What Brings Families Together? Power Outages and New Technologies

Power outages = people don’t have anything to do with themselves, so, they have sex = mini baby boom nine months later… correlation? Causation? You be the judge, via Le Monde. Here is the story:

In Massdriel, Netherlands, the number of births increased by 44% in September 2008 compared to the same month in 2007. Officials found that puzzling. Then, they remembered the power outage that affected that town for 50 hours, nine months before. In December 2007, an Apache helicopter had accidentally cut power lines that brought power to nine villages of the commune. Guess what happened during these two days of darkness?

Sorry Robert Putnam, we may not bowl together anymore, but according to this BBC report (and an increasing body of research), new technologies may actually bring people closer together:

This report also shows that nuclear families are the structure more likely to be closely connected (as in parents use these gizmos to exercise greater surveillance of their children, even when these are young adults). What this means is not just an increase in the level of contact but also a shift in the qualitative nature of these contacts. So, yes, communal times may have decreased (for a variety of reasons) but contacts are maintained through other means.

As I myself wrote, in his best-selling book, Bowling Alone (2000), political scientist Robert Putnam deplores the loss of American community. For Putnam, the decline in American participation in bowling leagues symbolizes the increasing disconnection between people as they retreat from all sorts of civic and community participation and engage in more isolated activities, such as passive television watching.

Indeed, data regarding membership in associations, political participation, and volunteering show a decline. Putnam deplores such a state of affairs as such community activities were essential to civic-minded socialization where social norms were transmitted.

However, if participation in traditionally household-based activities, such as bowling leagues and PTAs, show a marked decline, other forms of sociability have increased. New communication technologies allow for new and different forms of sociability. For instance, virtual or online communities are on the rise. The best example of rising online communities are Facebook, MySpace or Flickr.  Such communities are different in that they are not household-based but individualized. They provide a different type of socialization than traditional communities.

Virtual or online communities show that far from disappearing, communities are changing. Traditional communities are neighborhood or village-based. In the age of globalization, disappearing borders and unprecedented movements of population around the globe, communities are not disappearing but reconfiguring into geographically dispersed networks.

According to Jeffrey Boase and al (2006), such geographically dispersed communities are facilitated by new electronic communication technologies, such as emails and the Internet. Moreover, research shows that new communications technologies extend our social connections but deepen them as well. People who interact face-to-face also tend to call each on the phone and exchange messages via emails or instant messages or text messages. This phenomenon of using multiple media to communicate is called media multiplexity.

New communication technologies promote what sociologist Barry Wellman calls networked individualism. Networked individualism refers to the fact that, thanks to the Internet, individuals can get in touch with other individuals for all sorts of purposes. In this sense, online communities do not replace traditional communities but supplement them. People can find information or help or simply create relationships from traditional sources, such as relatives or they can tap into extended networks of other individuals.

In this sense, being socialized into the competent use of new communication technologies becomes an essential skill not only to be able to access the wealth of information available but also to be able to be able to build individual networks of relationships with and (not or) without face-to-face interactions.

In her study of the virtual community Cybertown™, Denise Carter (2004) challenges the notion that virtual communities are only poor and shallow imitation of the “real thing”, face-to-face interaction. First, Cybertown™ is an elaborate virtual environment, not just a chat room or message board. It has more than a million citizens from all over the world earning citycash from jobs. It is designed like any large city in the world, with plaza, cafes, post office and police. The residents live in the suburbs in private homes and they can have (virtual) pets. It is truly a social space where people develop friendships and throw parties at their houses, or go to clubs. Residents usually maintain consistent personae, keeping the same username and avatar (virtual character). Frequently, people who meet and become friends at Cybertown™ end up meeting offline.

For Carter, virtual communities are appealing because they do not rely on traditional kinship bonds (based on blood ties) but allow the development of chosen friendship ties. Friendship is not based on hierarchy. Moreover, where kinship ties are defined by tradition and customs, friendship persists based on the quality of relationships. In Cybertown™, people are specifically looking to build new relationships where gender, race and other ascribed statuses are irrelevant and where the quality of the relationship is the only criterion that matters. Moreover, the fact that many residents are able to sustain such friendship offline suggests that relationships developed online are not shallow but free from cultural and social constraints.

So, is all well and good and safe in the virtual world? Not quite. Another Le Monde article (whose link seems broken right now, I’ll update if necessary) explores how social prejudices may actually be amplified online as anonymous communications may protect individuals from the social disapproval and sanctions they might face in real life for overt expressions of prejudice. This will not be news to anyone hanging around YouTube or anyone who followed the American presidential campaign. There is no doubt that the Democratic primary unleashed an enormous amount of sexism and there is no putting back that nasty genie into the bottle. This has been analyzed expertly elsewhere, especially by Scary Smary Anglachel and over at Corrente, so, I won’t belabor the point.

The bottom line is that is we should resist oversimplified depictions of the way new technologies shape the way we interact, either to deplore the good old days where people REALLY communicated with each other (like any nostalgia, it’s largely reconstructed memory), or to project a socially liberated mode of communication, free from social determinations.

The uses of new communication technologies are still shaped by mechanisms of social stratification (the digital divide) and still allow people to easily project their prejudices as well as extending their social capital in a variety of directions on a global scale.

However, in these global mediascapes (to use Appadurai’s terms), not everyone is included and processes of marginalization and exclusion operate as well. At the same time, these have permitted the emergence of truly global social movements and facilitated the rise of the global imaginaries.

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