Social capital and decay.

A few thoughts that stemmed from Ross Douthat’s latest column. He writes:

The question hanging over the future of American social life, then, is whether all the possibilities of virtual community — the connections forged by Facebook and Twitter; the back alleys of the Internet where fans of “A Dance to the Music of Time” or “Ren & Stimpy” can find one another; the hum of virtual conversation that’s available any hour of the day — can make up for the weakening of flesh-and-blood ties and the decline of traditional communal institutions.

I think this is precisely the question – because we’re not going back from the cliff. We’ve already taken the plunge.

There’s a lot of chatter about the decay of Social Capital. Charles Murray sees it as a huge problem for poorer communities that are lagging socially and economically. Robert Putnam obviously has shed great light on it through Bowling Alone.

My question though is whether we have properly adapted our conception of social capital. One ought to expect social capital as we traditionally conceive it to rapidly decay as people make marginal substitutions of physical interaction for online social networking. They will continue to do so until technology stops advancing in ways that make virtual life more and more pleasant. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a decade we look back at a lot of the early studies of the diminishment of social capital and physical communities as a little archaic and misspecified. It’s very hard to measure anything in social science and assumptions can be critical. People, especially of middle age, appear to me to be quite biased toward personal interaction.

Last thing:

Today, social media are hailed for empowering dissidents and undercutting tyrannies around the world. Yet it’s hard not to watch the Google video and agree with Forbes’s Kashmir Hill when she suggests that such a technology could ultimately “accelerate the arrival of the persistent and pervasive citizen surveillance state,” in which everything you see and do can be recorded, reported, subpoenaed … you name it.

This is why I will shout from the rofftops that, while Orwell gave us so much, it was Huxley who got the future right. People will not live in totalitarian torture forever. Hedonic bliss, however, completely disarms them.


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