TCS Daily

A Uniter, Not a Divider

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - March 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Andrew Sullivan's recent essay expressing fear over the atomization of society via iPods and cell phones has already attracted a fair amount of commentary here at TCS. Douglas Kern responded by pointing out that the atomization that Sullivan fears has always been with us and that if such atomization increases, it will not be because of iPods or cell phones, but instead because we have failed to choose wisely with the technological gifts we have been given. Additionally, Ilya Shapiro argues that the rise of iPod nation allows us to be in control over what we want to listen to, and that it will even serve to broaden our tastes. As Shapiro puts it, "For every bit of instant-gratification candy dispenser music, somebody learns to appreciate Chopin or Clapton or Coldplay."

Quite so. But there is a third response to Andrew Sullivan's concerns: Technology helps bring us together at least as much as it may serve to pull us apart -- and perhaps more.

To be sure, one is in one's own world when listening to an iPod. But the same can be said for those who read books in public, or go to movies, or attend plays and concerts. In each of these latter instances, interaction with one's fellow humans is politely discouraged. You don't want to interrupt the book reader, the movie or play viewer or the concert enthusiast with chatter and discussion because if you did so, you would deprive them of the pleasures of the activity in which they immerse themselves. These are the social conventions attached to these low-tech activities, and we as a society have been following these conventions for as long as we can collectively remember. And yet, for some reason, Sullivan does not seem to be disturbed with the atomization that is attendant to reading books in public, or going to the movies, plays and/or concerts. Instead, he seems to get concerned only when newer technology is involved -- despite the fact that the popularity of technology such as the iPod stems in large part from its ability to fit in with our pre-existing societal and cultural norms; the same norms that politely discourage us from making excess chatter at a concert, a movie, a play or towards a person immersed in a book.

Sullivan's concerns about technology are ironic because in many ways, technology works to break down atomization. Upon encountering another iPod user, one can discuss one's musical tastes and interests with that fellow user. One can interact online or in person with other iPod users in discussions that are meant to either maximize iPod performance or to troubleshoot various common iPod concerns or to just discuss the ways in which one's iPod has affected or reflects one's interests in music. As Douglas Kern discusses, it is entirely within our power to use technology as a foundation upon which to build greater and more meaningful connections with our fellow human beings, and if we fail to do so, it is something of a cop-out to blame an inanimate object for the less-than-desirable result.

Unfortunately, Sullivan does not discuss the important ways in which technology brings us together. He makes an allusion to the atomization of society brought on by cell phones, but the larger point that cell phones make us more available to be contacted by others goes unmentioned (indeed, it is curious that Sullivan elides the major critique of cell phones and e-mail -- that they impinge on our atomization and privacy, and make us too available). At the risk of sounding anew like a cheerleader for the Blogosphere, it should be pointed out that blogs bring us together to engage in a smart and interesting national and international conversation about a whole host of issues in a way heretofore unimaginable.

Even little technological developments are helping us get to know each other better. has a "wish list" function whereby people with Amazon accounts can list all of the gifts that they want to receive from others. My own Wish List is, as one can tell, exceedingly lengthy. I wouldn't mind it in the slightest if you, dear reader, bought me something from it. But even if you don't, you get a glimpse into my personality and interests by taking a look at my Wish List items. That knowledge can lead to conversations about shared interests and increase human interaction.

None of this is to say that we don't need a break from technology from time to time. It is surely palliative to get away from the computer, the cell phone or the iPod at appropriate moments. But it is worth remembering that such devices would not be as popular as they are if they did not fit in with our very basic human tendencies. And it is worth remembering as well that contra Sullivan's fears, modern technology does more and can do more to bring us together than it does to pull us apart. There is much to celebrate regarding the advent of such technology, but its capacity to unite alone is worth celebrating and endorsing.

The author is a lawyer and TCS contributor.



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