April 13, 2004

A friend, today, expressed surprise to me that his son seemed reluctant to establish any deep, enduring friendship of the kind he himself had known, growing up. Friends, yes, in casual and in plenty: but something which the son would be willing to work at maintaining over years and decades -- none.

Then again, why should his son seek anything enduring? What are the odds he will settle in any place for enough years for the concept of neighbourhood to have meaning? What are the odds that he will be forced to have enough interaction with those he lives next door to to care?

At one and the same time as the horizons are receding, with the Internet gradually dissolving most boundaries of simple geography (if not those of privilege and simple economics), at one and the same time as Internet groups are revising traditional definitions of society and community: the individual person is also being somewhat distanced. No longer does one have to go out to a store to make a purchase -- but catalogues and mail order originally grew out of those pioneer spaces, luxury goods newly available at distances which originally made them prohibitive; and, until recently, the telephone still brought a human voice.

Now the watchword is convenience: and convenience demands service at any time of day or night, allows the simple entering of a code number to order anything desired. Convenience does not lend itself to direct human contact: for other fellow humans do not wait upon one's own convenience. It can be argued that electronic chats can also provide such direct human contact: but then, it is a simple thing to to cut off even that marginal social contact, to turn on and off at one's own convenience.

At the same time as the electronic horizon is growing exponentially, one sees the signs of an increasingly indrawing social horizon. For those living in apartments: how many really know their own neighbours? Once fully interactive societies, suburbs are increasingly becoming mere bedroom communities where one leaves one's personal castle early in the morning and returns to it late at night, or, for those outsourced, may rarely leave it at all. More and more suburb roads have no sidewalks. The houses are growing proportionately larger to the land occupied: it is no longer a rarity to observe a mansorial house which would once have been the heart of an acre or more of land to occupy a patch of land scarcely wider than the house itself. The decrease in outdoor space corresponds to the proportion in which it is used: and when it does get used, most commonly it is the private deck or patio or garden with family and perhaps a few treasured friends (but carefully, lest a stranger yet to be known be accidentally included) -- and increasingly rare also, that those friends will be from the immediate geographic community.

(It seems an increasingly risky proposition for many to seek friendship at all. In a culture of fear, the stranger is always seen first through the eyes of law enforcement: never as the potential opportunity for growing one's world but rather as the potential criminal, and by some even as the potential terrorist. To have some as friends, it seems, is no longer "safe". By those we name friend, by those we stubbornly continue to accept as family, we define ourselves in the eyes of others ... and there are many among us who fear lest we ourselves be similarly stigmatised by the company we choose not to shun.)

Where else to meet? to have that carefully casual venue within which stranger may become casual acquaintance, casual acquaintance friend, and friend perhaps something more? There still do remain places in the world with socially-oriented marketplaces, but they are decreasing in number. Land is owned, and increasingly enclosed. In malls, the new agorae of the west, trespassing laws abound. Restaurants become a cautious middle place, so long as one places one's order and leaves shortly after it is paid for and consumed (and some of the fast food venues are specifically designed to make any extended sitting extremely uncomfortable, so as to move along their customers more rapidly). Places of lingering still do remain in the world, but again they are becoming fewer and more far between -- and by those who know of them, treasured.

Especially entertainment, once the core of social interaction, seems to have collapsed inwardly. No longer does one really need even to see first run movies: they will come out on video in time and then one can watch them in the comfort of one's own home. If one really wishes to see them on the big screen, one pays one's money for a seat and leaves instantly afterward, to the point where those actually wishing to listen through the credits are unable to. How many still go to music offerings as community social interaction? Direct and personal storytelling is a dying artform: even the children are most often kept entertained by whichever video happens to be the favourite of the time. Video games remove the need for active play, one of the major areas of developing social skills: one can simply respond to the scenarios pre-programmed indefinitely, and when one has exhausted the possibilities of one game, there is always another to entertain -- in isolation.

Why bother with the inconvenience of scheduling a joint board game night? or even of watching the same television programme together? Increasingly each household has more than one television, even more than one VCR, another member in a computer chat room, yet another on a Playstation. Each member of the family, entertaining themselves -- in isolation.
It's not much fun playing with a llama ... except this llama.
- Playstation commercial for a videogame based on "The Emperor's New Groove"
A child, playing interactive games of frisbee, ping-pong, chess -- with a less than cooperative llama where there would normally be a fellow playmate. Finally the problem is solved: this electronic llama can be your new friend! (Play at your own convenience. Other children not required.)

And it is very, very easy to extrapolate to the on-line interactive game: where the NPCs of the computer world translate so very easily to the PCs of the on-line interactive game, PCs that can always be turned off with the click of a mouse. For those rare moments when one escapes canned music and video game and television and actually ventures outside into traditionally socially interactive environments: there is always the Walkman. Not only more convenient, but -- safer.

No, this is not the case everywhere: but it does seem to be the growing trend, and marketing patterns appear to be increasingly encouraging it. Our geographical boundaries of contact have expanded almost beyond recognition -- but have our social boundaries shrunk proportionately?

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