‘The Big Disconnect<b>’</b> by Giles Slade
Never mind that he shares the planet with nearly 7 billion others. Giles Slade is feeling lonely. And he's not the only one. The human contact he craves seems to many to be ever more distant.
Consider the machines that let us live reasonably comfortable and contented lives in this crowded world — our cars, our computers, our various electronic amusements. For all their virtues, each device tends to isolate us one from another. We drive to work alone, listen to music through earbuds, and play Call of Duty against faceless strangers. It seems that technology is no friend of friendship.
It never has been, Slade argues in his fascinating and revealing new book. But what has changed is the proliferation of technology in our lives and our dependence on it, which in turn has left us feeling ever more isolated.
He's not breaking new ground; lots of writers have noticed that the inventions that have made our lives easier have also made it easier to live on our own. Mass production of reasonably priced, high-quality products allowed millions of ordinary folks to own objects that dramatically enhanced their lives, from automobiles to computers, radios to color TV. These innovations began as social technologies: the family car or the living-room radio or TV. But as production soared and prices fell, they became ever more individualistic: the two-door luxury coupe, the TV in every room, the iPod, and, of course, the personal computer.
Giles frets that our lonely hours in front of the TV or the PC are stolen from the personal interactions with family and friends. Why are we so drawn to machines? Technology's neatly mediated interactions are easier to handle than the messy, complex demands of humans, he argues.
How did we get here? It's been a long road, and Giles's book is full of enlightening anecdotes about the journey. In his first chapter, Giles shows how primitive automated devices made it ever easier to evade human contact. The vending machine replaces the sales clerk; jukeboxes supplant the live orchestra. The automobile, an open-air conveyance in its early days, becomes fully enclosed by the 1920s, a motorized island of solitude.
Giles drives home the point in the book's second chapter, a deep dive into the transformation of music. For millennia, it was a deeply social activity with people gathering to play and listen. Today, with our tunes consigned to personal MP3 players or computer hard drives, we have made listening to music a solitary pastime.
Giles wraps up in the final chapter by showing how the robust reliability of machines has led us to put ever more faith in them, even as we trust each other less and less.
The book's capsule histories of modern technology and its social impact make for lively reading. And Giles is certainly correct that the citizens of industrial nations have become more isolated over the past century. He noted a recent survey which found that 40 percent of North Americans live alone, and 25 percent of them have no close friends.
But technology is hardly to blame. Having a car actually makes it easier to seek out companionship, and the Internet lets us meet and chat with countless people whose paths we otherwise would never cross.
If our devices have become barriers to human contact, it's only because of the choices we make in using them. A TV in every room? Seven hours a day online? Yes, there's something out of whack here.
But nothing to justify Slade's absurd suggestion that nations may consider limiting "the application of technology as we now limit the uses of weapons and dangerous drugs."
Slade's idea seems born of desperation rather than careful thought; he never explains how such a thing might be done. Instead, the book peters out with an aimless, half-hearted plea to reengage with the natural world, in a forlorn hope that more time spent among trees and shrubbery will somehow rehumanize us.
Make no mistake. I like wandering through the woods as much as the next fellow, but only if I can bring along my iPhone.
Hiawatha Bray, a technology reporter and columnist at the Globe, can be reached at bray@