So Connected, So Out Of Touch

April 19, 2009|By Dan Rodricks

I stood one morning waiting for the No. 8 bus, at Northern Parkway and York Road in Baltimore, and was astonished at the number of drivers who went through that big intersection while talking on cell phones, dialing them or texting with them. You can see more from the sidewalk than you can from a car, and the number of multitasking drivers crisscrossing my field of vision was even greater than I'd thought it would be.

We are a busy, hyper-connected and pressured people, stuck in a lifestyle that the Internet and the cellular industry created.

But you know that already. You are not a mere onlooker. You are a participant. Millions of us are.

I stuck my neck out in this space March 29 and confessed to having sometimes tapped a text message while driving. I expressed disappointment that the General Assembly was about to impose a $500 fine for those caught texting just as I had sharpened my TWD skills.

I was trying to be a bit facetious, ironic.

Alas, I ended up ticking off a whole lot of people. I received so much criticism - from profane screeds to self-righteous admonitions - that by the Tuesday after the column appeared, I was feeling quite satisfied. I had struck a nerve.

Readers had reacted on two levels.

The first was a visceral response to any fool who would admit engaging in behavior that endangers others. (For the record: I have always known TWD was wrong, even while doing it, and I no longer do it. Years ago, I advocated the banning of hand-held cell phones while driving and was dismissed as troglodyte.)

The second, deeper level of reaction was a protest so passionate, so vehement, that I think people might have seen too much of themselves in my confession.

I know I'm not alone out there; there are thousands of us (and not just teenagers) who have slipped into these practices. There's a massive, constant pressure to be part of the hyper-connected world in which we live.

And we don't say so much, but we hate it.

Sociologist Dalton Conley believes that we've succumbed to this 24/7 world of data stream management (phones, e-mail, Internet social networks) for economic reasons. We're telecommuting, working at home, even when we're supposed to be enjoying leisure time or having dinner with our families, because we feel economically insecure. And Mr. Conley reached that conclusion, for his book, Elsewhere U.S.A., well before we hit the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

A certain class of Americans felt this way already, Mr. Conley says, and he doesn't mean people in the low- to middle-income brackets. He's speaking of the "worried well," an anxious, better-off-than-they-think-they-are class of Americans for whom the lines between work and leisure have blurred.

"As recently as 1990, lights out meant work was finished," Mr. Conley writes. "But today we can clack away on our BlackBerries in the dark long after our spouses have either fallen asleep from exhaustion or left on the red-eye for an early meeting. ... And work we think we must, since inequality and economic insecurity have risen each year since 1969. ... Today, the risk of a 50 percent income drop from one year to the next is over twice as great for the typical American family as it was in 1970. This is a remarkable change."

The result, Mr. Conley says, is a new kind of American of the Information Age - a fractured person struggling to juggle professional life and family, employed in the "knowledge economy," working at all hours but producing little that seems tangible or fulfilling. From this come the insecurity and guilt that keep us running, 24/7, from BlackBerry to cell phone to laptop, as if being connected means being productive.

It's not a pretty picture.

It has been interesting to read various dismissive reviews of Mr. Conley's book since it was published in January. Some of the comments are valid, but, alas, I think his critics protest too much.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays on this page and Tuesdays in the news pages. He is host of the midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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