Every new gadget or improvement separates me a bit farther from other human beings. It’s not just because I am a solitary writer working at home – our culture as a whole is dedicated to the personal.
If I’m a salaried employee nowadays, I will probably drive alone in a car to a suburban parking lot and go to work alone in a cubicle. Commuting and working used to be group experiences. If I’m commuting on a trolley, bus or subway car, I’m in a group, part of a temporary community of people who all have the same purpose – getting to work or going home. Even though the group’s membership changes from stop to stop, we cohere around a shared interest in getting safely and quickly to our destinations. If I’m on public transportation, I notice the people around me – who’s sitting, who’s standing, what place should I take? I am physically just one among many. Nowadays, because I prefer to be alone in my car, I rarely use public transportation.
And we are much more likely to work alone. Not so long ago in America, most people worked on factory or office floors, places where they could see co-workers. Open offices are long gone, replaced by spaces partitioned into gray modules built of portable slabs. When we sit down, we are meant to be useful as individuals. And few of us have factory jobs, and even there we are likely to be operating an individual workstation, interacting with a computer, not another worker.
I played on the street, just another kid among the half a hundred who lived on our block. I stepped outside our row house and surveyed the gangs to look for my pals. My older brother had a different group of pals, and the girls had their little packs. But the street was everyone’s, the place we shared, where we came together to play. A computer game can be played without playmates.
At the dinner table, each of us can use our smart phones.We entertain ourselves alone by listening to songs of our choosing through personal earpieces. We stream the shows that we alone want to watch and view them on our personal phones, televisions, and computers. We go to fewer concerts every year, and movie theatres may soon be obsolete. You can have food brought to your door, order your clothing from Amazon. Why go out?
We must prefer it this way, else we wouldn’t keep building suburbs, buying the electronic gadgets and the cars. I guess we crave personal space. But if we don’t routinely share spaces with others, it has to affect our sense of self and how we understand our place in the community, our sense of common humanity.
Technology is just a fancy word for tools. From the beginning, since our hominid ancestors used sticks to scratch their backs, we make tools to enhance our individual capabilities. Every new technological advance enhances our individual power more precisely But, ultimately, as our capabilities are enhanced, we need others less and less. Where will it end?