May 2nd, 2008

Shutdown for computer shut-ins

Yesterday was Mayday. But, moving right along, tomorrow is Shutdown Day, the holiday during which we’re advised to take a holiday from our computers, televisions, and other electronic communication gadgetry.

Don’t know if I will. I was about to say “Don’t know if I can“—but of course I can. Most definitely I can. Any time I want, I can turn this sucker off. I just choose not to.

One wonders, though. For years I was one of those people who would never, never ever, get hooked on a computer. In fact, as a technically-challenged person, I resisted using one until the late 90s. And I never, never ever, thought I’d spend several hours a day, every day, working online. But of course I do.

The advocates of Shutdown Day claim that computers isolate us more and make it less likely that people will get together in the old-fashioned ways. They think that computers make people more introverted. Those of us who are naturally more extroverted (I consider myself to be one of them, an introverted extrovert or an extroverted introvert) still find ways to get out there and mingle despite all our computer time.

But I have noticed that there’s been a general tendency in the last two decades for people to get together in person less frequently than they used to, and it probably does have something to do with the ease of electronic home entertainment. I first noticed this some time back in the 90s, when the already-meager social offerings in my part of New England began declining precipitously.

Parties became limited to one or two around Christmastime. Dinner out with friends was now somewhat of an occasion, rather than a regular thing. And this decline wasn’t the result of the advent of parenthood; most of our children were in their teen years by then and one might have thought that we adults would be happily enjoying our reclaimed freedom to party. Nor was it sudden poverty; the restaurants in my town were hardly expensive, and most of our get-togethers had been of the pot-luck variety, anyway.

I understood at least part of what was happening one Saturday evening when I went to the local video store to rent a movie. Almost everyone I knew was there prowling the aisles, seeking their solitary (or couple-ary) pleasures. It was then that I realized the videocassette player had been the agent of the death of the party, at least in my crowd.

In the 50s and 60s my parents had socialized in a way that seems frenetic compared to current mores, but I believe they were not atypical for middle-class people of their generation. They either went out or had friends over several times a week, every week.

First there was card-playing night, followed by cake, coffee, and lively conversation. Then there were meetings of several volunteer groups. Once a week for many years a group of couples met in my parents’ pine-paneled basement for ballroom dance lessons, to the tune of the scratchy record player. There were dinner parties and dance parties, small groups and large, several annual balls at the community center, fund-raisers and trips together and golf groups and tennis ladders.

These people were not rich, either. Many of the women didn’t work, but quite a few did. They just liked to get together and have fun, and they appeared to have the leisure to do so. There was little competition for their free time; television had been invented, but even in those pre-VCR days few would have thought to shun a social occasion for a TV show.

Now it’s different. According to Shutdown Day co-founder Rajekar, “[Shutdown Day is] an exercise in spreading awareness, so the first few times it’s going to be a very new experience for people who’ve never been away from their computer, and they will hopefully realize it’s not such a dangerous thing.”

People who’ve never been away from their computer. On reflection, I realize that must be a sizeable proportion of young people. To them, this is the natural state of things, and when I describe my parents’ life I might just just as well be speaking of the Victorians, or maybe even the Romans.

Technology always changes us, and most communications advances have been a double-edged sword in terms of bringing us closer. The much-awaited letter, a thing you could hold in your hand and save as a keepsake, imbued with the scent of the author and written in his/her own hand, has been replaced by the convenient but ephemeral email. The telephone can substitute for the social call, making it easier to bridge geographic distance but allowing us to feel better about moving further away from our loved ones.

And on and on it goes. Why should computers be any different?

17 Responses to “Shutdown for computer shut-ins”

  1. Rob C Says:

    I wonder if you could closer map the decline of social visiting to the rise of DUI enforcement. Nowadays you risk a criminal offense if you have one cocktail while out visiting with your friends.

    Of course, the other major time consumer now is children and shuttling them to and fro for every major activity. Also, you can’t leave them by themselves at night so going out becomes either a one adult or a “get a sitter/grandparent” proposition.

  2. gcotharn Says:

    RC makes an interesting point: people don’t drink like they used to. However, is it that people don’t drink like they used to, or that people don’t gather like they used to (the gatherings offering easy occasions for drink)? Which came first, the chicken(not drinking), the egg(not gathering), or the DUI?

    Also: might high gas prices 1) discourage travelling across town to socialize with distant friends, and 2) encourage travelling across the street to socialize with neighbors?

  3. Connor Says:

    Technology is a double-edged sword–amen! You think we would have figured that out after World War I at the latest. I think most youths have gone beyond e-mail by now and turned to chat, which is even more ephemeral.

    Your post makes me think of Neil Postman. What we need is a little discernment, I think; people are typically tempted to use technology to the hilt and then some, defending their excessive use by praising its good points. But the good points of computers, machines which tend to narcissism if one isn’t careful, are often mitigated because so many of its possible uses are, well, useless.

  4. Barb Says:

    I absolutely will not shut my computer down, just because some day has been designated for it. I will do the opposite, and be online all day!!! SO THERE!!!!

  5. Jimmy J. Says:

    Cheers for you, Barb!

    Like Neo I just learned to use a computer in the 90s. Didn’t really discover the blogosphere until 2004. I’m old and don’t know how many years I’ve got left. I take time off from the computer when I travel, which is about three weeks a year. Always happy to get back to the blogosphere when I get home. So, no way am I shutting down because someone thinks it a good idea.

  6. West Says:

    I propose a day when we do without fire. There are many other silliness’ I could propose that could also probably generate a following of similarly dazed individuals who cannot modify their own behavior, even for one day, without a support group.

