In his book, Putnam argues that our access to the "social capital" that is the payoff for community and civic work is shrinking. Though the reasons are complex, technology and mass media are primary factors, Putnam says. We spend more time at home watching TV (and, increasingly, working and amusing ourselves online) and less with other people. Our detachment from communal efforts -- and opportunities to meet other people -- grows. In l960, 62.8 percent of voting-age Americans went to the polls to choose between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon; in l996, after decades of slippage, just 48.9 percent chose Bill Clinton over Bob Dole. The inverse correlation between the rise of screen-driven entertainment technologies and civic disconnection is persuasive. So is the epidemic hostility online.
Although Putnam's book focuses on TV more than the Net (since TV is older and its use has been more widely studied), it's impossible not to think about the new ways networked computing may contribute to this disconnection. The Net is the world's greatest communications medium, but the notion of cyberspace as providing a social connection -- remember the virtual community? -- has turned out to be a fantasy. In many ways, the intensely connective Net is helping people become more disconnected all the time. It's the new TV.
This is of no small consequence, Putnam argues. Social bounds are the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction. Communities with low social capital have poor schools, more teen pregnancies and child or youth suicide, and higher prental mortality. Social capital is also the most reliable indicator of crime rates and other measurable quality-of-life issues. Such disconnection has happened before in American life, Putnam writes, especially during periods of great migration and immigration, but it was reversed by periods of stability and the rise of organizations like the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts, and thriving religious organizations.
Of all the many dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, writes Putnam, perhaps the most important is the distinction between "bridging" (or inclusive) and "bonding" (or exclusive). Some forms of social capital are, by choice or necessity, he writes, inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups -- fraternal organizations, church-based women's reading groups, snooty country clubs. Other networks are outward looking and encompass people across diverse and different social networks -- youth service groups, civil rights organizations, ecumenical religious associations.
The Net, it was originally believed, would be a "bridging" technology, one that would connect the planet. But the most interesting evolution in software in recent years has been code that permits people to narrow, not expand, their universes. Blocking and filtering software has become epidemic to product against flamers, crackers and spammers. The explosion in weblogs, specialized mailing lists, instant messaging and other so-called p2p media means that people online increasingly talk only to one another, not to people who are different or unfamiliar. The rise of this narcissistic communications is understandable, but it hardly is inclusive. People all over the Web routinely block and filter points of view they don't like or don't want to hear (or buy), so nobody online really ever has to encounter all that discordant diversity that digital technology makes possible. More disconnection.
Thanks in part to the Net, Americans have never had so many reasons to stay home, so many entertaining or useful options when they do. I remember an e-mail I got from a grandmother last year lamenting all the TV ads showing AOL grandmas getting pictures of their grandchildren. "That's nonsense," she says. "My kids don't visit me nearly as much because they feel they can just e-mail me. I love digital pictures, but I rarely get to see my grandchildren in person." Her lament -- the illusion of connection, while facing the reality of tech-spawned separation -- was intriguing.
The rise of the Net would seem to have exacerbated this tendency. Americans had already been spending an enormous amount of time watching television. Putnam found that 80 percent of all Americans watch some TV every evening, while only about 60 percent talk with their families nightly, let alone neighbors, strangers or others. Watching TV has become one of the few universal experiences of contemporary American life.
Increasingly, the Net is one too. It promises consumer use as great as television's, if not greater, since work connects with home. This seems especially ironic, since the Net was supposed to be one of the most powerful devices ever for connecting with humans. Mostly, it connects us with bits and links. In a sense, it is a connective medium. We can stay in touch with friends, colleagues and family members all over the planet. But Americans use the Net to get free data from music to weather, send messages, play games, shop and talk about sex. So the Net could exacerbate the techno-trend that television began. We're e-mailing and browsing alone as well as bowling. The Net could have an ever more striking impact, since it enables users to do things TV doesn't -- like play games and shop for nearly everything. Those, among others, were activities that people once had to go outside to do, where they might glimpse or even speak with a neighbor -- or go bowling.
America was founded partly on the notion of common civic spaces -- taverns, greens. A lot of cyber-idealists thought the Net was becoming our new common space. That hasn't happened. Nasty teenagers, spammers and greedy corporatists have made common turf on the Net either too expensive, hostile or annoying for most people to spend much time on.
Putnam's idea about social capital might be even more timely relevant than he understood.