Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community — December 14, 2014

Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Painting of a guy at a bowling alley, the lane stretching out behind him. He is polishing his bowling ball. He is wearing a bowling shirt.

First of all, bowling leagues aren’t even the half of this book. It’s a quite impressive collection of data arguing that, at every level of our society, no matter how you slice the data, Americans are doing less in groups. We’re going out to eat less; we’re playing cards with other people less; we’re (yes) spending less time in bowling leagues; we’re spending less time in clubs; and we’re less civically engaged.

The big picture, of course, is that it’s going to be very hard to prove causality, and there are a million different ways to argue against this. Maybe we’re spending less time with other people because we’re so busy with work. Nope; we actually have somewhat more free time. Maybe people are less economically secure, so they’re doing all they can to just hold onto their money for dear life. Nope; turns out that this is true among the wealthy, the poor, and the middle class.

The argument is incredibly hard to make, so Putnam comes at us with a frankly overwhelming quantity of data. Each datum might, on its own, be open to rebuttal, but the overall effect is that it’s very hard to dispute the sheer volume of examples. Something really significant happened, starting in about 1960, whereby we just stopped spending time in groups.

Putnam ends up concluding that the most significant contributors to this atomization are television, and the aging of the “great civic generation” (i.e., the Greatest Generation). World War II may have brought Americans together civically, and the end of the war meant the end of a great unifier. Whatever the model that explains it, Putnam seems reasonably convinced of the cause: the people who had been civically engaged are dying, and they’re not being replaced. And then there’s television, which tends to focus us in our homes rather than in, say, movie theaters. Television (apart from certain types, like PBS) also tends to be connected to less civic engagement, even apart from its isolating aspects.

The final chapter of these sorts of books is supposed to tell you “now what?” but here there’s really not much of a next step. The civic generation is dying, and people are watching more isolating television. The first isn’t going to change, and the second is unlikely to change. My intuition (based on nothing but, well, my gut) is that sociological behaviors will tend to have a rapidly-increasing/rapidly-decreasing flavor: if everyone around you is playing bridge together on Saturday night, that will seem like a perfectly lovely thing for you to do, too, and you’ll join in; but if no one else is doing it, you won’t, either. So when people stop playing bridge, groups will stop playing it in a hurry. (I hear echoes here of Simon’s paper on skew distributions, but that’s just a hunch. Maybe there’s a power law somewhere in here, or maybe not.) The question is how to bootstrap the rapid increase. Well, how did civic engagement increase rapidly for the Greatest Generation? A war intervened. Wars tend to focus groups.

So maybe the only answer to our civic woes is to enrobe the world in another cleansing fire.

Lie Bot tells Philippe, 'The End! No moral.' and then turns out the light, leaving little Philippe terrified.