Bowling Alone, Revisited

Bowling Alone, Revisited

This is the third in a series of reviews of books about the Third Turning which I am finally reading in the Fourth Turning (the first two are here and here). I am “revisiting” Bowling Alone not in the sense that I have read it before, but rather in that I would like to examine its thesis about the decay of civic life in the late twentieth century from the perspective of life nearly two decades into the twenty-first century.

Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam, published in the year 2000, is perhaps one of the best known popular works of sociology. Its basic thesis is that, in the second half of the twentieth century, the United States experienced a rapid decline in community and civic involvement. This thesis is supported by ample data on group participation, social habits and attitudes, all presented in a plethora of graphs and tables. In fact, the book is worth checking out just to see all the data laid out decade by decade, even if you care to interpret it differently.

A key concept in this thesis is that of “social capital,” defined as the value of social networks in providing “generalized reciprocity.” Social capital comes in two forms: “bonding” social capital tightly connects an in-group, whereas “bridging” social capital is a looser connection between people in different groups. There is even a Social Capital Index that the author calculates from a combination of different surveys.

As Putnam sees it, the loss of community in the country and the depletion of social capital is a serious problem. He describes a “fraying civil society” and laments “the erosion of America’s social connectedness and community.” When explaining how group membership rates don’t tell the whole story, because group attendance rates have worsened even more, he writes floridly that “decay has consumed the load-bearing beams of our civic infrastructure.” To uphold this grim description, he presents strong correlations between the Social Capital Index and other measures such as educational attainment, crime rates, and mortality.

In addition to defining social capital, and demonstrating its correlations, Putnam attempts to isolate what factors are associated with its decline at the end of the twentieth century. He does this with multiple regression analysis (explained in the Appendices – this study is very thorough and data driven), and basically concludes that the primary factor is generational change, accounting for half of the decline. Other important factors include television, changing work patterns, and sprawl – in a word, suburbia.

Now personally, as a proponent of Turnings Theory, I believe that generational change tells the whole story. In all of the graphs showing the decline in civic involvement over time, you see the same pattern, as described in the book on page 80: “modest growth in the first third of the [twentieth] century; rapid growth coming out of the Depression and World War II; a high plateau from the 1950s into the 1960s; and a sharp, sustained decline during the last third of the century.”

This pattern exactly tracks the life course of the Greatest Generation, the great civic generation which dominated the twentieth century. The rise and plateau of civic participation in the middle of that century happens in the First Turning era, when the Greatest Generation is in mid-life, the age range that is the peak of any generation’s influence. The decline occurs as that generation ages out of influence, and younger generations with other priorities and values take their place.

By the end of the twentieth century, with civic participation plummeting, to Putnam’s alarm, the United States has reached the Third Turning era. This is an inward-looking, individualist and opportunist social era. The Baby Boomers are now the ones in mid-life (and at the peak of influence) and Generation X is in young adulthood. A shift from a social order based on social capital to one based on financial capital suits both of these generations just fine.

Hence the transformation from a civic society to a market society, and the loss of a sense of stability. The loss of stability worries people, and there is concern over culture and morals even as the economy is booming. In this generational explanation, the factor of the rise of suburbia is a parallel development. The new suburban lifestyle accompanies the emergent generational constellation of cocooning families and prospering Bobos.

In the data presented in the book, there is a glimmer of hope that a turnaround could be forthcoming. In the section on trends in volunteering, an uptick is detected in the age group 25 and younger. That would be a sign that the Millennial generation, who were the teenagers of the 1990s, might be returning to a life of civic engagement.

This data was accumulated and analyzed in the year 2000. So now that 17 years have passed, has anything changed? I am not aware of any studies similar to Putnam’s that have been done since. But the social mood of the United States has grown darker, less confident, suggesting that the curve continues its downward trajectory.

One obvious development of the new era is the rise of social media, which has brought people together, in a sense. If membership in social organizations counted towards the Social Capital Index at the end of the twentieth century, why not membership in Facebook groups at the start of the twenty-first? Bowling Alone poses a similar question when examining the early Internet. However, online connections seem too superficial to qualify as generating social capital. There’s just not much effort involved in liking and sharing memes – the reason for the term slacktivism.

Another characteristic of our time is the partisan divide that splits political opinion into (at least) two distinct camps. This could be seen as an example of bonding social capital developing within groups, but with no bridging social capital to connect them. In fact, the author acknowledges in Bowling Alone that social capital is not necessarily a social good, as it can have the effect of uniting one group against another. For example, the recent protest marches in Charlottesville, Virginia were facilitated by social capital (people on each side of the protest coordinating and travelling together), and then violence ensued.

