As we look back on the first 10 years of the new millennium, the ubiquity of the Internet and the growth of all its social networking possibilities, from email to Blackberries, iPhones and Facebook, is surely one of the most significant changes to emerge from the decade. Granted, the changes began a decade before that. But the past 10 years has seen a phenomenal boom in the growth of Internet access and usage ... up 1600% in the Middle East, 1300% in Africa, and more than 300% worldwide, so that Internet users now number more than half the total population of the world, according to Internet World Stats.
We can now easily connect with friends on different continents without waiting two weeks for a letter, talk via computer without the expense of international long distance, and share new baby or other photos with hundreds of friends and relatives in a single posting, via personal Web sites and Facebook pages. My next-door neighbors, who are from Turino, Italy and just had a baby, even hooked up webcams around the house so the distant grandparents could watch live videos of their new grandson playing, feeding, and sleeping from half a world away. With chat rooms, email, Skype, Facebook, and the worldwide Web community, the possibility of being isolated or without someone to "talk" to is far more remote.
But are there hidden costs to all this connectedness? Is it possible that for some, there is loneliness, not safety, in numbers? Two essays by Willaim Deresiewicz in The Chronicle for Higher Education--one last January, and one penned only a few days ago, argue that it is. In his most recent essay, Deresiewicz quotes two studies, one from 1985, and one from 2004, that show a marked decline in people who have a "close confidant." In 1985, only one out of 10 people said they lacked such a person in their life. In 2004, that number had climbed to four out of 10. And that was before so many blogs and social networking sites expanded the number of options (and distractions) for how we spend whatever social connection time we have.
So as we spend more time connecting to the world, it appears that at least some of us may be trading off depth for breadth. We are at once more connected and less connected, depending on how you look at it. But that's not the only impact that concerns Deresiewicz. In his essay from last January, entitled "The End of Solitude," he talks about the impact of constant connectivity on our comfort with being quiet and alone. Just as boredom comes from a discomfort with idle time, he argues that loneliness comes not from being alone per se, but from discomfort over being alone. Just as a small child has to learn to put themselves to sleep, we have to learn how to be comfortable with being alone. And that takes practice ... practice that is far easier to avoid with all the distractions of constant connectivity.
The essays are an interesting read on the history of friendship, social values, and how evolving technology has affected our social connections, from the evolution of the suburbs to the advent of the Internet. And whether you agree with his assessment of Facebook and its impact on social connection, he raises some interesting and valid points.
Without question, there are certain elements that exist in inverse proportion to each other. An Olympic gold-medal athlete has deep expertise in one area, but generally trades off experience and knowledge in other subjects for that one field of excellence. You can go deep, or broad, but generally not both. Quality begins to degrade if increasing quantity is demanded in the same time frame. If you have 10 priorities, you really have none. The same goes for intimacy. Just ask anyone who's tried to balance multiple intimate relationships at the same time.
Friendship is less demanding than a more intimate and vulnerable romantic connection, but the same principle applies. I've noticed, the more times I've moved, and the more people I've met, how much harder it is to keep up with all those friendships on any significant level. Acquaintances are easy to maintain with casual, group emails and Holiday notes. But real friends? They take time and energy--both to develop, and to nurture or maintain.
Facebook, Twitter, Group Emails, texting and other mass communication and connection vehicles don't preclude anyone also taking that time and focus to develop a few deep friendships, any more than they preclude taking time to read, think, or get comfortable with yourself, alone. But they do throw more potential and tempting distractions in the mix, as well as a slightly guilty feeling that we should be keeping up with all those people. In our increasingly immediate, non-stop society, all of us struggle to find enough time for family and friends. And the more of that already-squeezed time anyone spends maintaining a broad network of Internet, text, Facebook and Twitter friends and updates, the less time and energy they have to devote to any one friend or person. It's just simple math.
Once upon a time, books and conversations were the only distractions we had. We also tended to stay in small, local communities, so we had years to develop ties with one small group of people. Is there a link between our moving away from those communities and the development of more media to assuage the loneliness and distance that ensued? I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me there was. But in any event, the media and distractions came. First radio and movies. Then TV. Then videos. Then video games, the Internet and the cell phone. For the past 50 years, there's been some passive way to avoid facing silence, alone with yourself, if you really wanted to.
At the very least, the increase in connection and distraction possibilities increases the need to make choices among all the options. There is no technology that can speed up the time it takes to have an intimate, personal, and unique conversation with a single friend. But it can increase the number of friends, past and present, with whom I could have those conversations, either via email or just through the reconnection magic of Internet searches. So the temptation is there to become scattered--and in trying to keep up with all, to end up keeping up well with none.
Does that mean that our friendships are in danger of becoming less deep, or that the increased distractions mean we've gotten worse at learning to be alone, in silence? Maybe. But only if we've allowed it. Avoiding scatteredness--in social connections, anyway--is simply a matter of prioritizing and letting go of things that are less important. And getting immersed in distractions is a choice. For those who are afraid of being alone, there have always been distractions. For those of us who recognize the value of silence and deeper connections, I doubt the advent of new technologies will suddenly change our craving for those things.
