The Art of Being in a Crowd When Alone

I’ve been mulling my thoughts from my earlier post, The Art of Being Alone in a Crowd, off and on in the back of my head all week. I realized there is another shift under way. It’s actually been developing for some time now. I have a hard time telling if it is or will be as dramatic a shift as the one that originally shaped me and which Putnam and others have explored. Nevertheless, I do believe it’s significant. Further, as I consider my own children (who range in age from 12 to 27), I realize that only my younger two have been more or less fully shaped on the other side of this latest shift.

Much has been written, of course, about the advancement of communication and technology. Whereas we used to call a place hoping to find a person, we now expect to be able to call a person directly without any concern for that person’s location. We are ever increasingly interconnected in ways that break down some of the barriers of distance. “Social media” and “Web 2.0” are two of the most frequently overused labels for this enabling technology. I’m quite familiar with all of the technology. It is my field, after all. And I’ve been utilizing it in one form or another as I choose throughout much of its development. However, I’ve mostly considered the technical and the social aspects of the technology. I’ve not paused much to consider the cultural ramifications.

After I wrote about cultural adaptation or perhaps maladaptation of those often labeled “postmodern” I realized my younger two children largely do not share the same formation. Oh, many of the same forces are present. Large extended families still tend to be absent from their daily lives and the lives of all whom they know. They tend to physically live in communities of strangers who do not largely share awareness and care for all the children of the community — at least on a day to day basis. People remain highly mobile and move in and out of their circle of connection. Much remains the same. But much has changed as well. They’ve never known a time without a computer with an internet connection. Cell phones, even at times when they have not had one, are simply a part of the fabric of their reality.

And so their manner of dealing with the realities of postmodern life is different. They’ve established and rely on interwoven and multilayered networks of interaction. They do not necessarily have the depth or physical solidity of the older ones, but there is certainly more tangibly present and available than through the first half or more of my life. They rely on the constant feedback of those interconnections. In some ways, their lives are less me and more we. And this has altered their cultural formation in ways I’ll call the art of individualism within the context of the crowd. This network is not defined by school, by sport, by neighborhood, by club, by church “youth group” or by any other readily visible grouping. Rather it incorporates what it can take from any and all sources forming a different network for each child, though often sharing much in common with others. Where they attempt to interact in settings that have few connections and which resist their efforts to construct them, I’ve noticed they tend to be less comfortable.

Now, I’ve taken those technologies and incorporated them pretty effectively (I think) into the structures of my life. But that doesn’t really significantly alter my core formation. It reshapes it some, just as any significant shift will. But I’m still completely comfortable “Bowling Alone”. I’m not sure those shaped by this latest sociological shift would be. But their’s is not really a return to the structured bowling league of old or the fraternal organizations or the like. It’s more dynamic and shifting. Visible groups form and change and dissolve as needed by their members. Groups are dynamic and easily created. And that’s natural to them in ways that it is not natural to me.

There is no real point or conclusion to this post. It’s mostly just an observation that led to a little greater awareness on my part. It’s an open-ended thought which is still developing in my mind.

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