Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Depersonalization of America

I like to people-watch, and living in New York City is a people-watcher's dream. There are so many different races, ethnic groups, tourists, natives, and borderline wackos to look at. One thing I've noticed is that people seem more detached from one another and attached to whatever electronic interface connects them to the world. The art and joy of face-to-face communication is in serious decline. We tweet, surf, e-mail, and telephone, but we don't talk. People wander around like zombies, a $4 cup of coffee in one hand, and an i-phone in the other, fearful of putting the phone down lest they miss some trivial bit of gossip. I have actually seen friends sitting at a table together over breakfast, each talking to other people on the phone. Walkers pass me in the park staring straight ahead, unwilling to make eye contact or nod good morning. What is happening to us?   

Back in the 1970s when e-mail first appeared on my work scene, company executives hated it. They would have their secretaries (now an extinct species in the business world) read all their e-mails for them and type out written responses. People went for weeks without looking at their e-mail. Now, so attuned to this electronic medium, we read it from home at night or while on vacation. Nobody is ever unavailable for work associates any more. Cowards use e-mail to tell you what they haven't got the guts to say to your face. Schemers with personal agendas send blind copies of e-mails to people with no business getting them as a way of circumventing the chain of command. Outside consultants, professional hatchets, are brought in to handle layoffs. As a kid I worked in a fruit and vegetable store making deliveries. When business dropped off due to competition from supermarkets, the old man had to let me go. He sat down with tears in his eyes to give me the news, and sent me home with enough produce and cold cuts for a couple of weeks. That's how you do it.

Personal relationships are now handled like job interviews. We used to go to clubs and dances looking for dates and companionship. There were rules and rituals and we pretty much followed them. I've spoken before about how guys would show up in the lobby of The Grace Downs Academy in Manhattan, a school that boarded young ladies who were training to become stewardesses, just like the ones on the new ABC show, Pan Am. The girls would come down to look over the male talent seated in the lobby, strike up a conversation if a guy looked promising, and off they would go on a date. Today people meet on Facebook or through e-Harmony.com. It seems safer somehow than the old Grace Downs approach, but it is not. Predators lurk online,  seeking to hide behind the electronic curtain until they are ready to pounce.

The compulsion to deal with the world electronically is a little frightening. For example, driving a car in New York City is really a task that requires one's undivided attention, especially now that people drive vehicles the size of small office buildings. Every day I see tailgaters, speeders, stop sign and red light runners, no-signal lane changers, clueless pedestrians, and innumerable school buses. It takes focus and defensive driving skills to survive in this "Road Warrior" environment, yet I see people texting, talking on cell phones and looking at laptops while the car is in motion! It's as if the fate of the world depended on them answering every inane text and tweet immediately, regardless of the risks.

Generally speaking, depersonalizing human relations is not a good thing. We tend to behave less kindly when we don't have to look the recipient of the unkindness in the eye. It is probably too late to go back...more people are around who grew up in this electronic age than those of us who remember what was like before. I feel sorry for them.


Children's Craniofacial Association