One interesting observation from Bowling Alone is that, by the end of the twentieth century, evangelical religion had overtaken mainstream religion in popularity. Evangelical religion is concerned with individual piety and proselytization, whereas the mainstream church works for social betterment. This trend is in keeping with the thesis of a decline in civic involvement.

But it also suggests how a new ideology could form in an individualistic age, and then come to drive political change as a new collectivist age approaches. The values that defined piety for the evangelists in the era of civic decline now provide the requirements for political inclusion in the new order. For the Red State these values are conservative religion and aggressive capitalism, and for the Blue State they are the progressive ideals championed by social justice warriors.

As long as the partisan divide remains strong, there won’t be a society-wide return to civic engagement. But once the conflicts are resolved, hopefully with as few Charlottesvilles as possible, it will be back to the First Turning in the social cycle. By then Millennials will be in mid-life, and maybe, through their influence, a sense of community will be restored. Then, if anyone is around to chart the data, those graphs might start going up again.

A rough life for migrant workers in any era

A rough life for migrant workers in any era

I watched The Grapes of Wrath (1940) last night, and thought it was interesting the way the federal government, in the form of the Department of Agriculture, is portrayed as benevolent heroes. In their government-run camp, they uphold the rights of the migrant workers from Oklahoma against the depredations of the local California law enforcement. This contrasts with what we have today, 80 years later, where the local governments of California protect migrant workers (sanctuary cities) from the depredations of the federal government (Trump-empowered ICE).

Or, alternately, today’s feds are protecting the rights of natives against the crime of migrants who have immigrated illegally. The federal government has the responsibility of protecting the rights of citizens of the United States when state governments fail to do so, and with cruel logic natives could claim to have a right to have no illegal immigrants among them. That is what Trumpistas claim, and so we have a swing from the left to the right across these 80 years, with an added racist tone. In The Grapes of Wrath, the opposing sides are both white, though you could consider them to be different ethnicities using the “11-nation” model: the Okies are Greater Appalachians and the Californians are Left Coasters.

So maybe we are seeing an evolution from fractured groups of whites (the immigrant upheavals of the early 1900s) to unified whites against the browns. The Trump white nationalist model.

Just some thoughts for this fine morning at the end of 2017.

Zero Tolerance Reaches The Workplace

Zero Tolerance Reaches The Workplace

In Turnings theory, one characteristic of the era we are currently experiencing is that the young adult generation benefits from a renewed focus on improving the workplace. This continues the pattern from their childhood of being protected and nurtured more intensively than the generation that came before them. The Millennial generation in childhood was the benefactor of “Zero Tolerance” policies to keep drugs and violence out of schools. The recent uproar over sexual harassment in the workplace can be thought of as this same spirit of zero tolerance following the Millennials, as they age, into a new sphere of life.

We could think of each generation’s experience with sexual harassment when they were young adults entering the workforce as tracking the changes in the social era. For the Silent generation, sexual harassment was out in the open and normalized (think Mad Men). For Boomers, there was a push back in a new age of feminism and women’s rights. When Generation X was young, sexual harassment went underground, but was tolerated for the sake of career advancement.

Now, in the Millennial young adult era, the harassment of the past twenty or thirty years is being exposed, to the ruination of the careers of many powerful older men. There will be no more tolerance of it during the rise of the new young generation, in which our society has invested so much.

Today’s Workout Album – Born This Way

Today’s Workout Album – Born This Way

Thanksgiving week has come and gone and now it’s time to work off some of those calories. I’ve been listening to a lot of electronica in my workouts lately, but for today it was Born This Way by Lady Gaga, which I suppose is only straying from electronic music and not abandoning the genre altogether. Discogs calls the album synth-pop, but if sounds like rock and roll to me, especially my favorite track, You and I, which could have stepped out of a smoke-filled bar in 1979.

Lady Gaga is famous for her extravagant and absurd performance art, which you can get a taste of in the music video linked above, a postmodern train wreck of bizarre costumes and choreography that only barely connects to the meaning of the song. But if you close your eyes and just listen, you will hear a tightly composed, absolutely blistering rock anthem. I just think she is a very talented songwriter and singer.

Finally, here is some evidence that I am actually working out when I listen to these albums, and not making “fake posts” 🙂 Took the picture in the car so as not to violate fitness center etiquette.

