Giles Slade’s book, ‘The Big Disconnect: The Story Of Technology And Loneliness’, is primarily to make the assertion that our dependency on computer technology is turning people into loners. Those of you who belong to Facebook and other contact media might contest this but think how often do you meet your close circle of friends (rather than the ‘friends’ out there) rather than trade messages. Now I don’t belong to any of these contact medias and I give hermits a bad name for solitude without feeling particularly lonely but I’m not totally convinced all people will turn out like me. That’s mostly because humans are essentially a social animal and not all of them are on the Internet. It’s often neglected just how many people aren’t computer savvy let alone even use the Net and already there are discussions on how the world is already turning into a two-tier class over it. How many school generations of computer use will change that hasn’t really been discussed yet. It doesn’t necessarily follow that using computers at school will carry on after going out into the big wide world because there will always be a percentage who either won’t get it or have other interests.
Slade’s examination of this cultural change is principally that of the USA than other parts of the world, although Japan and the UK get the occasional mention. Considering the work culture and car dependency in the States, I suspect Net users over there would find it easier to send messages during the week and socialise over the weekend than actually meeting anyone.
The first massive chapter principally explores the explosion of technology, including who did what, when and how the advances have gotten quickly accepted. Oddly, Slade sees the use of self-service machines as the start of the American downfall and the step-back for human contact. It’s rather interesting watching the introduction of the self-service paying docks in supermarkets over here that some people would queue up there than use these that are manned and are often still a lot faster than what is supposed to replace themTo my mind, that tends to mean this doesn’t apply to everyone. If all you’ve got is self-service then people would have no choice but to adapt to them but it doesn’t mean that everyone has to like using them. . I think that tells more about these people who don’t want any contact with anyone than anything else although it would be interesting to see how many of them queuing are Internet users. Oh and I finally have a name for the man who created the laughter track for radio shows, Jack Mullen back in 1947.
The interest in the star culture started back as far as 1910 and look where it gotten today. From my perspective, I think that a lot of people have mundane lives and rather than do something about it, prefer to read about those whom they think have far more interesting times. Quite why it only applies to film/TV and sports stars beats me although they probably see the life style more than their actual jobs they do occasionally.
I did wonder where Slade was going when he dealt with music and more specifically musical instruments. Apart from giving people a sense of rhythm, music can act as a useful distraction in repetitive work (remember ‘music while you work’?) and something to relax to. I think part of my problem here is that music can be enjoyed equally alone and in a crowd. Slade’s history of music, specific to America, does make for an interesting read although I wish he had gone further and explained the demise of the piano and harmonica in the home. I doubt if vinyl took away everyone from playing instruments than a lack of time with busy jobs. The American job culture that tends to dominate their lives so much has tended to make for dysfunction marriages that, for many, don’t last long and reduces the amount of leisure time they have.
The third chapter deals with the development of voting machines in the USA to beat cheating at the polls. I think this is far more a reflection on American society that it went on for so long before relying on machines to keep people honest. I’m not sure if I think this is an indictment that all Americans trust machines, especially as there’s a perchance for them to try to hack or abuse them. Look at how the media shows Americans kicking drink and food dispensers when they don’t get what they want. I’ve been assured by some Americans that I know that this isn’t always the case but it’s what is remembered the most when shown in films and on TV. If anything, I think Slade spent, no matter how interesting the history lesson is, on background than exploring the abuse and counter-arguments to his own claims.
His examination of cyber-bullies as bullies in his conclusions as people with low esteem willing to bring people down to their level is astute though. Knowing what they are and solving it are two different things. There will always be people who will feel and react like that to bring people down to their level but there should at least been some suggestion on how to counter what they do.
There are a couple things against this book. Having it divided into three chapters, even with sub-titles, makes it look like a massive read. This isn’t helped by having a massive set of footnotes at the back of the book. As most of these are reference than side note, it tends to re-enforce my argument that they really should be on the relevant pages. The more infrequent notes of interest are actually interesting but you have to be prepared to filter them out. Slade does at least know his SF and acknowledges that Karel Capek’s robots in his 1920 play ‘R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)’ are androids rather than robots. Something that dawned on me when I finally read it a few years back. Something else I agree with is the similar euphoria that people get from stadium church meetings and rock concerts is caused by music and the hormone oxytocin. It’s probably a good thing that pop concerts don’t turn their fans to religion because it also raises their susceptibility.
As much as the histories are interesting, they don’t leave as much space for resolving the issues raised. A book such as this should at least argue against itself to show it isn’t one-sided. The main thing that will come out of this is how duplicitous an unspecified number of the American public is. Whether you people over the pond will want to be told that about yourselves or think you’re better than that, you’ll have to read this book to find out. For the rest of the world, it might just confirm some of our thoughts which is equally worrying.
I’m not altogether sure if everyone world-wide is machine dependent. I think it’s a demonstration for many people in how they’ve adapted technology to their own demands. Work keeps them too busy, so computer tech offers ways to save time. Whether it means something else won’t replace it, only time will tell. I suspect, a need for social contact will ensure people will seek out human contact in a few years. Saying, that loners like me will still be loners.
(pub: Prometheus Books. 306 page indexed enlarged paperback. Price: $19.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61614-595-8)
check out websites: www.prometheusbooks.com