Community, Civics, and Cyberspace

Several years ago at the local strip-mall shopping center, I watched the then-new local Walmart knock down the old Ames that had in turn knocked down the Sears that had knocked down the Woolworths*.  So I started thinking about which community artifacts are truly stable and can even be counted on to last more than a generation (retail stores obviously not being among them). 

My conclusion?  Churches, Civic Organizations, Bowling Alleys, Government Buildings, Bars, and Liquor Stores

Now, because of declining interest and participation, in this generation even the first three items on that list are at risk.  What that means in the long term I don’t know, but it probably isn’t a good thing.  At least not if you believe the work of Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam who wrote the book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival Of American Community.**”  Written in 2000 (disclaimer: I have not read), Putnam laments our lack of community sharing, our increasing disconnectedness from family, friends, neighbors, and social structures, and the resulting “decline in stock of social capital.”   After observing this decline in American civics and social connectedness, he then argues that if America is to continue to succeed this civic mindedness must be reinvented and restored. 

Some will argue that technology and social networking are doing just that.  Personally, I’m not convinced.  The anecdotal evidence I see is that far from bringing us together in the real world, these technologies are just stratifying us and pushing us further apart.  Granted that many of these online ecosystems can truly be considered “communities,” but many are merely homogeneous, and perhaps even stagnant, associations of loosely connected people who generally think and act exactly the same.  Another difference is this same not-easily-defined concept of rootedness.  As the Internet collective hive-mind jumps to whatever the next hip-thing is, these tenuous Internet associations quickly break down.  Don’t believe me?  Try and find those old Geocities or AngleFire pages you did.

I hope I’m wrong and that computer networking technology can lead to “hyperlocalization,” an increased social connectedness, and a renewed sense of community.  But more likely, when Facebook virtually plows under the MySpace that plowed under GeoCities, we’ll be just as disintegrated and disconnected from our real-world communities as we ever were.  At least we’ll still have our local bars and liquor stores to help ease our pain.

________________

* That same Walmart then abandoned that site and moved Borg-like up the road a mile to the local indoor mall and proceeded to knock one third of it down for a Super Walmart.
** Although I did not see a lot of civic-mindedness displayed by “The Dude” and his bowling league in the Big Lebowski – there was definitely diversity.

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