Blog 134. American Angst Part 2 of 7: Alienation of the Individual

Individuals feel angry, frustrated, isolated, abandoned by their society, offended by immigrants, and threatened by political ideologues who want to take over. The stores are big-box: you don’t buy your shoes or your shampoo with assistance from a friendly sales person. Your only safe conversation seems to be with Siri on your cell phone. You’re a stranger in a strange land, even in your own home town. What’s going on?

Change. That’s the big going-on. Change encompasses all the other goings-on. Even the rate of change is changing, speed is speeding up. Our world has become technical in place of personal. Your neighborhood bank has been bought by a national conglomerate. The grocery store where the manager recognized you has been subsumed by a national chain that is in turn owned by a holding company. That store now has more brands of foods, but it’s mostly filled with other notions like wines and hardware and its own pharmacy. Or maybe it sells everything else, using groceries as a loss-leader. The friendly butcher is no longer there. The prices are lower, but so is the human connection, and the jobs are fewer. You used to sew your clothes, or fix your car, but where do you go to find a spool of wool thread? Even cars are computer-controlled now. We can’t keep up.

Connections. It seems that people themselves have changed. They vacation all over the world but don’t have time for coffee and conversation. We seek belonging, but even people walking on park trails are engaged by their phones rather than the greenery. The devices feed them news, texts, and Facebook updates—input tailored to their subconscious preferences as selected by a remote computer that reinforces their political prejudices while selling them products attuned to their psyches. We are thus often controlled by our electronic connections and by our avoidance of challenging information. Students reportedly check their phones an average of 50 times each day.[1]  A Bombay survey reported that 17% of millennials checked their smartphone during sex and 85% of young Americans do so while using the toilet. After a person repeatedly checks and then stops looking at the phone, cortisol builds up in the blood. That hormone generates a new anxiety that can be quelled by checking the phone again. It’s addictive.

Rules of behavior. Along with interpersonal conversation, the norms of civility are also eroding. Politeness is out of style, highway traffic becomes a race to the stop light, and the dominant ethic is me-first. Everything seems competitive, even schoolwork. Is the resulting resentment related to road rage, teen suicide, and mass murders?

Programmed youth. Seventy years ago I played softball in the street with other kids. Fifty years ago, my kids gathered with others in the yard for games after supper. Now, even in a suburban neighborhood, I see the yards trimmed—and empty. Middle-class parents drive kids to school, then to organized activities, after which the kids can have screen time. Nostalgia aside, does this busy style add tension to parenting while subtracting creativity, social development, and exercise from the kids? Is there no time left for doing nothing? Are common shared experiences of exploration, discovery, and culture fading while solitary individuals ingest tailored news and alternative facts?

Affirmation. Are we so addicted to the affirmations induced by the social media that we no longer risk engaging real people with body language? A face-to-face exchange maintains the rules of behavior, and we seem to be losing true exchange to the “echo chamber” of the electronic network.

It isn’t the change itself that’s bothering us. It is the loss of familiar guideposts, the feeling of displacement from home while the appearances remain.  It is absence of familiar ways of connecting, conversing, and cooperating that is unsettling.

That anxious feeling is an error signal.

Something is indeed going wrong, but we can understand it and we can fix it.


Next: Part 3 will feature engineered inequality.


[1] Scientific American magazine February 2018.