I’ll admit it, I grew up on Little House on the Prairie. Back in the day when we had 3 to 5 channels to choose from and one decent TV, occasionally my mom got to watch what she wanted to watch and Little House was one of those things. If you are unfamiliar with this TV show which ran from 1974–1982, you missed the adaptation of the identically titled books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was her autobiographical tale of life in the 1870’s in the upper midwest of America. So certainly some of what I will discuss here is romanticized and tainted by TV, but I think much of the premise holds.
In the late 1800’s, there was no such thing as self-sufficiency. It was simply impossible. If you were able to grow enough food for your family to survive, then you were in no position to produce the materials for their clothing. And the food you grew would have been very limited one, maybe two crops with a small vegetable garden on the side. You still had to purchase additional goods to help cook meals and maintain a semblance of variety. You weren’t able to produce the nails and horseshoes for your farm and farm animals. If your wagon wheel or plow was damaged, the materials for repair were not readily available. How about that lumber for your home? The point is that you had no self-sufficiency. Time and again, towns were started where the rural folk could gather and begin to build enough custom for the non-farming community to provide much needed specialty services, such as general store, mill and banking. Also schools and churches provided a sense of community where many if not all gathered periodically to meet and socialize.
There is a natural by product of community life back then. It was a necessary form of social cohesion that I think is a cornerstone of our humanity, well developed over thousands of years of social behavior. People genuinely needed each other. You were needed to survive by other people. You were needed to create volume for business and schools. You were needed, in person, for the community to be social. Technology has robbed of us of that need.
In today’s society, we have been taught that needing help from others is a weakness. We strive for self-sufficiency, although it is an illusion. We believe that with our internet connections and electronic wallets, every manner of good can be delivered to us. There is no need to “meet in town”. “Why would I leave the comfort of my couch?” In fact, we continue to develop our technology seemingly to create more and better ways for us to avoid direct human contact at all. We text instead of speaking on the phone now. We Facetime and Skype instead of visiting. We order Fresh Direct or Peapod to avoid the grocery store. All of this creates an illusion that we do NOT need others. But these barriers put us terribly out of practice at the thing we have lost the most from the “need” for community. We have no coping mechanism for dealing with other people, especially around arguments and debate.
We see it all the time now. If someone disagrees with someone else, they can blast them in the comments section or on Facebook. Our media is so busy entertaining us that they insist on having opposing views for every discussion. Those opposing views aren’t even permitted to reach consensus or sort out their issues. Clearly that is not entertaining enough. Empathy is becoming a lost art. When was the last time you heard some news or political pundit, who is split-screened with his/her opponent, stop and opine on the merits of the opponent’s argument, without the proverbial “but” at the end of the sentence.
This isn’t how we were meant to deal with conflict but the difference is we don’t think we “need” any of these people — we are self-sufficient. In the late 1800’s if we got in a fight with the owner of the mill, we had to figure it out. We’d be doing business again real soon. We would see them at the church picnic. Our need for each other reminded us constantly about our humanity. We are real people, with real feelings and real opinions and to co-exist, we had to work through our problems. We had to empathize. We had to sympathize and we had to sort it out. If we didn’t life became worse. There was a COST associated with our failure to compromise and to come-to-terms. None of this even accounts for the occasional personal or family catastrophe, which certainly couldn’t be handled by the individual or even the family. There was no insurance policy. The closest thing to an insurance policy was to be a successful and respected member of your community so they would band together and help you in your time of crisis. Personally, I believe that we were built to help each other.
Now I have no illusions that everything was as bucolic as Little House portrayed life. I am certain that people fought and genuinely didn’t like each other, but it was not with the same vitriol and strident tones. Without the need to face our enemies today, we say terrible, hurtful things, we never compromise and we never empathize anymore.
So in conclusion, I submit that we have sacrificed the very fabric of our society for technology and illusion of self-sufficiency. Until we learn to need each other again, until we choose to empathize, until we remember to put others needs before our own, we will be stuck in a polarized downward spiral of discord, without the skills to right the ship. That’s a cost of technology that few have spoken about and less have measured and counted. But it is real and immensely valuable.