The loss of public social space

posted by Jason Kottke Jan 26, 2005

John Naughton writes in the Guardian about the loss of public social interaction. He places a lot of the blame on technology:

It's not clear when all of this changed, but my guess is that technology - in the shape of the Sony Walkman - had a lot to do with it. As the Walkman de nos jours, the iPod is simply continuing what Sony started. But not even Sony could have single-handedly destroyed the notion of social space. The coup de grce [sic] was administered by another piece of technology: the mobile phone.

Living in NYC, I'm well-positioned to observe the effect that mobile phones and iPods have on public interaction, but I would guess that the main factor in people not talking to each other on the street as much as they used to (in America at least) is cultural rather than technological. People move more often these days so they get to know less people in their neighborhoods. The decreasing costs of travel have filled urban streets with non-locals. "Don't talk to strangers" is the prevailing attitude; we teach our children that strangers are to be feared. Living in the suburbs and heavy automobile usage have made Americans unaccustomed to casual conversation with strangers...we're out of practice. Life moves a lot faster than it used to as well. We don't have time for casual conversations with strangers anymore; our time is reserved for working, sleeping, interacting with people we already know (family, coworkers, friends, the gang at the bar), and getting to and from places where we do those things as quickly as possible.

The mobile phone, Sony Walkman, and iPod fit comfortably into that type of culture, but I don't think they're driving it. If any technology is to blame, I'd choose the automobile, the suburb, and the television over the three Naughton mentions.