Watch Out for Those Tuning Out and Checking Out

Things aren’t what they used to be, and probably never were.

—Will Rogers

I don’t want to get too nostalgic for earlier Golden Ages that never really existed, but we used to have much more of a common culture than we have today. In part this was due to a limited number of choices (I can recall growing up with just three television channels!), forcing everybody to watch the same evening newscasts and read Time or LIFE (or the equivalent in other countries). Similarly, without the technological enablement (and imperilment) that we face today, the pace of life was slower and people had the time to engage in more face-to-face contact, and to participate in local city and community institutions. While there were clear drawbacks to the less technologically advanced life, an important consequence of limited options meant that people had to engage with and accommodate neighbors and fellow citizens who had other personal interests and different political and religious views.

Today, by contrast, you can completely tune out of your local reality and absorb yourself in one or two narrow interests you pursue exclusively by way of your broadband connection and the security of your private cocoon. Sophisticated marketers are increasingly adept at using social networking tools to segment small groups into extreme versions of Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”—but without the broader societal connectivity that he postulated. Burke wrote, “To be attached ...

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