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American Pie: You Are Not Alone - Even If You Wish To Be

...Recently, I heard two iconic statements that pinpoint what I am saying. The first was a phone call, in which the caller said, “Oh! I just wanted to leave a message. I didn’t actually want to speak to you.” The other was a response to an announcement that the tolls on a major highway were being automated for those who purchased a transponder. “That’s great,” the person said. “Now we won’t have to interact with the toll collectors!”...

Columnist John Merchant thinks that the trend to seek isolation in American society is increasing.

It seems to me that the trend towards seeking personal isolation in US society is increasing. You might argue with that statement, siting the proliferation of the, so called, social networks – Twitter, Facebook and UTube being the principal ones, but in a way, they provide a means to act without interaction. A good analogy would be the clown syndrome.
Professional clowns say that the costume and the makeup allow them freedom to express themselves without revealing their true persona. In a way, the social networks and the costume and makeup are like a firewall or a filter, allowing real access only to a chosen few, or none at all.

Certainly these devices allow the participants to express themselves in ways they would not in face-to-face encounters. Stereotypically, clowns and for that matter, stand-up comedians, whose shtick is to make us laugh, are morose people, sometimes suicidal.

Psychological experiments with mice who were allowed to breed without restriction in a confined space, showed that once the concentration of mice had reached some critical mass, they ceased to interact with each other. So it might be supposed that over- population could be at the root of the current tendency to withdraw, but I think not.

In the US, the major cities, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco have concentrations of population beyond what many people would consider tolerable, but outside of those places, population density couldn’t be more sparse.
Unlike the UK and Europe, where cities tend to run together in a contiguous urban and suburban sequence, US cities are easy to get away from, with the possible exception of Los Angeles’ spread, so if one desires some space for relief, it is quickly available. One can be in downtown Manhattan, and 20 minutes later on a good traffic day, be in rural New Jersey.

Recently, I heard two iconic statements that pinpoint what I am saying. The first was a phone call, in which the caller said, “Oh! I just wanted to leave a message. I didn’t actually want to speak to you.” The other was a response to an announcement that the tolls on a major highway were being automated for those who purchased a transponder. “That’s great,” the person said. “Now we won’t have to interact with the toll collectors!”

Personal electronics also are playing a part in separating us from each other. Once upon a time, the suburban commuter train was a wonderful opportunity to meet people and make friends on the ride to and from work. Now, there’s no sound of dialog, and if you look down the car, all you see are passengers with ebooks or cell phones in their hands, or some device stuck in their ear, or ears.

If you have need to speak with someone, with barely concealed irritation they will unplug one ear, or raise their eyes momentarily from their Kindle or iPad just long enough to provide the minimum information to silence you.

In the course of the thousands of hours I spent on airplanes when I travelled for business, I met many interesting people and heard fascinating stories about their lives and work. Now, on the rare occasions that I use air travel, all I observe are the devices that ensure there will be a minimum of conversation, if any, with your seat mate. Just imagine spending eight, ten or fifteen hours separated from someone by only the clothes you and they are wearing, and not exchanging a word. It happens.

The folk who don’t possess an iPod, iPad, Earbud or mobile phone have other means to isolate themselves: the thick file of papers to be poured over, the spread sheet filled with business minutiae that must be checked and scrutinized, or, on one of my trips, a play or film script that must be memorized.

So if population density isn’t the cause, why is it that we’re increasingly trying to avoid one another? My theory is that we are so overloaded with information of one sort or another that we are saturated by immediacy. And it’s not just the media; it’s the electronic billboards, retail signage, highway signs that also now include “smart signs” telling us of traffic conditions ahead, and even the distance to the next exit.

So in the end, conversation and personal interaction are the only forms of information flow over which we actually have control. When the US Congress passed the “Do Not Call” law that allows citizens to list their number if they do not wish to receive telephone sales calls, millions of people signed up within the first few days of the Law’s existence. Surprise, surprise!

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For more of John's incisive columns please visit
http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=john+merchant

And do visit his surprising Web site
http://home.comcast.net/~jwmerchant/site/

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