The Internet Doesn’t Do Local Well

I’ve recently noted that my blogging tends to be non-local. The things I encounter on the Internet tend to come from south of the border, leaving me scrambling to try to relate things to a Canadian, Manitoban, or Winnipegger perspective. An article about racism towards African Americans in the USA can draw parallels to the systemic mistreatment of Canada’s indigenous peoples, even though the history and present circumstances are vastly different.1 This approach always begs far more questions than it answers.

As someone who is largely a link blogger at present, my writing is the product of what I find interesting on the web that day, and non-local things simply have the largest signal in the noisy stream of things that make their way across my awareness.2

So, when I read Why Don’t We “Like” Our Neighbors?—which disucsses how the Internet seems better at national and global issues than local ones—I found myself nodding in agreement and wondering about my own inability to link to local issues any more than rarely. While the Internet’s fundamental architcure is decentralized, strong consolidating forces are at work:

Both mass media and digital media rely primarily on advertising revenue, and the political economy of nearly all media runs on corporate consolidation and big business funding. Meanwhile, the proliferation of consumer goods and services has made the buying experience incredibly complex, as anyone who has spent 20 minutes reading Amazon reviews to find the right meat thermometer can tell you. The advertising model relies on sensationalist news items to attract more viewers, and these types of stories are less likely to occur at the local level. Frankly, my local news is pretty boring relative to Trump’s latest fascist tirade.

Maybe the Internet doesn’t do local well simply because we don’t. To over-simplify, we seem to prefer relationships mediated by the technology of the Internet to those mediated by flesh-and-bones contact. And why not? Maybe it’s been a great way to not feel so damn lonely in our isolating suburbs. Maybe this wouldn’t be an issue if we didn’t have a fundamentally anti-social built environment. Maybe.

This is the place where I would ordinarily pretend to have a conclusion. I don’t. I’m going to be thinking about this more.

  1. The main point of commonality is that each country sees prejudice against these communities as largely normal and justified, while hypocritically judging other nations for their own treatment of minority groups. 
  2. Twitter and RSS, mainly. 

Rural Suicide Rates Soar

I grew up in a small town and could hardly wait to get out of it. So it makes me sad, but not that surprised, to learn that small town suicide rates double urban ones:

Rural adolescents commit suicide at roughly twice the rate of their urban peers, according to a study published in the May issue of the journal JAMA Pediatrics. Although imbalances between city and country have long persisted, “we weren’t expecting that the disparities would be increasing over time,” said the study’s lead author, Cynthia Fontanella, a psychologist at Ohio State University.

“The rates are higher, and the gap is getting wider.”

The article looks especially at Wyoming, a largely rural state that suffers from high suicide rates, where Bobbi Barrasso has made suicide prevention a mission:

“Wyoming is a beautiful state,” she told the crowd. “We have great open spaces. We are a state of small population. We care about one another. We’re resourceful, we’re resilient, we cowboy up. And of course, I’ve learned it’s those very things that have led to a high incidence of suicide in our state.”

Rural suicide arises from all the circumstances Ms. Barrasso noted and more. Despite a sleepy “Mayberry” sort of image, the realities of small-town life can take an outsize toll on the vulnerable. A combination of lower incomes, greater isolation, family issues and health problems can lead people to be consumed by day-to-day struggles, said Emily Selby-Nelson, a psychologist at Cabin Creek Health Systems, which provides health care in the rural hills of West Virginia.

“Rather than say, ‘I need help,’ they keep working and they get overwhelmed. They can start to think they are a burden on their family and lose hope.”

I’m friends with a lot of people with dreams of moving to the country, subscribing to some kind of notion of purity and simplicity. But my experience is closer to the constriction and despair showcased in the article. Everyone knowing everyone may sound appealing to city dwellers longing for a deeper sense of connection, but it can be stifling:

Stigma is not unique to rural life, but it can become more acute in places where it’s hard to disappear into anonymity… A lack of privacy can deter people from seeking treatment. “If someone’s car is there at the known psychologist’s office or mental health provider’s office, then of course others in the community know,” said Bryant Smalley, the executive director of the Rural Health Research Institute at Georgia Southern University.

I made it a point to never notice people’s cars after that being the primary surveillance technique of small town life. Many people thrive in small towns, but those who struggle face a harder path than they should.

Suburbia Makes Relationships More Difficult

Harping on suburbia can get tiresome, but I guess I’m consistent. When I saw How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult I couldn’t help but link to it:

Our ability to form and maintain friendships is shaped in crucial ways by the physical spaces in which we live. “Land use,” as it’s rather aridly known, shapes behavior and sociality. And in America we have settled on patterns of land use that might as well have been designed to prevent spontaneous encounters, the kind out of which rich social ties are built.

There’s a huge difference between your primary mode of transportation being walking versus the personal automobile.1 Under the former, running into someone means a chance to catch up, a wave, or maybe a chance to make a new friend with someone you’ve seen around. Under the latter, running into someone might kill you and/or them. Walking seems to meet the needs of community development, so why are we developing most of our cities after the suburban land uses that all but guarantee car fatalities and loneliness? Contrast school years with later years:

Why do we form such strong friendships in college and form so few afterward? …The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. That’s why we make friends in college: because we are, by virtue of where we live and our daily activities, forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows.

And, if you’re cursed to live in the suburbs, answer this:

Those of you who are married with kids: When was the last time you ran into a friend or “dropped by” a friend’s house without planning it? When was the last time you had a spontaneous encounter with anyone who was not a clerk or a barista, someone serving you?

Where would it happen? What public spaces are there in which you mix and mingle freely with people on a regular basis? The mall? Walmart? How about noncommercial spaces? Can you think of one?

