How Has Technology Changed the Concept of Community?

For some, making connections has become easier, but others say that life has become more isolated.

Harrison McClary / Reuters

At a time when Americans can flick a keyboard or swipe a touchscreen to connect with products, people, and information from anywhere in the world, are they in danger of disconnecting from their own communities? With the world at our fingertips, are we losing sight of the places outside of our windows?

The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll makes clear those questions are engaging—and concerning—many Americans as they live through a revolution in communications and computer technology so powerful it has justifiably evoked comparisons to a natural upheaval, like a hurricane.

Most Americans see these cascading changes as a reason for optimism—a bright spot in a sky otherwise clouded with concern over the nation’s economy, government, and public- and private-sector leadership. Just over half of those polled in the new survey said the explosion of digital technologies and connectivity has done more to connect than to isolate Americans and will continue to improve their overall quality of life. They also said the changes have created more jobs than they have eliminated. Young people are especially optimistic.

But the survey also found a substantial minority of adults who remain concerned that our ever-increasing reliance on digital technologies is costing jobs, undermining local merchants, fraying communities, disrupting families, and unsettling too many aspects of American life. On many of these questions, concerns about the implications of these pervasive technological changes are greater among older Americans, particularly those with children.

In follow-up interviews, the dominant note for many who were polled was a distinct ambivalence. Respondents young and old recognized problems that the new technologies are creating, even as they celebrated the doors this digital world has opened.

“As far as the negatives go, people seem to be more uninvolved or less gregarious—there’s less family time, because most teenagers are involved on their devices, compared to some years ago,” said Mark Anderson, a 54-year-old retired car salesman in Greenbelt, Maryland. “For the positives, all of the information is at your fingertips. If there’s something you don’t know, you can Google it. Or if you need directions, things are a lot easier. Overall, it’s positive. I just hope that everyone has equal access to the opportunity—that’s the bottom line.”

Andrew Kowalski, an 18-year-old in Walla Walla, Washington, is studying to work on wind-power systems. He described a similar ledger, though with more entries in the positive column. “The older generation, they don’t really think that technology is great, because it takes away the eye contact and communication from person to person,” Kowalski said. “Now it’s a lot of technology-to-person instead of face-to-face contact. They see that as hiding behind a phone. I think it’s good, though, because you’re able to access any information at any time you want.”

The latest Heartland Monitor Poll explores Americans’ attitudes about the rapid advances in communications and computing that has now made it routine for many millions of Americans to reach for their Internet-connected phones or tablets as their first action in the morning and their last one at night. In particular, the poll explores Americans’ views on community in the digital age: how the communications and computing advances have changed the way they connect with friends, family members, and neighbors; and how this is reshaping community life, ranging from where people shop to how they participate in causes they care about.

Over the next week, National Journal and The Atlantic will report the results from the survey, including specific assessments of how Americans are using the new technologies and how they believe it is reshaping our social interactions. In the big picture, the poll finds Americans mostly enthusiastic about these hurtling changes—though with some clear hesitations and consistent divisions along lines of age, income, education, and, at times, partisanship.

Americans returned a mixed verdict on the poll’s broadest question: “What effect do you believe the digital revolution has had on the overall quality of life in America?” The share of adults who described the impact as positive (28 percent) was nearly triple the share that viewed it as negative (10 percent). But by far the largest group returned a qualified verdict: 62 percent said the impact had been “mixed, both positive and negative.”

Those polled tilted toward more positive assessments on questions that probed specific aspects of the digital transformation. Asked whether the ubiquitous nature of modern communications was doing more to connect or to isolate Americans, 53 percent of adults endorsed the positive statement that “the digital revolution is improving Americans’ quality of life by making it easier to keep in touch with like-minded people from around the country and the world, and to buy products from anywhere conveniently.” Even so, 39 percent agreed with the more negative assessment that the changes are diminishing “Americans’ quality of life by isolating people from their neighbors and local businesses, and by weakening the sense of community in our neighborhoods.”

The breakdown was virtually identical on a question that asked whether the digital revolution has benefited all Americans or primarily helped the affluent. In this case, a majority, 55 percent, endorsed the positive view that digital advances have “allowed all Americans, including those in low-income and rural areas, to gain access to information and communications technology that’s critical to economic opportunity.” Some 38 percent of adults objected that the changes have “been mostly beneficial to Americans with higher incomes who can afford to pay for access to this information and new technology.”

By almost exactly the same margin, a majority of those polled expect these benefits to continue in coming years. Fifty-four percent agreed that continuing advances in computing and communications “will improve my quality of life in the future, and [they are] eager to see the new products and services that are emerging.” By comparison, 41 percent said they worried “that technological advances are moving too fast and are disrupting too many aspects of our economy and social life.”

Some demographic divisions remained consistent across the poll’s four central questions. Members of the Millennial generation (born since 1982) were repeatedly the most enthusiastic about these developments. For instance, 60 percent of Millennials said they expected the digital revolution to benefit them in the future, compared with 54 percent of Generation-Xers (born 1965-1981), 50 percent of Baby Boomers (1945-1964), and only 45 percent of respondents in their 70s or older. The breakdown was similar on the question about whether the communications revolution was doing more to connect or to isolate Americans: 60 percent of Millennials took the positive view, compared with 50 percent of Generation-Xers, 52 percent of Baby Boomers, and 49 percent of the oldest respondents.

