We’re Never Going Back to the 1950s

An illustration of a warped U.S. map
Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Twenty years ago, the sociologist Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone used the decline of bowling leagues since the middle of the 20th century to symbolize America’s declining social engagement. This year, he published a sequel of sorts, The Upswing, in which he identified more stray threads of our social unraveling: in lower marriage rates, church attendance, and trust in government; in falling membership in all chapter-based associations; collapsing social trust among young adults; and even a decrease in mentions of community versus identity in novels and nonfiction books.

But no measure of communitarian pessimism could have prepared Putnam for the circumstances of the past nine months. America’s bowling alleys haven’t just depopulated; they’ve gone dark, along with thousands of churches, restaurants, bars, cafés, gyms, theaters, and almost every other physical space that could preserve or nurture a physical community.

Mirroring this civic fragmentation, America’s media and entertainment industry has spun apart, and the spinning is accelerating. On December 3, the film studio Warner Bros. announced that subscribers of the company’s digital streaming service HBO Max will be able to watch all of its 2021 film releases at home, on the same day that they’re released in theaters. The movies affected by this decision aren’t humble indies. We’re talking Dune and The Matrix 4—the sort of films that, if they were released exclusively in theaters next year, might earn a domestic box office roughly equal to the GDP of Micronesia.

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Like Putnam’s beloved bowling alleys, cinemas are an example of the decline of semiweekly gatherings in the United States—even if they’re less chatty establishments. In the 1940s, the average American bought more than 30 movie tickets a year, regularly packing into theaters with scores of strangers. In the past few years, that figure fell below four. In 2020, movie tickets sold per-person will fall below one—possibly for the first time since the late 1800s. The decision by Warner Bros. will likely encourage other entertainment companies, such as Disney, to funnel more of their marquee content to streaming services in the next few years. And the result could be a death spiral for movie theaters as we know them, as the film industry continues its shift from a public, ticketed affair to a private, living-room experience.

Home entertainment is fracturing as well, and along with it the communal-while-alone possibility of a shared popular culture. Since 2010, 33 million households have either cut the cord or never signed up for cable TV in the first place. The traditional cable bundle is slowly dying, and its death is fertilizing new subscription-only streaming services, such as HBO Max, Disney+, Peacock from NBCUniversal, and Quibi (RIP), which join a landscape crowded with Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu, not to mention user-generated video platforms including YouTube and TikTok.

It would be hackish to accuse Netflix or Warner Bros. of being the main accelerants of American loneliness. But the fact is that cinematic entertainment, which was born as the ultimate communal ritual, an experience whose technology required simultaneity and togetherness, has become the ultimate personal activity, an incomprehensibly long spectrum of different stories mostly consumed in a state of solitude.

This media shift—from the scarce and communal to the abundant and privatized—also describes the evolution of the news industry. In the past 20 years, newspaper circulation, advertising revenue, and employment have cratered. But overall, news—that is, sources of new information, of varying truthiness—didn’t decline; it exploded. The web created a phalanx of news publishers, not just websites but also Facebook pages, Instagram personalities, newsletters, podcasts, and so on; at the same time, Google and Facebook duopolized digital advertising, creating a situation where publishers were multiplying as advertising declined.

In ecology, the term niche partitioning describes the way that competing species become hyper-specialized in an attempt to co-exist in an environment with scarce resources. I think that’s what’s happening in the news industry. As the number of competing publishers increases, it makes sense for each of them to carve out an ecological niche. This niches-get-riches race leads logically to a set of more outlets that embrace a more unabashedly partisan perspective—just as they did in the late 1800s.

One might assume that polarization is what happens to people cut off from information. But the truth is closer to the opposite: More information means more polarization. Research shows that access to broadband internet in the U.S. has in many cases increased various measures of polarization, as the web introduces voters to a bigger menu of partisan news from which voters select the sites that match their political tastes.

We’ve seen this phenomenon accelerate in 2020. Four years ago, most people would have said there were three major cable news networks: the center-left one (CNN), the liberal alternative (MSNBC), and the conservative juggernaut (Fox News). But in the past few months, the conservative-news monolith has shattered. Since the election, Newsmax TV and the One America News Network have stepped up to backfill President Donald Trump’s election-fraud lies with programming from an alternate reality. And behold, niche partitioning works: Last week, Newsmax rode the election-conspiracy story to its first-ever ratings win over Fox. Because Trump devotees are going to buy tickets to whatever media universe offers the best narrative, networks are competing to tell the Trumpiest tale.

With weekly religious attendance at low ebb and live TV in structural decline, national elections are arguably the only activity that Americans do together in shared time. But shared time is not shared reality. Led by the president, Republican lawmakers have petitioned to sabotage the results of the election, based on fantastic conspiracy theories. The GOP fever dream, which is credulously reproduced across Trump-friendly media, is clearly contagious: More than 80 percent of Trump voters believe that Biden’s win is illegitimate, a figure corresponding to about 60 million people. There is nothing unique about reality and fantasy blending together in politics. But the speed and severity with which Trump’s “Stop the Steal!” mind virus has infected the GOP is the sign of a compromised civic immune system. A far-right cohort has been effectively quarantined from reality in one corner of our honeycombed media landscape.

There is no going back to the 1950s. We will never again be enfolded by those bespoke mid-century circumstances, the scarce broadcasts and broadsheets. The dividing forces are too strong and too many. The film experience pushed out across millions of flatscreens; the live-television networks splintering into millions of digital entertainment queues; the news dissolving into innumerable political realities: One by one, these are not evil trends. But they add up. Or, more aptly, they divide. They individuate.

People ask me if I’m optimistic about 2021, and the answer is that, in a way, I’m ecstatically optimistic. The economy will reopen, and life will reopen. People will come out of their homes; they will send their kids to school; they will hug and kiss and live. But underneath the high tide of economic growth and social normalization, I think we’ll feel something else, an eerie undertow of isolation and anxiety.

“The definition of community is ‘where you keep showing up,’” said someone I met, whose name I’ve forgotten, back in the days when it was normal to meet new people whose names you could forget. I haven’t forgotten that line, though: Community is where you keep showing up. What a lovely idea. But where do people keep showing up, these days? Nowhere. Not the office, not the COVID-aerosolized bars and gyms. A lot of people have spent a year finding community via a glowing screen in a room they never leave.

The empty bowling alleys and movie theaters; the infinity buffet of entertainment and partisan media; the dissolution of a shared American reality—these are distinct yet connected phenomena. Digital technology has spawned a choose-your-own-adventure mediascape, which has flooded the electorate with alternate realities, at the same time that its community ties wither. America is coming apart, and these pieces will not be easily reassembled.