The problem is how the “normalcy” of suburbia has stunted our ability to articulate what’s wrong with it:

[M]ost Americans only know single-family dwellings and auto-dependent land use. They cannot even articulate what they are missing and often misidentify the solution as more or different private consumption.

I can look at most things and see sets of pros and cons leading to a flawed, but reasonable decision. I can see some of that in the initial decisions that led to the development of the suburbs 60 years ago. But today I can only name the continued development of suburbia as willful ignorance at best, and genuine hatred of humanity at worst. Only the shortest term thinking possible can make a case for this historically irresponsible use of our resources. We all need friends, even if everything else sucks. Suburbia gives us neither.

  1. These are obviously not the only two options, but public transit still necessitates some walking, while biking affords similar social opportunities as walking. 

The Stresses of Dinner

The practice of eating together as a family feels like something that’s been happening forever, but that’s not the case. In The Wretched Table: How Dinner in America Became an Ordeal, Britt Peterson talks about the stresses of what’s a relatively recent cultural phenomenon:

Modern dinner is stressful by design. Once a midday meal of convenience, it took on a much more heightened cultural role during the Industrial Revolution, when the family began to splinter during the day and dinner became the reunion, Abigail Carroll, a food historian and author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, told me. And with that new elevation came new pressures.

Elinor Ochs, whose research forms the basis of the article, talks about the contradictions in the dinner experience:

Ochs’ results suggested some deep contradictions when it came to how Americans experienced dinner. On the one hand, she said, it was a moment of intimacy that encouraged kids to confide in their parents. On the other, there was intense pressure put on children, who came under both parents’ interrogative spotlight at once. She wrote that dinner could feel like a panopticon; that the way parents held out dessert as a reward for finishing vegetables was a highly Protestant way of putting duty before pleasure. “Everything that has a good side has also the potential to have a disruptive side that tears relationships apart,” Ochs told me.

The article itself mostly just whet my appetite for more.1 Notions of how the nuclear family takes on increased significance in the wake of the community-weakening dynamics of the industrial revolution (and after) is fascinating to me and I wish it dove in further.

  1. Pun honestly not intended, but there it is. 

Independent Japanese Children

This article about the remarkable independence of Japanese children initially caught my attention due to the fact that I deplore our fear-based, helicopter parenting, culture. I want my son to know how to live in the world; not for him to be so artificially shielded from it that he has no idea how to face it on his own, or worse to never be able to.

Although it’s tempting to point to a culture where twelve year olds regularly ride the subway alone and demand to know why we can’t do likewise, the article wisely delves into the cultural differences that make such a phenomenon possible:

What accounts for this unusual degree of independence? Not self-sufficiency, in fact, but “group reliance,” according to Dwayne Dixon, a cultural anthropologist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Japanese youth. “[Japanese] kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others,” he says.

This assumption is reinforced at school, where children take turns cleaning and serving lunch instead of relying on staff to perform such duties. This “distributes labor across various shoulders and rotates expectations, while also teaching everyone what it takes to clean a toilet, for instance,” Dixon says.

Taking responsibility for shared spaces means that children have pride of ownership and understand in a concrete way the consequences of making a mess, since they’ll have to clean it up themselves. This ethic extends to public space more broadly (one reason Japanese streets are generally so clean). A child out in public knows he can rely on the group to help in an emergency.

I really hope that there are reasons for this other than Japan’s monoculturalism, so that those of us who live in multicultural societies can learn some lessons from them, even if I frankly doubt it. The level of trust and interdependence described above is much more difficult in a multicultural context. I still hope we learn how. Let’s start.

Conversation, Smartphones, and the Amish

I admire the Amish. This might sound a bit odd coming from someone who works in technology for a living, but I’ve always had a healthy suspicion of technology. I have no desire whatsover to be Amish, but I do admire the fact that they are a group that evaluates the adoption of technology through the rubric of “how will this affect the life of our community?”

So, when I read Stop Googling. Let’s Talk. by Sherry Turkle for the New York Times, I briefly toyed with the idea of throwing my iPhone into the garbage disposal.

Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.

Conversations are key to cultivating empathy:

We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

That last point about conversation also being key to identity is later expanded on:

In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves to come to conversation with something to say that is authentic, ours. If we can’t gather ourselves, we can’t recognize other people for who they are. If we are not content to be alone, we turn others into the people we need them to be. If we don’t know how to be alone, we’ll only know how to be lonely.

A virtuous circle links conversation to the capacity for self-reflection. When we are secure in ourselves, we are able to really hear what other people have to say. At the same time, conversation with other people, both in intimate settings and in larger social groups, leads us to become better at inner dialogue.

But we have put this virtuous circle in peril. We turn time alone into a problem that needs to be solved with technology.

This reminds me of Charles Taylor‘s notion of the dialogical self; where we only know who we are insofar as we see ourselves reflected back in conversation with others. This is why solitary coninement is the most cruel thing you can do to somebody without killing them.

The article made me instantly desire to carve out some disconnected time in my life.

We can choose not to carry our phones all the time. We can park our phones in a room and go to them every hour or two while we work on other things or talk to other people. We can carve out spaces at home or work that are device-free, sacred spaces for the paired virtues of conversation and solitude. Families can find these spaces in the day to day — no devices at dinner, in the kitchen and in the car. Introduce this idea to children when they are young so it doesn’t spring up as punitive but as a baseline of family culture.

When I think about the future with my nine month old son, I can only find myself nodding vigorously to phone free dinners and the like. But why would I wait for then? Why would I force a rule on him that I’m not willing to abide by today?