Today’s Workout Album – Puppy

Today’s Workout Album – Puppy

For today’s workout, more electronic music, from a relatively obscure 90s band, Fluke. This older stuff is a staple for a Gen-Xer like me. Their 2003 album Puppy has a lot of driving, churning beats to keep me spinning that cycle. And it’s nice and long, too; I almost listened to it in its entirety during my routine.

If you listen to the album, you might recognize one track. That’s because you heard it before here:

Thoughts on Living and Working in America

Thoughts on Living and Working in America

The latest audio book I have for driving in the car is the provocatively titled White Trash by Nancy Isenberg. It is very well written with knowledgeable and intelligent historical analysis. Basically it is about class structure in America and how the United States was never intended to be an egalitarian society. The founders were creating their own class-based society applying principles of Enlightenment philosophy, but certainly not abandoning the idea that some men were inherently better than others.

So over the centuries, different understandings of the nature of the underclass were prevalent. And different derogatory terms were used to denote them, from the phrase that title’s the book (originating in the nineteenth century) to today’s “deplorables” who elected the current President. Interestingly, an earlier President, Andrew Jackson, was also seen as a champion of the underprivileged who were despised by elite political society. His time’s equivalent of “deplorable” was “cracker.”

Another interesting fact of history is that in colonial times America was, for England, a dumping ground for undesirables. “Transportation” was an official policy to purge the homeland of criminals and debtors by sending them across the Atlantic. As the American colonies grew, each one took on its own unique character. The one where I currently reside, North Carolina, was considered an utter backwater, sandwiched between the more prosperous plantation colonies of Virginia and South Carolina. It was thought of as a “Lubberland” filled with worthless and indigent people.

At some point during the discussion of this time period, the book quotes a source declaring that, in contrast, the poor of Pennsylvania were hard working. As someone whose life currently straddles North Carolina and Pennsylvania (specifically the Philadelphia area, which was really all Pennsylvania was in the colonial era), it certainly feels like life up North is busier, more industrious than the South, though not necessarily to its benefit. I have lived in the South my entire adult life and enjoyed its laid back feel, not to mention affordable cost of living. And sometimes I have felt a bit like a “lubber.” Hey, what’s wrong with Plenty and a Warm Sun?

I recall once, way back in the 1990s, I flew to California for a job interview. Yes, I came this close (holds thumb and forefinger together) to moving to the Silicon Valley area. The hiring manager who interviewed me was middle-aged, with long, graying hair (think old hippie) and told me that he had moved from out East after his children were grown. He thought of the East Coast as having a quieter pace of living than the West Coast – it was ideal for raising a family, whereas out West was where you went to make money.

Just some thoughts on the long reach of the past and the different reputations that parts of the United States have. The South has not had a great reputation, but I have certainly enjoyed living here, and have found the Southern people to be decent and respectful as much as anywhere else. Honestly, everywhere you go people are the same, and there is always a vast underprivileged class.

Looking forward to finishing this book during my next long drive.

Today’s Workout Album – Robot O Chan

Today’s Workout Album – Robot O Chan

An old-timey “mp3 player” from the pre-smartphone era.

My usual choice of music for a cardio workout is some EDM, or Electronic Dance Music – what we old-schoolers call Electronica. It’s kind of monotonous and repetitive, to match the very nature of cardio, but with gradual changes to keep you interested. The tempo changes from fast to slow and back so you can have bursts of intense activity followed by cooling down periods. I have my entire collection on a small device, which I can bring to the fitness center and keep tucked in a pocket while I work out.

Today’s choice for an album was Robot O Chan by Prometheus, which, if you follow the link, you will see is an alias for a solo artist. So, a general rule is that an EDM recording act is just a guy from England, or maybe two guys from England, or sometimes a guy from Finland. The music is all synthesized, so you don’t need a band or anything, though some EDM artists will record guest musicians playing a normal instrument and mix it in.

This is my favorite track from the album, one of my favorite EDM tracks of all time:


Reddit Thread of the Week: American Healthcare Horror Stories

Reddit Thread of the Week: American Healthcare Horror Stories

Las Vegas shooting victims struggle to afford mounting medical costs from news

Lots of kvetching about the mess of a healthcare system in the United States, with some comments from other countries for comparison. The number one takeaway on surviving healthcare in the U.S. – don’t ride in an ambulance if you can help it.

This is all comes down to the basic American principle of self-determination – otherwise known as, “if you can’t take care of yourself, then fuck you!” Also the ethos of Yankee ingenuity, or how to make a buck off of your fellow citizen. On this thread, you can just see the nation’s stature slipping away.

