Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Has technology and institutional change degraded our ability to outrage?

Trying out something a bit new this summer - a book club conversation. Every week, myself and a friend - Lauren - will discuss our progress through political scientist Robert Putnam's defining bestseller Bowling Alone, about the collapse of social capital and community in America. Come back throughout the summer for new entries!

Lauren: I think the professionalization of community you were talking about definitely plays a huge part in the move towards spectating vs doing. As social causes moved from meeting halls to mailings to Twitter, organizations have sacrificed quality for quantity. As Putnam points out with a host of examples, many clubs and organizations have seen a rise in membership over the last few decades, but if you look closer, those members are merely contributing monetarily to these organizations, not benefitting from the social networks they could create. The professionalization of organizations has caused them to become larger and more bureaucratic, creating a vicious cycle in which overhead gets higher, necessitating more money and contributors. As membership becomes less and less involved, people can choose to "belong" to multiple organizations and contribute to multiple causes with the click of a mouse. Contributing to multiple worthy causes is hard to argue with, but in reality this type of organizational "membership" can crowd out more active types of engagement, such as volunteering skills and time.

The devaluation of membership also has the effect of tempering another crucial element of social change: outrage. Once we write a check, we feel like we have contributed to the cause and gained the moral high ground. Like many of the problems I see in the barrio where I work in Nicaragua, the solution has been to throw money at it and hope it goes away. Writing a check absolves us of the responsibility to look at the problem with a more critical lens and grapple with its underlying causes, messy as they may be.

However, Putnam does admit that this type of "symbolic affiliation" isn't completely without its benefits, albeit much less so than more "social capital rich" organizations. My question for you, Will, is where do you think that online affiliation fits into the spectrum of social capital? Is tweeting about a cause about the same as writing a check? If not, how much closer is tweeting #blacklivesmatter to joining a protest and facing police in riot gear? Where does daily commenting on the same Reddit thread fall? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Read previous entries: week 3, week 2, week 1

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