Friday, February 18, 2005

Blogging in the cyber-wilderness

NOTE: I wrote this column on blogging for the Christian Science Monitor. It appeared today, Feb. 18.

from the February 18, 2005 edition -

Our waste howling 'cyberness'
By Jerry Lanson
LEXINGTON, MASS. - Blogging, I've discovered, is about as stimulating as singing to my refrigerator. The echo of my words dissolves quickly into silence.

It may be that these words simply bore anyone dropping by. But I suspect the lack of traffic to my new blog has more to do with the fact that there are now millions of bloggers out there, pouring their hearts out ... for the most part to themselves. And as they - no, we - spend more hours in front of computers, we take one more step in estranging ourselves from what's left of local community.

Often I long for an earlier America, one I've seen more of in historical photos than experienced in real life. It's an America of concrete stoops and front porches, of town and city life where people not only know neighbors by name, but take the time to talk with them.
My own family moved to the suburbs when I was 5. In the mid-'50s on Long Island, we kids were allowed to roam and more often than not, a game of tag or stickball went on in the middle of the street. Fights occasionally broke out, and sometimes nasty ethnic slurs got thrown around. Life was far from perfect. But it had a pulse. Today, in my tony suburb of Lexington, Mass., few kids play in the street. Many more are programmed for organized sports, organized music lessons, organized study. If life is one long climb toward success, it's also more isolated and fragmented.

And that's true for their parents too. Today's houses are a lot bigger. But I suspect plenty of people get lost in all that extra elbow room, rushing to their computer in the hope of connecting with anyone.

I, for one, am not convinced that the computer will ever be a terribly useful tool for real, personal connections. When an MIT professor created something called e-neighbors in my community a couple of years ago, it was an experiment to see how a neighborhood, joined by computer, would interact. I excitedly wrote to those signed on that I love to play poker, bridge, and just about any other card game. No one responded. Perhaps others in the neighborhood have become fast friends. But from what I can tell, the whole network has provided just one contribution - a place to get tips on how to find a plumber, a carpenter, a lawn mower, a tree surgeon. Fill in the blank.

Meanwhile, I still long for a regular card game, a lively cafe, a place where individual expression is heard and seen in the flesh, not tapped onto a screen and sent into cyberspace where it awaits someone else wandering around in the wilderness. I don't believe the Internet - though it can introduce people - ever offers true camaraderie. But I doubt that contemporary neighborhoods do, either. People don't give each other a chance.

After a recent snow, I walked my golden retriever, Casey, and passed between two neighbors shoveling. On my right was an elderly man, approaching 80. He clearly labored as he shoveled his walk. Across the street, a young father, in his 30s, was putting the finishing touches on his perfect snow-blower cleared walkway, which arced around the front and side of his property. If he noticed the old fellow 25 feet away, he never acknowledged him. He clearly hadn't offered to lend a hand.

As I came back around the block, I exchanged greetings with the older man.
"Take your time," I advised him. "Don't overdo it."

"You're right about that," he responded.

The other man had left his snowblower standing by his front path and gone inside.


Blogger John Desmond said...

I grew up in Lenington in the 1960's and 1970's. Things were very different then. When a big Nor'easter hit, we got out the snow-blower and did our driveway and the drivways of all of our neighbors. And I mean all ! Then we would go inside someone's home for hot chocolate while our parents had a beverage a bit stronger. After a while, we would return to our homes to rest up for sledding the next day at West's Farm.

February 18, 2005 at 3:51 PM  
Blogger Sharon said...

My parents live in the Long Island suburb where I grew up, and their new neighbors shovel their walk every time it snows. It happens to be a suburb near New York City, where people can and do walk to the store, and walk around the neighborhood. I think that makes a huge difference.

When people drive everywhere, they lose connection with their communities. It is not computers that are isolating us. It is our automobiles.

Another important issue is the trade-off between public and private space. The more emphasis we put on creating nice, large private space at the expense of public/community space, the more isolated we are likely to be. The typical new American suburban neighborhood does not have any public space that is woven into the fabric of the community and is part of daily life.

We've lost the corner grocery store to the superstore on Rte. 9. There are few neighborhood cafes as in Europe; instead there are Starbucks, but in the suburbs, those Starbucks are not integrated into the neighborhood, they're in malls surrounded by acres of asphalt.

Houses no longer have front porches that look over sidewalks where people are out walking; instead, oversized garage doors front streets designed solely for cars. In fact, our streetscapes are now actively pedestrian-hostile. And so on.