  7. tehag Says:

    “They either went out or had friends over several times a week, every week.”

    I won’t speak for everyone or, probably, even a large fraction of everyone, but the reason I see for less and less socializing of this sort is the importance of food in proving one’s morality. It’s been years, nay decades, since a proposal for a common meal or a dinner hasn’t been interrupted by someone expressing their disapproval at including immoral foods in the meal and not considering the offense they’d take at sighting or smelling such immoral foods.

  8. Ymarsakar Says:

    Any social hierarchy divides human beings from each other as well as it connects them, Neo.

    For example, being part of Western society back in the day excluded you from Eastern societies and other foreigners. But it gave you more convenience and confidence when socializing with other Westerners, however.

    Telephones and instant online communication is the same thing. The problem isn’t a thing of technology changing us, but of basic human flaws that can’t be gotten rid of by technology.

    You’d have to get rid of human beings to eliminate human isolation.

    Take English as the global business and commercial language. People that learn it are then able to communicate, verbally or in written form, in the English or Anglo-Saxon world. But they also suffer friction amongst their home society and language, since now they have to divide time between English and their home language.

    For the most part, their home societies demand English fluency, so it doesn’t conflict. But when learning English also means learning English culture and adopting it as your own, it will eventually conflict with your home nation’s culture.

    This is true of Arabs just as it is true for the Japanese, with the added factor that the former won’t adapt while the latter is very adaptable.

  9. Ymarsakar Says:

    Now that often both parents are working or we have single mother and single father families, there just isn’t the social stability for cocktail parties, Neo, and various other avenues of entertainment.

    Either it is socially embarassing to setup or it takes too much setup time and effort that could be expended on ndividual entertainment options, or people have lost their favor in etiquette so social dinners are a slightly more awkward and less fun entertainment option.

  10. Patrick Brown Says:

    The real problem is not people making the choice as free adults to spend time at their computers – it’s the meddling idiots who presume to tell other adults how to behave. There is no reason to suppose that any of the nannies behind “Shutdown Day” know anything about the lives of the ordinary people they are trying to persuade, or that they are in any way better qualified to judge whether you or I need to spend time away from the computer. But then, their purpose is not to improve our mental health. It is to meddle in our lives. They believe that they are smarter than we are, and so should get to tell us what to do. They are wrong.

  11. Promethea Says:

    Am I the only one who finds most social gatherings full of boring yik-yak about some restaurant meal, a sight-seeing trip, the doings of children and grandchildren, the cost of pills, the latest electronic gadget, the cost of gasoline, etc. etc. etc. etc.?

    I get together with friends and family because I don’t want to be completely isolated from all living human beings, but I find the posts and opinions on Neo, the Belmont Club, Dr. Sanity, LGF, Ace of Spades, Instapundit, and other sites much more interesting than the normal conversation I participate in.

    Now you all may be thinking that I’m a boring person myself. I would dispute that. I make a great effort to get people to talk and to be a good listener. (Patting myself on the back here) The people I know just can’t get beyond the received opinions from the NYTimes, and they all have BDS syndrome. I’ve learned never to try to convince them that Bush isn’t so bad.

    Thank you, computer, for giving me faith that all people are not as close-minded as my particular social circle.

  12. SteveH Says:

    There are subtle signals that little fascist libs are trying to run everybody elses life.

    The phrase “Raise Awareness” happens to be one of them.

  13. Peg C. Says:

    We’ve given up on social gatherings of any type because inevitably some lefty nutjob will slam Bush or Iraq and get everyone’s blood pressure off the map. No conservative brings up such subjects except in rare instances where solely in the company of other conservatives.

    My hubby is a 60 yr old Vietnam vet and I am former lifelong lefty in her early 50s. We met online in the early 90s and carried our addictions to computers into our marriage. We are both in IT so we spend most of our waking hours on them. We cannot watch TV without laptops on our laps. Computer Shutdown Day? No one but a lefty nannystater could come up with such lunacy.

    And yet I manage to devour probably 50 books a year, fiction and non-fiction, and listen to a heck of a lot of music. Social gatherings where the conversation has the weight and substance of cotton candy? I don’t think so.

    I also second the comment on the Blogosphere. I can’t live without it.

  14. Vince P Says:

    Christopher Hitchens was on th vile Bill Maher’s HBO show once and Bill Maher made a joke like “Well George Bush is stupid”

    And Hitchens responded “Oh God.. that’s the joke only found funny by stupid people”

  15. gus3 Says:

    I turn off my computer for thunderstorms. Other than that, it’s turned on.

    However, I do make a point not to let the cycles go to waste. I run Folding@Home, which does protein folding simulations during otherwise idle time. Having just lost a friend to Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, this project has a special importance for me.

  16. Wacky Hermit Says:

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but the internet IS my social life.

    I really don’t do well in traditional “social” situations. If I had to have people over for dinner every week, I’d go nuts. We do have people over for dinner… just not that often. But the internet is where I do my “networking”– the passing along of information, the keeping in touch. I use the internet to connect on a regular basis with people I know in real life as well as people I’ve never met but who share my interests. The internet plays for me the role that these kinds of social parties used to play.

    So for me to go internet-free for a day would be one of two things: exhausting, or isolating.

  17. rafinlay Says:

    It is not so much that the internet is cutting social ties as it is rearranging them. Proximity is no longer essential for social discourse. This allows us to seek out like-minded persons for interaction. Possible downside: Through lack of reinforcing practice, we lessen in our ability to compromise with others, tolerate their idocies, and focus on their virtues as we used to do, all for the sake of a little companionship.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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