Battlepanda: Monday Book Blogging: Bowling Alone


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Monday Book Blogging: Bowling Alone

(As promised, here is my review of Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam as part of my 52 books in 52 weeks resolution. I'll be reviewing The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell next.)

Bowling alone by Robert D. Putnam (2000)

Putnam's thesis is intriguing -- America is increasingly becoming a nation of hermits -- and he backs it up with an avalanche of data and graphs. Not that his point is all that contentious. I think on some level we all know the stock of what Putnam calls "social capital" have been dwindling since the heyday of bridge nights and PTA meetings in the 50s and 60s. In a way, this is what we mean when we say "people's lives have gotten so busy...we don't have time for each other anymore." It's not so much that our stock of leisure time have dwindled, but that we choose to use it to do stuff on our own. Yes. It's something we all know. But it still socks it to you when you see that same graph over and over again: the tentative rise in participation, briefly checked by the Great Depression, recovering in a dizzying surge to a peak in the early 60s, followed by a fall that is just as inexorable. It's the same graph whether it refers to PTA memberships, Union memberships or, yes, league bowling membership. It's troubling because, as a progressive, we'd like to solve certain problems like "how can we stop the blood loss from unions"? This book posits that there could be very little Unions can do short of reversing the tide of the prevailing social pattern -- Americans just aren't joiners anymore.

Putnam takes his ideas a lot further. Not only are Americans getting more hermit-ey, our hermittiness is hurting us both as individuals and as a country. This is a slightly more contentious argument, but again Putnam backs it up well with a plethora of graphs, putting decreased social capital in the center of a dense web of causes and effects from decreased voting to less trust in strangers to decreased child welfare.

I don't agree with every case Putnam makes. For instance, I am skeptical that watching more TV actually increases "malaise" -- a measure of ill-being indexed to headaches, insomnia and indigestion. I mean, he's got the graph showing the correlation. But I don't think turning off the TV will cure me of my insomnia -- it's the insomnia keeping me up at night that drives my TV an internet habit.

As I type this, I feel like my lifestyle is squarely in Putnam's crosshairs. It is primetime in the Gauvin household. After coming together briefly to eat a dinner of Chinese takeout, the four of us dispersed to our own TVs in our own rooms. In addition to having the television on, both Gene and I are also working on our computers with the TV just playing in the background -- one of the most damaging pattern of television usage Putnam identifies.

How do I feel about that? Mixed, I think. I definitely want more social interaction in my life. Indeed, I am planning my future quite carefully to ensure that Gene and I don't sink back into the same old unsociable patterns. But I also don't think my life is all bad compared to the kind of tightly knit social circles of the 50s. It sounds selfish to say, but being in a bubble can be kind of liberating too. To be fair, Putnam is careful to emphasize the importance of moving forward, of addressing our increasing withdrawal from civic activities in innovative ways rather than a call to return to the days of playing cards and bowling leagues. Let's face it. There's a reason why people forsaked throwing balls at pins with the same guys week after week for TV -- TV is more entertaining in the short run, even if you end up missing the human interaction in the long run.

Putnam is cautiously dismissive of the internet as a future forum that might generate meaningful social capital. I think he missed the boat here in a big way. The internet is already so pervasive that I find it hard to imagine a future resurgence in social capital without the internet being involved in one way or another, whether it's or Drinking Liberally. Then again, I guess I am kind of biased. Not only do I spend most of my free time on the internet one way or another, I also met my S.O. of three years online. And I like to think that the discussions I have with you all online is interesting and meaningful, even if I won't recognize you if I pass you on the proverbial (and increasingly less foot-trafficked) street.

Though this book is written too early to address bloggers directly, and despite his rather bearish take on the Internet in general, I think Putnam's book holds the key to how bloggers can change the world. So far, people have conceptualized the influence of bloggers as if they are thousands and thousands of teeny tiny media outlets. But the real power of blogging lies not in who reads the blogs but who writes the blogs. I know that writing this blog has turned me from the kind of apathetic, lazily cynical news consumer Putnam describes into a more engaged participant of the discussion. More of a doer and less of a spectator, in other words. Whether the number of eyeballs for this post numbers in the tens, hundreds or thousands is irrelevant, in a way. To be perfectly brutal, there is very little news on the blogisphere you can't also access with ease from the mainstream media in one form or another. The Battlepanda blog is a pretty poor news outlet. I cover only a very slim sliver of the news, shamelessly edited to reflect my own bias. And that very small selection of news is liberally interspersed with random ravings and pictures of my schnauzer dog. But what the Battlepanda Blog is is a valuable member of the community in my little corner of blue blogisphere. In this sense, it is kind of meaningless to throw one's hands up at how opinionated and unbalanced blogs can be. Of course it's partisan, because people are partisan, and blogs are our personal mouthpieces. Once you realize the personal nature of blogging, it's hard to get too worked up about how non-fair-and-balanced blogs are -- how can you have a conversation without having the participants take sides?

Shameless commerce division: Buy "Bowling Alone" from the link above and I get a teeny tiny kickback. I'll be doing this for future bookbloggings too. Believe me, it's not enough of a financial incentive for me to talk up the book