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.