than running on a treadmill in a health club. BUT at least jogging is a solo activity and shutting the world out with a headset while running down the road impacts nobody but the jogger.

It's a different story - and a sad sight - to watch young kids on the bus. If you ride Tri-Met home from downtown Portland, as I do, you will often find yourself sitting on the bus with a lot of school kids. One by one, some get on the bus with their headphones in place, sit silently in their seats with their ears plugged and eyes forward, shutting out the rest of humanity in the bus. These aren't even the older kids - the ones you'd expect would be going through a sullen and rebellious age (I know I did); they're grade schoolers. Thankfully there are still kids who talk to each other and to strangers; they have the most wonderful conversations and are so full of energy it makes you glad just to be sitting near to them. Most of these active, interacting kids are either black or Latino/Latina; most of the headset bunch are white.

Finally, others have spoken of the isolation created by single commuters barrelling down the road with a cell phone at their ear or their ears covered by a headset. Now, unlike even a few years ago, they sit higher off the road in their SUVs and have a myriad of toys to play with -- navigation prompts, CD players, dashboard television, etc. etc. Years ago when I commuted to work by bicycle, I could always make eye contact with drivers - both for safety's sake, so they'd see me, and just to be friendly. Try that now.

I don't like to see us lose opportunities for community in little ways like this. But I wonder if these people even realize what they are sacrificing by remaining "An army of one" and saying to the world that nobody matters but my family, the folks I talk to on my cell phone, my music, and me.

Is this becoming The American Way?
that's part of it 13.Jun.2004 10:17


Yes, though you've pretty much answered your own question by citing the evidence which prompts it.

You left out the workplace and the alienation that tends to spiral through it into other facets of life.
I believe it was John Prine wrote "Angel From Montgomery"
"How the hell can a person
Go to work in the morning
Come home in the evening
And have nothing to say?"

On the other hand, I wasn't at all friendly to the kerry canvasser who knocked on my front door when I was eating dinner. I'm gonna hold my nose and vote for him, but there's no way I'm gonna reward "those people" for an unwelcome intrusion into my space.

I accidentally saw an episode of the teletubbies about 5 years ago, and asked a friend with young kids what rationale there could be for making tv for anklebiters? He replied that it wasn't tv for terrible twos, it was tv for parents who needed an hour's respite from terrible twos.

Seems to me that society has just gotten too complex and streesful for most of us to deal with as if we were buddhas, so most people disconnect from circumstances of alienation, some at a lower threshold than others. The more self centered we become, as a society (is it possible?), the lower the threshold of disconnect drops.

Just my opinion. Stuff happens.

Fear Plays A Part 13.Jun.2004 15:54


Good points, Glassguy. Maybe it's part oblivious rudeness and part involuntary isolation. It doesn't help that we're constantly being warned that other people are dangerous or likely to take advantage of us, even if that is not true of a majority of our neighbors.

There's also the Darwinian Bootstrap philosophies that run so prominently in American thought . . . that you've got to make it on your own and if you don't you're weak and don't deserve to survive. If that means using people or stepping on the other guy, so be it.

"God bless the child who's got his own" and so forth.

Cultivation of a seige mentality makes us all islands rather than a part of a continent.

"Better Things, For Better Living, Through Chemistry©" 13.Jun.2004 21:17


Swiss novelist Max Frisch described technology as "the knack of so arranging a world that we need not experience it."

The impulses of the Luddites, the skeptical tendencies of the Amish, among others, for instance, bear consideration.

The feed lot society is rapidly and efficiently coalescing, fulfilling the perfection of capitalism--breeding and training and serving in the consumer economy to transform the planet into a bazaar and an arena of disposable, over-packaged gadgets. Processing the organic and mineral composition of the biosphere, concentrating matter into molecular structures not naturally occuring--all passing through a brief moment of manipulative existence, followed by eternity in the land fill. The human species in the techno-industrial age is the medium for converting the planet to junk, that when discarded commences eons of entropy--the dissipation of the energy it took to produce the junk.

Highways built to serve the herd's wanderings--from sessions of sensory and brain massage in front of the TV, then, realizing that there's "a world out there", encasing into the mobile, steel isolation booth, transport to the mall to "explore the world", browse and consume, then, awakening that "there's a world out there", reverse the procedure and get back to the screen to "see what's new and wonderful in the world." Like mental and emotional bi-phase ungulates.