Is Technology Fragmenting Society?

When I was young, there were four channels I could view on the television--the three local network affiliates and our PBS station. Our family was an early adopter of cable television, for which I was immensely grateful. The brief period after I acquired access to MTV and before the rest of the world did marked the only time that I was more plugged-in to popular culture than my peers. But as the channels have proliferated on cable and the number of radio stations has increased and been augmented by endless numbers of satellite radio stations, and with the advent of streaming media, we've started to lost the shared experiences that bind us together as people.

Back in 1980, for example, a character named J. R. Ewing was unexpectedly shot, and possibly killed, as a season-ending cliffhanger on the CBS show, Dallas. Now, it wasn't as though everyone in America was watching Dallas, but the number of viewers was high enough that everyone in America knew about it. The fictional shooting was a shared cultural event.

And because there were fewer media outlets, those outlets tended to cast wider nets. That probably accounts for the blandness of much of the television from that era. Producers tried to make shows that appealed to everyone, and they often made shows that lots of people kinda liked but no one really loved. But the wide net also meant you could get exposed to things you weren't specifically looking for.

For example, consider The Midnight Special, which came on Fridays on NBC, after Johnny Carson. This show featured live music (or nearly live--there's the occassional cheating), and the variety of acts was amazing. One week you might see The Cars, just on the cusp of fame:

Another week you might see The Sylvers--if you've forgotten or never seen this act, imagine the Jackson Five, but with the other brothers and sisters cramming the stage. Or just watch:

Another week, the show would head into another direction entirely, with The New York Dolls:

Rock, soul, country, pop, you could find it all on the Midnight Special. Now, if you want music, you can bring up an app that will play you just the music that you already know and like, which is cool, but it means we're all starting to live in the cultural equivalent of a walled garden. I can't imagine a show like the Midnight Special happening now, or a television character so well-known that everyone in America would ponder his fate. Will we ever see variety programs like The Carol Burnett Show again? Probably not.

Communication technology, from the telegraph to the Internet, has always held out the promise of bringing people together, but if we're not careful, it can do the opposite. Our technology can segment and divide us, so that while we develop close ties to the people and things we already know and like, we may miss the chance to interact with what's new and different. 

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