Indeed, as I've sat in a snow-bound Connecticut house, curled up with a bad cold the past few days, I've remembered again the beauty of a slower pace of living. One that allows for a long chat with an old friend, a well-developed thought, or the joy of spending time over a piece of writing not due two hours later. But I also love being able to keep in frequent touch with lifelong friends who live in Paris, in ways we never would if it took mailing international letters, instead of email, to connect.
As always, it's a matter of balance; of being master of the sorcery at our disposal, instead of letting it master us. Of course, balance itself is a skill that, like being comfortable with solitude or a deep friendship, requires patience, dedicated effort ... and evolves, in most cases, with age, experience, and time.
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today's riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.
Does Adam Sandler have an expiration date? Does his particular brand of slapstick—humor that's infused with a wan self-deprecation, that manages to be simultaneously silly and sociopathic, that once found Sandler punching Bob Barker in the face while informing him that "the price is wrong, bitch"—hold up? Is Sandler's own price now, finally, wrong?
Recent events would suggest yes. Late last week, in the course of filming Sandler's newest project, the made-for-Netflix Western spoof The Ridiculous 6, a Native-American cultural advisor and several performers and extras walked off the set in protest. (Sample characters: Beaver Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face. Sample line: "Say honey: how about after this, we go someplace and I put my peepee in your teepee?") As Allison Young, a Navajo actress who quit after being asked to do a scene "requiring her to fall down drunk, surrounded by jeering white men who rouse her by dousing her with more alcohol" told the Indian Country Media Network, “We talked to the producers about our concerns. They just told us, ‘If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave.’”
On Monday afternoon the funeral for Freddie Gray took place in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray died last week from spinal injuries suffered while in Baltimore Police custody. After the funeral, against the wishes of the Gray family, some peaceful demonstrations took place, but other protests became violent, devolving into chaotic clashes.
In a recent dispatch from Ferguson, Missouri, Jelani Cobb noted that President Obama's responses to "unpunished racial injustices" constitute "a genre unto themselves." Monday night, when Barack Obama stood before the nation to interpret the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, he offered a particularly tame specimen. The elements of "the genre" were all on display—an unmitigated optimism, an urge for calm, a fantastic faith in American institutions, aneven-handedness exercised to a fault. But if all the limbs of the construct were accounted for, the soul of the thing was not.
There was none of the spontaneous annoyance at the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, and little of the sheer pain exhibited in the line, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." The deft hand Obama employed in explaining to Americans why the acquittal of George Zimmerman so rankled had gone arthritic. This was a perfunctory execution of "the genre," offered with all the energy of a man ticking items off a to-do list.
Police say that intentionally banging a suspect around in the back of a van isn't common practice. But the range of slang terms to describe the practice suggests it's more common that anyone would hope—and a roster of cases show that Freddie Gray is hardly the first person whose serious injuries allegedly occurred while in police transit. Citizens have accused police of using aggressive driving to rough suspects up for decades in jurisdictions across the country. Though experts don't think it's a widespread practice, rough rides have injured many people, frayed relationships, and cost taxpayers, including Baltimore's, millions of dollars in damages.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and called out the National Guard on Monday night, "to address the growing violence and unrest in Baltimore City." Later Monday night, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced that a week-long curfew would be imposed on the city. Maryland State Police said they would request an additional 5,000 officers from the mid-Atlantic region to restore order.
Earlier in the day, police clashed with demonstrators during protests over the death of a young black man in police custody. Video footage showed a handful of protesters and bystanders throwing rocks and bottles at police officers in full riot gear, who responded with pepper spray and tear gas. City officials said at a press conference on Monday night that 15 officers had been injured and two were hospitalized, including one officer who was reportedly “unresponsive,” although further details about his or her condition were not immediately available. "Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs," Rawlings-Blake told reporters.
“People skills” are almost always assumed to be a good thing. Search employment ads and you will find them listed as a qualification for a startling array of jobs, including Applebee’s host, weight-loss specialist, CEO, shoe salesperson, and (no joke) animal-care coordinator. The notion that people smarts might help you succeed got a boost a quarter century ago, when the phrase emotional intelligence, or EI, entered the mainstream. Coined in a 1990 study, the term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book . Since then, scores of researchers have shown how being in touch with feelings—both your own and other people’s—gives you an edge: compared with people who have average EI, those with high EI do better at work, have fewer health problems,and report greater life satisfaction.
Take a walk along West Florissant Avenue, in Ferguson, Missouri. Head south of the burned-out Quik Trip and the famous McDonalds, south of the intersection with Chambers, south almost to the city limit, to the corner of Ferguson Avenue and West Florissant. There, last August, Emerson Electric announced third-quarter sales of $6.3 billion. Just over half a mile to the northeast, four days later, Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. The 12 shots fired by Officer Wilson were probably audible in the company lunchroom.
Outwardly, at least, the City of Ferguson would appear to occupy an enviable position. It is home to a Fortune 500 firm. It has successfully revitalized a commercial corridor through its downtown. It hosts an office park filled with corporate tenants. Its coffers should be overflowing with tax dollars.