Monday, August 13, 2012

Toward Social Disconnect

"There were only three TV channels when I was a kid, so everybody watched the same stuff and knew who all of the entertainment personalities were," I often find myself telling my kids in defense of the fact that I am so utterly oblivious about current entertainment matters. Every other kid I knew in those long ago days watched the Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, Green Acres, Star Trek, Mission Impossible, etc. We'd occasionally catch a bit of the Twilight Zone when our parents weren't around.

I can remember watching TV on a somewhat regular basis when my older kids were quite young. I then spent four years earning a bachelor and a master degree while also working full time and raising a family. Watching TV went by the wayside during those busy years. I have simply never found time to devote to that pastime since then.

If I ever do sit down in the family room when the TV is on, it's only a short time later that I am walking out of the room, having thought of something else to do. I can't imagine paying for cable or satellite TV. When we visit someplace that offers such, I quickly surmise that it's simply more channels of 'nothing to watch' than used to exist.

Entertainment has expanded and diversified significantly since my childhood. People can more easily find offerings with more direct personal appeal than at any time in history. Moreover, we are moving to more 'pull' than 'push' forms of entertainment, where people choose what they will do when they want to do it instead of being stuck with only being able to watch a show when it is broadcast, for example.

While this specialization is a boon, it has diminished the shared paradigm—the common cultural reference that existed in my childhood, when everyone knew details about the Stephens family in Bewitched. I frequently find myself unable to participate in discussions about TV shows at work. Not only have I seen none of the shows people discuss, I haven't even heard of most of them. When someone mentions in a dreamy tone the name of an actress, I usually have no idea who they're talking about.

When I recently held the door open at a restaurant for a fairly large family group, some of my family members were star struck. Among the group was a famous TV personality. Not only did I fail to recognize this person, I had no idea who the person was once my family members told me the star's name.

These common points of reference, though inane of themselves, can provide a platform for relating to others. Small talk performs an important social function, although, the actual words used may matter little. It helps engender civility and can lead to more useful communication. Small talk is easier when the parties have some kind of common ground.

Sports, movies, TV shows, Internet memes, music, work, school, products, video games, etc, can provide somewhat non-threatening connection points. For those familiar with communications protocol, small talk about something the parties commonly understand is like the outer interface layer, where a connection must occur before moving to progressively deeper layers where vital communication occurs.

While expanding choices allow us to increasingly tailor our lives according to our desires, increasingly diverse lives can render simple human interaction more difficult due to a lack of common reference points. This can lead to a breakdown in community and cooperation.

I know all of this, but I still can't seem to bring myself to watch the TV shows others talk about. Nor am I a sports guy. Although I understand the value of connecting with others via sports, I can't bear to watch a sporting event any more than the average sports fan can endure an opera. I know that this sometimes leaves me feeling disconnected, but I don't foresee me changing my ways.

Forecasting the future is a risky venture fraught with many obvious problems. It would seem to me, however, that the expansion of specialization and diversity that has marked my entire life span will continue on its current trajectory for some time. I wonder what kinds of cultural factors will emerge to help us deal with this phenomenon.

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