Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#97, July 25, 2000


by Marylaine Block

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam is the latest social scientist to wonder if the internet is a dangerously divisive addiction that keeps people holed up alone in their rooms staring at their screens, or if it's just another way for us to talk to each other, stay in touch with old friends, and make new ones.

The argument is as pointless as those old TV ads: tastes great versus less filling. The fact is, the net does what all our most powerful technologies have done: it separates us AND brings us together.

That's because Americans have never been able to make up their minds which image they preferred - the Marlboro Man or Norman Rockwell's loving families. Historically we have swung back and forth between periods of wild and woolly individualism and periods of activism and community-building. Our technologies have been bound up in both.

Our founders used one of our earliest technologies, the printing press, to churn out newspapers and pamphlets arguing for revolution, separating us from England, but they also used it to build a new nation of Americans, united against King George. Later the presses turned out McGuffey's Readers and dime novels, turning us into Americans as they passed on to each new generation our common history, mythology, and literature.

The telegraph and railroad linked Americans on the edges of a vast and empty continent, making it possible for our ancestors to leave but still remain connected. The telegraph, by bringing the news from the east to far-flung settlers, allowed them to think of themselves as "Americans" rather than Californians or Oregonians. Reaching San Francisco by 1861, the telegraph kept settlers informed of Civil War battles won and lost, helping forge a strong sense of national identity and loyalty, whether to the Union or the Confederacy.

Radio was even more powerful. As networks sprang up, spreading the same shows to towns all across America, suddenly we were all laughing at the same comedians, dancing to the same bands, waiting with suspense for the next installment of the same soap operas. In the hands of a master, FDR, radio became a source of shared hope for America during the depression.

But other masters of the medium have used radio to inflame us against their political enemies, to attack not just their ideas, but their character. Radio has become the medium of choice for the most vicious lies of political partisans.

When TV first came in, it tied the nation together. It was a national event when Lucy had her baby. When JFK was shot, we all watched the funeral ceremonies together (which explains our fixation on John Jr.'s death - for many of us, he remained that little boy we watched salute his father's coffin so gallantly and uncomprehendingly).

ALL the networks simultaneously broadcast political conventions, or major presidential speeches, giving us no choice but to share in great national debates or turn the TV off.

But with the coming of cable, we split into small demographic groups, watching nothing but sports with like-minded sports fans, music videos with other Gen-Xers, or C-SPAN with fellow concerned citizens (all 3,000 of us).

Our music technology both brings us together and divides us. Boom boxes let us carry our music with us and share it with others (or assault them with it), while a Walkman lets us create a closed, private music environment that shuts out everyone around us.

The internet is just another in a long line of dual-use technology. It can be used in hateful ways, to spread racist ideology, but it can also be used for social support. If those around us reject us because we're geeky or odd-looking, we can find friends on the net who don't know or care what we look like, as long as we're interesting or funny. If we're out of step with our community - a conservative in Cambridge, a Hillary fan in Houston -- the net lets us make friends with people who share our opinions and interests.

As long as we can't make up our minds which we want more, a society of daring, isolated individuals, or a caring community, count on it: we'll keep right on using our technologies to both separate and come together.

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