Shelby Carbin, a 20-year-old civil-engineering student in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was among the Millennials who expect the digital revolution to keep returning benefits—though she sees the costs accumulating as well. “In some ways, technology has made life a lot easier,” she said. “The Internet has given us access to loads and loads of information. Before, you had to go to a library to find that information, but if you didn’t live close to a library, you’d have to find out from someone else… It also helps you stay connected with people who live far away. But technology isn’t necessarily made available to everybody. Sometimes, technology can become pricey, and not everyone can afford it, so some people are left out of the opportunities. People have also become too attached to it—they feel like they can’t function without it.”

On several questions, African Americans, sometimes joined by Hispanics, were more enthusiastic about the changes than whites were. While two-thirds of blacks said the digital revolution had improved the way that Americans connect with one another, only 50 percent of whites (and 51 percent of Hispanics) agreed. Both African Americans (64 percent) and Hispanics (60 percent) were more likely than whites (52 percent) to say the changes have benefited all Americans, rather than those with higher incomes. Blacks and Hispanics were also slightly more likely than whites to expect that future technological advances will improve their quality of life (though the difference fell within the poll’s margin of error).

Generally, both minorities and whites without a college education were just as enthusiastic about these changes as their counterparts with four-year college degrees or more. The exception: College-educated respondents, both minorities and whites, were much more likely than their non-college brethren to expect benefits from future advances. Across partisan lines, Democrats were more likely than Republicans or Independents to believe that communications advances have already knit Americans together more closely and will provide benefits in the future.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the concern about the impact of digital technologies on how children interact with family and friends, parents expressed more ambivalence about these changes than childless adults did. While those without children saw the changes as improving the way Americans connect by a lopsided margin, 58 percent to 37 percent, parents split more closely, 51 percent positive to 40 percent negative. (Respondents also felt considerable unease about the specific impact of the communications changes on young people, as a later story in this series will show.)

On questions that specifically assessed the economic impact of the digital revolution, the survey found Americans split even more closely. More respondents said the changes have created more American jobs than they’ve cost. But only 46 percent voiced this positive view, less than the majority that gave a thumbs-up on other questions about the digital revolution’s impact. Thirty-eight percent held the negative view, that technological changes in communications and computers have mostly cost jobs.

On the question of jobs, optimism coincided with youth. Millennials (54 percent positive) and Generation X (52 percent) were much more likely to view the digital revolution as a job-creator than Baby Boomers (just 35 percent) were. The very oldest respondents (49 percent) were nearly as positive as the young.

Two respondents encapsulated this generational divide. Anderson, the 54-year-old retired auto salesman, has seen the pressure that online commerce can exert on retail jobs—on selling cars, say. “You can buy items online so you don’t need as much retail personnel,” he fears. But Kowalski, the 18-year-old wind-technology student, foresees a steady stream of new jobs. “Anything that has to do with electrical or technological capabilities, there has to be somebody who has to maintain it, so that opens up a job,” he said. “It’ll be good for younger generations, I’m sure, because of how many jobs will be opening up.”

Interestingly, Hispanics (53 percent) and African Americans (50 percent) were more likely than whites (44 percent) to say that the new technologies have mostly created jobs. The white ambivalence reflected a sharp educational divide. College-educated whites, by a solid margin of 50 percent to 34 percent, said they thought digital technology was more likely to create than to eliminate jobs. Whites who didn’t go to college saw the downside; more of them said (by 45 percent to 38 percent) that the changes, on balance, have cost jobs.

One of those is Albert Hohn, of Reedsville, Pennsylvania, who dropped out of high school and is now unemployed. He worries that the increased reliance on digital technologies has reduced his job opportunities. “I’m job-searching for something in retail stocking, like a midnight stocker, [but] I think there are less [jobs available to me] because of the technology and the qualifications required for that technology,” the 26-year-old said. “I’m one of the few who never got to finish school, and to go back to get a GED for me now with two kids is very hard. I just don’t have the time for it. For most of the jobs out there, they want you to have a high school diploma or equivalent.”

Poll respondents split almost exactly on a related question: whether the economic gains from the digital gains accrued mostly at home or abroad. While 41 percent of those surveyed said the advances have primarily benefited “the United States, where much of the technology is designed and developed,” another 40 percent said the principal beneficiaries have been in “places like China, where most of the technology is manufactured.” Ten percent said both have benefited equally.

Millennials (at 51 percent) were far likelier than older generations to believe the United States has mostly benefited from the digital transformation; just 33 percent of generation X, 39 percent of baby boomers, and 40 percent of the oldest respondents concurred. Democrats were more likely than Republicans or independents to see domestic benefits, and African-Americans more likely than whites. But by other criteria, such as education levels, the differences were muted.

Janie Boschma contributed to this article.