Like-mindedness, Technology and the Risk to Community

by Peter Block on June 30, 2011

Tagged as: Hospitality / Association / Kindness / Generosity / Cooperation / Mystery

We live in a time of growing like-mindedness, which we believe to be a good thing. We want to be with people who have common interests, views, values, you name it. Plus with our new technology, finding and meeting with compatible people is easier than ever. Once upon a time I was forced to mingle with strangers while shopping or going to a movie. I used to hear songs I did not like, get news of things of low interest, endure alien neighbors, and work next to idiots.   

No longer. I can now increasingly have complete control over my environment. 

The modern life is about like-mindedness.

I dwell within my castle and am not involved with neighbors. I have my own garage door opener. My back yard is fenced. The front porch is gone. Air conditioning and central heat provide a pleasant climate so I don’t have to go outdoors. I have a 24/7 convenience store so I do not have to depend on my neighbor to borrow food, cigarettes, beer, or ice. Everything is for rent so I don’t have to borrow tools or transportation. 

Podcasts, iTunes, iPads, iPhones, DVRs and MP3 technology allow me to live a life surrounded by all my preferences. I listen only to music I have chosen –– don’t have to hope the radio plays my favorites. I buy only the songs I want to hear –– don’t have to buy a whole album. When I do listen to the radio, I pick the stations from around the world that I like. I get my news from my friends. I am no longer constrained by local taste.   

I can meet up, catch up, start a revolution, all at my desk. I have 594 business associates on LinkedIn. 934 friends on Facebook. 350 followers on Twitter. I achieved all this popularity with the click of a button. Where was this when I was in high school?

I am surrounded with my own kind.

This technology surrounds me with people of common interests. My own kind. When I order a book, I am told what other books people like me are buying. When I buy a shirt, I am told what ties or slacks I might like. My online viewing and buying behavior is tracked to make sure I am surrounded by ads geared to my tastes and patterns.  

All of this produces a world that is not just familiar, but one designed to produce quick, easy and low-cost customer satisfaction.

 

The Point

This customer satisfaction carries a price. Like the old lawyer joke where the devil offers a winning life in exchange for the lawyer’s soul. Presented with the deal, the lawyer asks, “What’s the catch?”

Here is the catch:  The way in which like-mindedness and the online experience combine to give me control of my surrounds takes surprise out my life. It takes useful disturbance out of my life. It takes the noise out of my life. I become a satisfied customer instead of an engaged citizen. It isolates me from strangers, which are where most innovation and shifts in thinking come from. A predictable life is a partial life.

The Internet, added to my wish for predictability, makes local tradition and culture obsolete. What was once sacred, profound and a cultural rite of passage is now available for purchase. Some examples:

  • Automated marriage. I can get married online. No demands of finding the space, gathering the community.  I also can be licensed to marry others online. No need to learn scripture or go through the process of ordination.
  • Automated education. I can get my college degree online. No inconvenience of going to class. Everyone is teaching and learning in their pajamas.
  • Love and companionship. I can find my life partner online. I hardly have to do anything. I have a hundred different matchmakers working on my behalf.
  • Entertainment at my fingertips. Library in a one-pound device. Now I can read on a tablet. A tablet once displayed words from God carved in stone. Now it delivers books and entertainment catered to my interests.
  • Work and shop at home. I control my time. I garden at lunch. No irritating co-workers to put up with. Or other shoppers, or salespeople, to endure.     

Not to overstate the case, which I am . . .  It is the seductiveness of the technology that feeds our already strong instinct for like-mindedness and can make the substitute for aliveness seem like the real thing. In the search for the familiar, we add the power of the quick, the easy, and the low-cost encounter.

The effect is that we sacrifice the unfamiliar, we lose our ability to be patient, we cannot suffer inconvenience, or mystery or having to save for what we want. Our technological quest for the like-minded and familiar reinforces our segregation. It homogenizes our experience. It runs the risk of extracting from us our humanity.

It also keeps us from experiencing real community and caring for the common good. The technology promises community, but all it really offers are tools and convenience. This means that if we are committed to the commons, which is about welcoming and caring for strangers, we are going to have to unplug our lives decide to seek out those we don’t know.

~ Peter ~  

Home page photo: Jukka Zitting