The Disconnected Society

(The Global Crisis in Confidence, 25 Jul 2012)

Tom Barker ·

We live, we are told, in an increasingly connected world.  The communications revolution, which began in earnest some twenty-five years ago, has brought us closer together, ‘shrunk’ our planet, and facilitated revolutions of an economic and political kind.  Financial transactions take place at lightning fast speed, scenes from distant warzones are beamed daily into our living rooms, while friends and family are never further away than the reach to our mobile phones.  The wireless signal and the fibre-optic cable are the railroads and highways of the twenty-first century.

The discourse of the ‘connected’, ‘networked’, ‘global’ society is a ubiquitous one, and understandably so.  Technological advances and economic developments in recent decades have tended towards the quicker and easier movement of money, people and information about the globe, with massive implications for the ways in which human beings think about and organise their lives.  And yet, conversely, for all the undoubted innovation, everywhere can be seen the signs of profound disconnection.

The basic social fabric has become frayed, and our sense of place and community diluted.  While allowing for greater freedom and choice in how we spend our time, anonymity and isolation from the communities we live in has become a pervasive and worrying characteristic of modern life.  The privatisation of time and space, facilitated in part by new digital devices, threatens to narrow rather than expand our horizons, shutting us off from novel encounters with the physical world and with other people – people and places just footsteps, rather than whole continents, away.  There is something perverse about the suited forty-something too engrossed in his iPod to even acknowledge the bus driver on his way to work in the morning.  To what extent can our digital gadgets, the internet, or even TV really be said to have brought us closer together when precious evenings, weekends, indeed, any spare scraps of time we might enjoy throughout the day, are squandered in the private glare of a liquid crystal display?

Disconnection is therefore about the degraded quality of our daily interactions with people and places, but it can also be identified in the troubled state of our political and economic life.  In recent US and UK general elections, less than two-thirds of registered voters turned out to vote, while levels of trust in politicians and government remains low.  Running deeper than anger at specific scandals such as MPs’ expenses, a familiar impression abounds of a political class removed both physically and culturally from the lives of ordinary people. Politicians ‘over there’ in Westminster or Washington pontificate from television screens and radio sets in a confident yet unconvincing idiom - promising much (cliché, reword), delivering little.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the parapet, politicians themselves complain of attaining office, confident of effecting worthwhile change, only to be confronted by the ‘rubber leavers’ of power (pull on them and nothing happens).   National governments, embedded in webs of international regulation and under pressure from powerful corporations and markets, seem frequently powerless to achieve their stated goals, while global capital continues to uproot individuals and even entire communities from traditional types and patterns of work.

For many, modern work is a frustrating and unfulfilling experience, with long days in cramped offices book-ended by interminable commutes, alleviated only by the introspection of a book or iPod.   Moreover, as the philosopher and political theorist Matthew Crawford has observed, much work in the modern knowledge economy has a dull, routinized, yet simultaneously “virtual” quality to it – as if disconnected from material reality itself. [1]  In such a world it is increasingly difficult to identify or quantify an individual’s output or contribution to a company or organisation.

As these examples show, disconnection is spread across multiple domains – the cultural, the political, and the economic.  Some might argue that the examples given above are in fact too disparate and diverse to be considered together as part of the same phenomenon, and indeed any over-arching theory seeking to explain a variety of different behaviours or phenomena risks over-simplification and the neglect of vital nuance.  However, this point taken, it is possible to identify a number of key forces which drive the numerous examples of disconnection discussed so far.

First, rapid technological advancement, particularly over the course of the last generation, has opened the way for new encounters with the wider world, but in a way that is inherently remote and ethereal and perfectly compatible with sedentary and solitary lifestyles.  A second crucial force, neoliberal capitalism has put enormous pressure on countries, firms and individuals, now operating in a more integrated and competitive global marketplace.  People commonly complain of work-related stress, worrying about the security of their jobs, and generally being ‘time poor’.  What’s more, democratic governments frequently cite the spectre of powerful supranational economic forces, such as the bond market, (rightly or wrongly) as forcing their hand, usually towards conservative economic and fiscal policies.

To technological development and marketisation we could add a third key force, not yet considered – bureaucratisation.  Bureaucracies arise when human beings organise together to accomplish large-scale or complex tasks, such as administering and implementing public services, and can rightly be seen as a necessary tool to achieve important societal goals.  But bureaucracies can lead to disconnection, distancing those who interact with them through formal procedures and impersonal modes of communication.  This not only degrades the quality of our day-to-day lives, but subtly legitimises unacceptable forms of behaviour.  It seems somehow more acceptable to cheat the faceless ‘system’ – to dodge taxes you owe, or claim benefits you’re not entitled to - when disconnected from real human relationships of trust and mutual obligation, particularly when everyone else seems to be doing it too.