Bring back a community where people are out walking every day, and I think a sense of community will return.

February 18, 2005 at 6:58 PM  
Blogger Jerry Lanson said...

All good points Sharon. Lexington does have a wonderful bike path that fills with people on spring and summer weekends. But they're moving, not stopping to talk. The town's one good family restaurant, a bagel place that filled with young families on weekends, closed down and is now replaced by upscale restaurants. I've always loved front porches but today's oversized houses always look toward the back. My point, I guess, is that to some extent we make our own choices. And I don't much like the choices many Americans -- particularly affluent ones, I'd guess -- are making.

February 19, 2005 at 4:14 AM  
Blogger John M said...

I grew up in the Manor section of north end Lexington in the 1950's and 1960's. North end Halifax, Canada, has much the same feel now. In fact, a huge snowstorm just a year ago got everyone to clear out each other's walks and driveways without being asked. That culture has persisted this year.

February 19, 2005 at 6:41 PM  
Blogger Jerry Lanson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

February 21, 2005 at 5:25 AM  
Blogger Michael Benton said...

As a blogger for over a year--one used for personal stuff and others for teaching and activism--I agree with you on the Internet's inability to build the sort of community your refer to in your article (which I first read at the Christian Science Monitor, not your blog).

I too am nostalgic for my working class neighborhood in Clairemont, a neighborhood in San Diego, California. The neighborhood was tight and people often gathered imromptu on lawns and corner walls to chat, have beers and eat. Even now when I visit the same place over a quarter-century later I wonder did I imagine it, was it but a dream (me who scoffed at the alarmist thesis of Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone")

My current neighbors in suburban Lexington, KY will barely acknowledge each other and often outright ignore anyone outside their monadic existence (unless it is to curse someone who has offended their sensibility or gets in their way while they are driving their monstrous hummers). At a previous residence in a trendy neighborhood near the university campus, after having our house broken into, I canvassed the neighborhood introducing myself to the strangers that lived near me. People seemed very uncomfortable with my desire to become known, and to know them, so that we could protect ourselves against burglars (there were a dozen B & E's in a week's time in this neighborhood--which no one had pieced together until I went around talking to people).

My parents recently visited our new residence where we had recently moved because we were tired of people trying to break into our last residence (twice in two years and many other attempts). They commented on the beautiful patios in the neighborhood, a corporate owned and operated apartment complex. Me and my wife take full advantage of the patio during warm days, but we never see anyone else using them except for a quick in-and-out barbecue. My parents remarked on the quietness of our neighborhood, how no one used the patios, and how there was no "life" in the neighborhood. The price of "protection"? Its not a gated residence, people wander through all the time. I joke with my wife that we are living in the middle of an FBI witness protection zone because I have actually had people scurry away from me as I try to say hello and introduce myself.

Of course my professional life in academia is also hyper-competitive and fragmented. Barriers between me and my students. I'm an adjunct while I work on my dissertation and thus there are professional barriers between me and most of the tenured professors. I sought to escape the corporate world and have plopped down in the middle of it--complete with an even more alienating and distant administrative beaucracy.

Thus, I find myself writing and reaching out on my many blogs. Shouting into the wilderness so to speak. Writing for electronic journals. Looking forward to the next conference. Desperately seeking others who like to dialogue, think, read and write. While the blogs do not build the communities that you and I lament, they are useful in building counterpublics for those of us who seek alternative information and unlikely alliances (I have made friends and I have met them in the real world). We write and we share information and we discuss the world and we bring-to-light issues/groups/politics that are ignored by the mainstream media/society.

Thanks for your article,

Thivai... shouting into the abyss

February 23, 2005 at 12:17 PM  
Blogger Michael Benton said...

Also notice how I can respond to you on a weblog--something that is often discouraged by other media channels (such as Christian Science Monitor--even if I can write a letter to the editor, what percentage ever see the light of day?)

You may read it, others may read it, some may decide to respond here to what I say, or adventure over to my site and leave a comment, I will, of course check out these new visitors and our chaotic digital fishbowl goes onward...

Thivai..... just a guppy

February 23, 2005 at 12:31 PM  
Blogger Jerry Lanson said...

It strikes me that the dialogue of blogs reflects the modern age of multi-tasking. It's sporadic. It's fragmented. You write to me. I find it sometime later and write back. You may seen my response. Or you may not. Perhaps I'll stumble across your blog. Perhaps not. Very post-modern. As a linear guy, I find that hard.

February 23, 2005 at 2:22 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home