Something I've noticed as a history graduate student is that every historian I talk to is convinced that their area is the most interesting one out there. It's too circular a statement to be a profound observation—of course a person is going to be interested in the topic that she's chosen to study—but it's not just the specific topic. Someone studying German science policy in the 1950s and 1960s is likely to be interested not just in the science policy but by post-war Germany, and someone studying the role played by doctors and public health officials in French Indochina probably has a passion for Southeast Asian history as much as for the history of public health. It's the same way for me. My dissertation deals with psychology and the American university system around the end of the nineteenth century, and a large part of the reason is that I find the history of America in that period (roughly 1890-1920) completely fascinating. There was so much going on all at the same time, so many things changing, so many different threads of trend and culture and influence all interacting. Reading about that time makes me think of snow globes; it's as if someone picked up American culture, shook it, and then watched all the flakes settle in different configurations.
One of the many things happening during that period was the growing prominence of scientific arguments (and technological metaphors) applied to social problems. Science began to replace morality in public policy discussions, and a lot of energy was directed towards finding scientific frameworks for evaluating everything from social work to elementary-school education to philanthropic spending. This was the era of "scientific management" in factories and workplaces, efficiency experts doing stop-motion studies of industrial laborers in an attempt to increase production output. Efficiency was such a watchword of the period that it became an end rather than a means, and most people still see it that way today.
Part of what's so seductive about the technological advances I discussed last month is the increase in efficiency that they bring along. I'm using a loose definition of "efficient" here, one that has less to do with industrial output and more to do with the ability to have exactly what you want (and only what you want) quickly and with little trouble. TiVo and other DVRs are masters of this type of efficiency—I tell TiVo what I want to watch and it goes out and gets it for me, without my having to wait around for the right time to watch something. (It also stops recording at the end of the show, which you wouldn't think was a particularly special feature, but I appreciate it. I'm one of those people TV execs rely on, who if left to her own devices will just watch the next thing out of inertia. This is how I once ended up watching an entire season of Felicity despite hating the show, because it was on right after Buffy.) The microwave lets me have regular cooked oatmeal in the mornings in half the time of stovetop cooking, and the iPod (as mentioned last month) lets me have both my favorite music and my favorite radio programs with me wherever I go, whenever I want, with no hassle. Online shopping falls in here too—the ability to get books, clothes, groceries without having to take the time to actually go out somewhere and deal with salesclerks and other shoppers and transportation. At the next level, you have the (more specifically) iTunes and (more broadly) eBooks which, regardless of what atrocities of capitalization can be laid at their feet, represent something of an efficiency revolution.
What efficiency costs us, though, is serendipitous discovery. Students in my department were in a panic a couple of years ago over a rumor that the university library was preparing to temporarily (because of planned building renovations) move to a closed-stacks model where, instead of wandering the aisles ourselves to get our own books, we'd put in requests and the books would be brought to us by library staff. You'd think it would be a good thing—I expend a fair amount of time and energy getting the books that I need, and it might be nice to just submit requests electronically and be notified when the books are ready for pickup. The panic of it, though, came from the fact that my fellow students and I are very aware of the benefits of scanning the shelves. When the book I want is delivered into my hands, I get just the book I want. When the book I want is sitting on a library shelf, surrounded by all of its friends, the odds are pretty good that I'll get the book I knew I wanted and also at least one other book that's useful (or at least interesting) but didn't turn up when I keyword-searched the library catalog. I stumbled into my dissertation topic (the beginnings of it, at least) through a random find on a library shelf. I stumbled across the works of a woman who became one of my favorite authors in a similar manner; fifteen years old and scanning the poetry section of the local Borders Books for a birthday gift for a poetry-loving friend, I saw a collection with the same title as a song I liked and picked it up on a whim. I started watching Star Trek in junior high not because I had any interest in it, but because it was what the local syndicated channel happened to show on Saturday afternoons. I've had (and overheard) a lot of conversations while riding on buses or waiting at supermarket checkout counters, conversations that were funny or disturbing or informative, that in any event made for good stories later, and that would never have happened if not for certain inefficiencies and inconveniences built into my day.
It is, of course, unfair for me to settle on the electronic technologies as the largest part of the efficiency/serendipity problem. For every point I can make about random finds in bookstores, there's a counterpoint about things like the Amazon recommendation system, and besides, the closed-stacks library problem has nothing to do with advancing technology. There's very little about the technologies themselves that creates problems of isolation (which is what the loss of accidental discovery really comes down to, in the end—an isolation from the unknown or unchosen). There are a million obvious ways that the internet and other technological advances facilitate communication and connection—it would be ridiculous for me to say otherwise, sitting here in a coffee shop in California using my laptop and a wireless connection to listen to a college radio station out of Amarillo, conduct a chat session with an old friend in Massachusetts, and write an editorial for an online magazine with a staff scattered across multiple countries.
These technologies also facilitate, however, an unprecedented degree of self-imposed isolation. Where this feels the most pronounced to me is the way the internet facilitates the interest-based community. It's a conversation I've had over and over again in the last few years, the benefits and disadvantages of the interest-based community. On the one hand, of course it's a brilliant development, being able to join up in some fashion with people who like the same things you like. I can indulge my love for certain musicians or authors or whomever with a group of people who share that love (and who probably have access to information, like tour dates, that I might miss otherwise). For people with affiliations or affinities slightly more controversial, the existence of these virtual communities has been a great boon, if not an actual lifesaver. (It's far less heartbreakingly isolating to be a gay teenager in a conservative high school now than it was when I was in high school, for instance.) I wouldn't even try to diminish any of these benefits.
It's just that I get nervous when I hear people say, as I pretty regularly do, how happy they are to not have to interact with people who don't share their interests or beliefs. The first part of that, only interacting with people who share your interests, is a problem only in a kind of micro way—it's your business, I suppose, if you want to limit your horizons so severely. The second part of that, only interacting with people who share your beliefs, I find more troubling. If you only ever talk to people who agree with you, you're pretty much guaranteeing that you'll never question any of your beliefs or assumptions in any kind of meaningful way. Not being open to disagreement or opposition is one of the surest ways to get locked into false beliefs; it also means that any contradictory information or opinions are going to come to you without any context, making them harder to understand.
This isolation effect was highlighted for me during the recent Presidential election season. Whenever I talked to my extended family, they were repeating a set of talking points taken from Michael Savage or Hannity and Colmes or Laura Ingram; at the same time, my college friends and grad-school colleagues were all repeating a different set of talking points, theirs taken from Brad DeLong or Daily Kos or the Democratic Underground. For all that the two sets of conversations related to each other, they may as well have been speaking different languages. The culture of conservative AM talk radio is such that the hosts, as far as I can tell, pride themselves on not being linked in to any larger conversational currents, but the huge and massively interconnected nature of the world of liberal political weblogs makes it easy for people to feel that they're part of a large-scale political dialogue. From what I can see, though, all the connections are to people who share the same base set of assumptions, and that means you're not really having a dialogue, you're talking to the echo chamber. There's a value, certainly, in having places to go where you know you won't be disagreed with. Everyone deserves a safe haven. I just worry that we're all starting to rely too heavily on those safe havens, which in the long term can only do harm.
It would be difficult, in the end, to come out too much against convenience and efficiency and streamlined processes—I spend too much time being frustrated by inefficiency to do much complaining while still keeping a straight face. All I'm trying to suggest is that there are complications and tradeoffs, and that it's easy to lose sight of them when we're enjoying the benefits of modern technological advance.