These forces combine and interact to produce and reproduce the disconnected society, a society at once fiercely individualist – ‘my space, my time, my stuff’ – yet lacking in strong interpersonal bonds and fellow-feeling, pervaded by a sense of anxiety and powerlessness.  In this regard, Matthew Crawford makes an important distinction between ‘autonomy’ and ‘agency’.  Autonomy, he argues, although often giving a sense of power and ability, is really about self-regard and self-enclosure, “giving a law to oneself”, getting what you want when you want it (think the few, easy clicks it takes to buy a new pair of shoes online).  By contrast,agency is a deeper and more demanding prospect, about engaging with a real and often unyielding world towards a desired goal or objective (think learning to master a musical instrument).

So, how to reconnect our disconnected society?  In the coming years, as technology advances apace, both individuals and society must become more discerning about the level of technological intrusion they wish to embrace.  The problems discussed here with regard to mobile phones and the internet will seem insignificant when, in not too many decades, we will be discussing the reality of electronic brain implants and high-tech body augmentation – and not just for medical purposes.

Even now there is good reason to redraw the boundaries of technological encroachment, to give up some of the time we spend crouched over a screen or plugged into headphones and give more to voluntary organisations, to exploring the natural world, or simply talking to each other - particularly given all that the new ‘science of well-being’ has told us about the benefits of these activities.

Then again, others have seen the potential of technological tools to reconnect us to now distant realms, notably the political process.  The new UK government e-petitions are one prominent example, opening up the possibility of a parliamentary debate on any petition garnering more than a hundred thousand supporters.  But while these may have their place, they too have a somewhat distant feel, more of an easy concession to arm-chair activism than a truly radical departure.

For a more effective remedy, we may have to reconsider the fundamental nature of human relationships.  Oxford political theorist Marc Stears, one of the main progenitors of the much maligned and misrepresented ‘Blue Labour’ movement, has argued the need to promote ‘relational’ over ‘transactional’ ways of conduct. [2]  Influenced by the work of Austrian philosopher Martin Buber, Stears has argued that the preponderance of transactional arrangements and interactions in modern society, of the cold, contractual kind we find in market exchanges and dealings with bureaucracies, have denigrated the quality of life and lie at the root of many of our problems.  By contrast, relational forms of interaction are bonds of fellow-feeling and fraternity, and are more commonly to be found in civil society than in big business or big government.  In this spirit, Blue Labour’s more famous (and controversial) father, Maurice (now Lord) Glasman, is famed for his work in setting up the radical community organisation London Citizens, which has campaigned, with notable success, for a living wage in the capital.

Yet it’s hard to ignore the limits of what a relational politics, driven by civil society, can realistically achieve.  As Stears himself acknowledges, many people simply do not have the time to engage in an active community or political life, mostly due to the pressures of their job.  If, like me, you’re convinced it’s the overbearing market rather than the overbearing state that lies at the root of many of the great problems of our time, it’s difficult to see how an active civil society movement, however dynamic and vocal it might be, can really take on the might of big capital and the market without the help of a strong, progressive state, with all the bureaucratic and legal architecture that will likely entail.

In anticipation of a likely criticism, it is important to end by stating that pointing to the various types and drivers of disconnection in modern society does not imply a rose-tinted view of the past, of a world in which small, tight-knit communities worked happily by day for a clearly defined, proximate notion of the common good, and quaffed cider merrily by night in the village hall.  Pre-modern communities were blighted by existential threats that dwarf most of those faced by twenty-first century westerners – war, famine and disease.  Our technological sophistication has alleviated many of the basic problems that beset humankind for millennia, and which continue to beset many people across the globe to this day.

No doubt the disconnection that arises between people and places through the (mis)use of certain technologies and the disconnection that arises from the impersonal, transactional nature of certain kinds of social technologies – markets and bureaucracies – is, to an extent, an inevitable result of living in large, complex societies made up of individuals and organisations with disparate, complex needs.  But when disconnection becomes so evident in the nature of our basic day-to-day encounters with one another, in the widespread apathy and disinterest in democratic processes and in the generalised attitude of “it’s not my problem”, it’s time to stop and take note.

[1] M. Crawford (2010) The Case for Working with Your Hands: of Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (Penguin: Viking).

[2] References to Prof. Marc Stears taken from a talk given by Stears, ‘After Blue Labour? State and Democracy on the British Left’ (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 16 February 2012).