Indy’s engineered loneliness

Yesterday Amy Bartner from the Indianapolis Star and I had a lovely conversation. We talked about everything from campaign strategies to public safety and transportation options.

At some point in our hour-long conversation we clipped the topic of loneliness. I doubt it makes it into any story she writes, but I recall saying something like, “We’ve engineered our way out of social connectedness”. We’ve done this through inferior digital allegories like Facebook and text messaging and we’ve engineered our cities to remove any chance of human connectedness on the street. “You can’t say hi to your neighbor across the street when they’re checking their mail if that street is a five-lane road with 45 MPH traffic. You can’t even yell ‘Hello’ to that person.”

Just this morning I ran across this video on loneliness. It doesn’t speak much about how we’ve engineered our way to always feeling alone. For that, Robert Putnam’s 2001 “Bowling Alone” is an excellent read.

You can watch the video here:

The video’s researchers say loneliness is as bad for you as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. That seems hard to measure, but it’s no doubt bad.

Every time I go knocking on doors I’m surprised at how many never get answered despite people obviously being home. They may have good reasons for it — like fear of me being an attacker. But that’s no way to live, either.

Late last year I found a dog wandering in our alley. I went around to the neighbors with the dog trying to find more information. Half a dozen people looked out their blinds and decided not to answer. Children, obviously coached and probably for the best, would routinely shut the door real fast and say, “Mom, there’s a stranger at the door.” The fact that we have to teach children not to trust anyone, really ever, is damning.

Everyone is entitled to their decision to open their own front door or not. But this is no way to live in a city. You can’t be a neighborhood if your neighbors are just people who you sometimes see walking to their car in the morning. In a world where individuals are responsible for their own actions, this is a scenario where individual people will need to recognize and modify their own behavior. The government can’t do it, the media can’t do it (though it could probably nudge things along), and relying on everyone else around you isn’t going to cut it, either.

Indy’s best neighborhoods are the ones people can bump into each other and feel safe to talk to one another. Decades of engineering has led us to build houses further apart, across wider roads too dangerous to cross, and spend more time working on screens — either on email or through a Netflix binge — than satisfying evolution’s necessary need for social ties.

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Justin Harter for District 12