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Our waste howling 'cyberness'

By Jerry Lanson / February 18, 2005



LEXINGTON, MASS.

Blogging, I've discovered, is about as stimulating as singing to my refrigerator. The echo of my words dissolves quickly into silence.

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It may be that these words simply bore anyone dropping by. But I suspect the lack of traffic to my new blog has more to do with the fact that there are now millions of bloggers out there, pouring their hearts out ... for the most part to themselves. And as they - no, we - spend more hours in front of computers, we take one more step in estranging ourselves from what's left of local community.

Often I long for an earlier America, one I've seen more of in historical photos than experienced in real life. It's an America of concrete stoops and front porches, of town and city life where people not only know neighbors by name, but take the time to talk with them.

My own family moved to the suburbs when I was 5. In the mid-'50s on Long Island, we kids were allowed to roam and more often than not, a game of tag or stickball went on in the middle of the street. Fights occasionally broke out, and sometimes nasty ethnic slurs got thrown around. Life was far from perfect. But it had a pulse. Today, in my tony suburb of Lexington, Mass., few kids play in the street. Many more are programmed for organized sports, organized music lessons, organized study. If life is one long climb toward success, it's also more isolated and fragmented.

And that's true for their parents too. Today's houses are a lot bigger. But I suspect plenty of people get lost in all that extra elbow room, rushing to their computer in the hope of connecting with anyone.

I, for one, am not convinced that the computer will ever be a terribly useful tool for real, personal connections. When an MIT professor created something called e-neighbors in my community a couple of years ago, it was an experiment to see how a neighborhood, joined by computer, would interact. I excitedly wrote to those signed on that I love to play poker, bridge, and just about any other card game. No one responded. Perhaps others in the neighborhood have become fast friends. But from what I can tell, the whole network has provided just one contribution - a place to get tips on how to find a plumber, a carpenter, a lawn mower, a tree surgeon. Fill in the blank.

Meanwhile, I still long for a regular card game, a lively cafe, a place where individual expression is heard and seen in the flesh, not tapped onto a screen and sent into cyberspace where it awaits someone else wandering around in the wilderness. I don't believe the Internet - though it can introduce people - ever offers true camaraderie. But I doubt that contemporary neighborhoods do, either. People don't give each other a chance.

After a recent snow, I walked my golden retriever, Casey, and passed between two neighbors shoveling snow. On my right was an elderly man, approaching 80. He clearly labored as he shoveled his walk. Across the street, a young father, in his 30s, was putting the finishing touches on his perfect snow-blower cleared walkway, which arced around the front and side of his property. If he noticed the old fellow 25 feet away, he never acknowledged him. He clearly hadn't offered to lend a hand.

As I came back around the block, I exchanged greetings with the older man.

"Take your time," I advised him. "Don't overdo it."

"You're right about that," he responded.

The other man had left his snowblower standing by his front path and gone inside.

Jerry Lanson is a professor of journalism at Boston's Emerson College. His blog can be found at http://musingonamerica.blogspot.com.

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