Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Technology and Our So-Called Shrinking World

Recently my sister-in-law in Mississippi forwarded me and several other relatives an "Open Letter to President Obama" by a former VP of Proctor & Gamble. It included several of the Linkutterly wrong and paranoid claims about Obama common among people who watch Fox News or post to Free Republic: that Obama is "scary" because he wants to turn the U.S. into a "European style country where the government dominates instead of the private sector," that Obama is scary because "culturally" he is "not an American," that it's scary that the source of his wealth and the money that paid for his Ivy League education is mysterious, that Obama is scary because he refuses to "consider opposing points of view."

And yes, the letter actually is by a former Proctor & Gamble executive.

I've been getting wrong-headed, delusional email forwards from family members for years. And yet one simple phrase struck me: the auto-generated text that accompanied my sister-in-law's one comment "He scares me too:"

"Sent from my iPhone."

I realize that nothing I am about to say is at all original, but that simple phrase "Sent from my iPhone," made me realize anew one of the paradoxes of our times: we are theoretically more connected than ever before, theoretically the world is a smaller place than ever, and yet people are growing more isolated. In the age of the Web, smartphones, and social media, members of my family down South (and people throughout Red America) are as culturally isolated from someone living in Boston or the Bay Area as they would have been in 1948.

Yet at one time technology did break down barriers of culture and distance. Television was critical to winning national support for the Civil Rights Movement. And sometimes TV made small differences on the individual level. An on-line acquaintance told me that interviews with gay people on the talk show Open End in the late fifties and early sixties humanized homosexuality for her, leading her to question the prejudice she had been brought up with. My oldest sibling told me that seeing the TV show I Spy when she was twelve years old in Mississippi (this was in 1965) made her question all of her assumptions about race. For those of you who don't know the show, Robert Culp and Bill Cosby played U.S. government secret agents. They were partners. My sister told me it was the first time she had seen any portrayal of a relationship between a black person and a white person in which they were equals. After some initial confusion, she accepted it. She realized that after the initial surprise, there was nothing about it that was uncomfortable for her or in any way wrong. It just seemed natural. I don't doubt that for many people major changes in how they view the world have similarly small beginnings.

I'm not sure how often that can happen anymore. I would like to think that there are 12-year old kids with homophobic parents who watch Glee and find themselves questioning their parents' prejudices simply because of Kurt. I am hoping there are small white kids who will never share their parents' racism in part because they spent some of their earliest years seeing a black president on TV.

But what I see more often as a result of communications technology is isolation, people reinforcing each other in their preconceived notions. I read Salon and DailyKos. My sister-in-law watches Fox News and reads email forwards from the sort of people who post to Free Republic and Redstate. As I've probably written here before, in the early seventies everyone watched Walter Cronkite. When Walter Cronkite declared the Vietnam War a disaster, LBJ famously said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America."

We don't have a Walter Cronkite anymore, someone everyone trusts. For news on Iraq and Afghanistan, I and my friends will read Juan Cole or listen to NPR. People like my sister-in-law will watch Fox News. There's no common reality anymore.

That's what I find scary.

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