Fragmentation of
the Modern Mind

How the connection among
people is breaking down

Almost continual media consumption, living alone, ever less real face to face human contact, is, I fear, leaving us shattered and shaking, far from the grounded, loving selves we seek to be — and, as I see it, far from what God means us to be.
The bottom line, according to the US Census of 2006, the thing that American do more than any other, more than work, is to consume media (though I don't think they're counting sleep). It clearly is the dominant thing in our lives, and in our culture.
One in four adult Americans live alone.
I read that a Sunday New York Times gives you more new information than a typical person in the 18th century got in their entire life. So things really are speeding up.
From my industry, videogames, a survey was done some years ago by a game magazine, where they asked who was the most attractive woman in the world — and the winner was not a real woman. It was the Tomb Raider gal (played by Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raider movie, but they were talking about the character in the game). The woman they liked best was a pixelized fake.
What about a video screen on your toothbrush (don't laugh).
It's been predicted by the Gartner (research) Group that "by 2010, 70% of the population in developed countries will spend 10 times longer per day interacting with people in the online world than in the physical one…" As we forget what a real woman and a real friend feels like, don't we step into a shadowy replica of life?
Electronic coldness doesn't get much worse than dumping a boyfriend or girlfriend via texting — and then of course immediately blocking them from your cell phone and de-friending them on Facebook.
For me, the very fact that there's a word like ‘parasocial' is totally creepy. (meaning "relationships" with celebrities)
Maybe it's just too hard to make personal, face to face relationships. Are we giving up, just laying back and popping in the iPod ear buds — while your spouse does the same beside you in bed, as my wife accused me of doing the other evening. Are we irreversibly headed down the slippery slope?
Facebook and the myriad other social sites are meant to be personal, and compared to plain email I'd say they're almost cozy — with pictures of friends and family, and little personal notes about whatever's going on.
Back to the big picture, the importance of always being connected (like the 24/7 news cycle), is shown in a young woman's comment in a New York Times article: "It's like, if you don't check your email, and you turn off your phone, it's almost like you don't exist."
If we interact with people "on screen" ten times as much as in person, eschew phone calls because texting is quicker (really because it's safer); retreat behind a fire wall of email — what does that mean for us? If we devote five months of every year to media, how much more can we take? Forget the tipping point, I think we're already just trying to keep our head above water. I think we're at the desperate place.
Those who say that definitely "our whole family usually eats dinner together" declined 1/3 the last 20 years of the 20th century (p. 100, Bowling Alone)
"With increased use of automobiles, the life of the sidewalk and the front yard has largely disappeared… There are few places as desolate and lonely as a suburban street on a hot afternoon." (p. 211, Bowling Alone)
I can't forget when I was much younger, and people were given an offer: a million dollars, if they would give up TV forever. Most people turned it down.
Things really aren't going so well. Twenge echoes Putnam's work, in noting that before 1915 only 1-2% of Americans had a major depression, while today it's 15-20%. In a "1990's study, 21% of teens aged 15-17" already had had a major depression. It's long been known that isolation and loneliness are major causes of depression, and deepen it. And the definition of depression here is fairly "strict" — the person must be taking medication, or be in "long term therapy." (p. 105-6, The Me Generation)
When middle schoolers were given five options of what to be in their life, the #1 thing they chose (43% of them) was to be the personal assistant to a celebrity. Only 10% wanted to be the chief of a major company, 14% a US Senator, 24% president of a great University. (p. XVI, Fame Junkies)
In 1963 the top 20 most admired people in the world included figures like Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, etc. — but not one entertainment/sports/or media star. In 2005 there were six on the list, from Mel Gibson to Rush Limbaugh (oh my). (page XVI, Fame Junkies)
The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that the typical kid will have seen "40,000 murders and 200,000 other violent acts on TV" by the time they're 18. (p. XXII, Fame Junkies) The media and celebrity have become our reality — and it's pretty dark and twisted.
If we have strong and loving connections with other people, neural pathways in the brain grow and are strengthened; if not, the neural pathways can decline (p. 41 etc., Social Intelligence). If the neural pathways atrophy, the ability to relate to others is greatly diminished. It appears we can literally forget how to love. Still, this impulse to care for others seems to be one of the most basic of all human feelings.
How connected can we be? While I'm twitty at times, my wife and I, married 30 years, will sometimes start thinking of the same thing (a new topic), and both start talking about it at the same time. How can that happen? "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy," as the Bard would say.
When the brain wears down, when the neural pathways for empathy are lessened, we eventually lose most of our capability to connect. If this were to happen to our entire culture, we'd be done.
In the extreme case of psychopaths, they actually have little recognition of "fear or sadness on people's faces or in their voices." (p. 128, Social Intelligence). They just don't get it, and brain imagery shows the blanks in their neural pathways.
If you're not convinced yet, here are more medical impacts for being lovingly connected, or not. For men being treated for heart disease, those with the least emotional support had "40% more blockage." (p. 224, Social Intelligence) "… data from a number of large epidemiological studies suggest that toxic relationships are as major a risk factor for disease and death as are smoking, high blood pressure, or cholesterol, obesity, and physical inactivity." (p 224) Stop smoking, or get connected — seems like an easy choice.
What bound America together most in the second half of the 20th century was the terrible challenges we faced: the dust bowl, the depression, and the world agony of World War II. People who faced and fought down the world evil of Nazism had a group trust it is hard for us to imagine today. Recently, as I was organizing a weekend retreat for my church, I realized I had not trusted a group of people like this since I was in Boy Scouts 40 years ago. Corporate life, for me, was pretty soulless.
We can't just say no. If you want to cut a child's media time, you have to lead them in a new direction. Offer them other things to do, drive them to the park, support them seeing their friends. Maybe read together, get wild and meditate together, just have five minutes of quiet time together. Maybe you can help them find an inner life and stillness that will hold them in good stead throughout their lives.
In 1976, a study from the University of Michigan looked back two decades and found that: "Over these two decades informal socializing with friends and relatives declined by about 10%, organizational memberships fell by 16%, and church attendance… declined by 20%." These declines included "unions; church groups; fraternal and veterans organizations; civic groups such as PTA's; youth groups; charities…" etc. (p. 58-59, Bowling Alone) This has continued into the 21st century.
In his seminal work, Bowling Alone, the work which has meant the most to me for this project — sociologist Robert Putnam studied the collapse of social connection which occurred from the 1970's to the start of the new century, but he also looked back at the end of the 19th century, when America moved from the closeness of rural life to crowded, violent cities where they knew no one.
Despite all that was lost in the new city life, the social fabric was rewoven. We joined clubs, set up societies, came together and touched each other. Many of the major institutions of the 20th century grew incredibly in response to this challenge — like the League of Women Voters, Lions Club, Boy Scouts, etc. We may have been jammed together in cities, but we found a way. And jammed together on the internet as we are now, we too will find a way.


Hugh Bowen
Bowen Research
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