Today’s Workout Album: Audio Elastique

Today’s Workout Album: Audio Elastique

So you go to the fitness center to work out but you don’t want to listen to the music they play there. What to do? Well, easy, in this day and age. You bring your smartphone, some ear buds, and pull up your streaming music app.

This morning’s album was Audio Elastique by De-Phazz. At 53 minutes it’s the perfect length for one of my workouts, which generally is 15 minutes of strength training, half an hour of cardio, and some cooling down time. It has enough tempo changes to accompany the cardio well, and it has the most important quality for a workout album: I like the tracks enough to keep wanting to hear the next one, which gets me over the hump when I start the cardio and it quickly wears me down.

I’m no hotshot, just a middle-aged guy trying to keep his body from falling apart. But like Baby, I need my musical inspiration to stay on task.

Blade Runner 20-whenever

Blade Runner 20-whenever

Science fiction often portrays a vision of a not-too-distant future, but a vision colored by the familiar elements and trends in thought of its own time. My favorite observation about the future as shown on the sci-fi screen is that hairstyles are going to be the same as whatever they were at the time the movie or TV show was made.  When watching an older movie about the near future it’s always fun to see where they got it wrong when that future finally rolls around.

Blade Runner, released in 1982, is set in Los Angeles in 2019. Not the real 2019, of course, but an alternate one where the technology looks like it did in the 1970s and the atmosphere is like a 1940s noir film. It’s a wonderful movie, dark and moody, well written and well acted, and featuring a gorgeous Vangelis soundtrack.

I understand that the point of it is the story and the imaginative vision and that it’s silly to compare it to our time period. Nonetheless, I will. Here are some out of date elements in the scenery, compared to the real 2019:

  • Big honking CRT monitors
  • Neon signs
  • Everyone is smoking in public

Of course, how could the people of 1982 predict that by 2019 smoking would be banished from public spaces (at least where I live; maybe it’s different in L.A.)? And that there would be LEDs, and flat screens, and the one thing that absolutely no pre-2007 sci-fi ever anticipates – smartphones?

To be fair, Blade Runner does get a couple of future technologies right:

  • Voice recognition software
  • Video calls

And then there are the predicted technologies that it might have been natural to assume would be coming in our future, but that our pathetic civilization has yet to achieve:

  • Flying cars
  • Off-world colonies
  • And – oh yeah – Replicants!

It always strikes me how optimistic mid-twentieth century conceptions of the future of space travel are. Back then, it hadn’t been that long since the first orbital launches, and the U.S. space program was still prestigious. But what, no moon colony by 1999? No manned mission to Jupiter in 2001? Well, at least it’s not too late to get that warp drive invented, even if we do have to wait for some time traveler assistance.

As for the artificially created humans, well, they are the crux of the story of Blade Runner, and a sci-fi obsession going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But their presence in the story is not a realistic extrapolation of technological progress.  The closest thing we have to replicants today is artificial hamburgers. Our real world robots are dumb machines, and our real world ‘AI’ is the power of  the Internet to collect and process vast amounts of data.

So I went to see Blade Runner 2049, and first I will report that it is just as good as the original. It has the same feeling of ominous wonder created through beautiful visual effects and an atmospheric soundtrack. It manages to take advantage of the 30+ years of advancement in film special effects (in the real world timeline, I mean) without detracting from suspenseful and meaningful storytelling. If you like science fiction movies in general and Blade Runner specifically then you will love this film.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that it is set in the same timeline as Blade Runner 2019, so there absolutely is no point in waiting until real 2049 to verify its predictions. In the movie’s version of 2049, there are still replicants, and off-world colonies, which is where you’d rather live, because Earth is still a mess, although the color palette of its dreary desolation has been updated a bit.

The 1970s look and feel of much of the technology is still there, which is neat, but here are some additions that reflect modern awareness:

  • Drones
  • Self-piloting flying cars
  • Touchscreens!
  • What if instead of growing a replicant, you programmed a virtual person into a computer, you could call it something else…

I will finish with some thoughts on the subject of artificial intelligence, which is huge in sci-fi film these days, in tandem with news feeds about the growth of the AI industry (which in the real world is building advanced information processing algorithms, not sentient beings).

In the original Frankenstein story, the monster confronts his maker, seeking acceptance, and the scientist creator laments that he has unleashed a destructive force. Both themes are prevalent in subsequent science fiction retellings, reflecting humanity’s yearning to understand its purpose in the universe, and fear that its technological progress has unmoored it from its origins. With Blade Runner (either one) you get all this, along with modern forebodings about overpopulation, ecological catastrophe, wealth inequality, and unbridled corporate power, artfully crafted to satisfy your need for continued myth-making.