For our November Readers' Review: “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” by Anne Tyler. As we prepare for holiday gatherings, join Diane and her guests to discuss this master work from the author who has made an art of exploring family love and dysfunction.
A revolution in technology has connected us online more than ever before: Nearly 60 percent of Americans now have a Facebook account. Digital connections have replaced informal interaction with neighbors and acquaintances. And a quarter of Americans say they have no best friend to confide in. Some caution the decline in face-to-face interactions has led to polarization and congressional gridlock, while others argue that digital connections provide invaluable connections with far-flung family and friends. Diane and guests discuss how virtual relationships affect real life connections and building community.
- Susan Pinker developmental psychologist, columnist and broadcaster; author of "The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter" (August 2014)
- Marc Dunkelman research fellow, Brown University's Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions and senior fellow, the Clinton Foundation; author of "The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community" (August 2014)
- Zeynep Tufekci assistant professor, School of Information, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She writes regularly on her blog: Technosociology.org
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Social media networks and new technology have connected us like never before. Nearly 60 percent of Americans are now on Facebook. But critics question the effect of those digital connections on personal relationships and American community. Joining me to talk about how online relationships affect face-to-face relationships and building community, Marc Dunkelman. He is the author of a new book titled "The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community." He is with Brown University.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd developmental psychologist Susan Pinker, her new book is titled, "The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter." And joining us from a studio in Chapel Hill, N.C., Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina. I'm sure you will want to weigh in. Join us at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.
MS. SUSAN PINKERGlad to be here.
MR. MARC DUNKELMANThanks so much for having me.
MS. ZEYNEP TUFEKCIThank you for inviting me.
REHMAnd to you, Marc Dunkelman, you talk about a powerful transformation underway in the American community, and you say it's affecting everything from innovation to our capacity for empathy. Explain what's happening.
DUNKELMANThe big change that's defined the last several decades is that we've taken more of our time and attention and invested it first in our most intimate acquaintances, so our spouses and our children and our parents, best friends. Secondly, we've taken a lot of time and attention and given it to people that we know only across a single affinity. So we both root for the same football team, or we love to crochet, or we're both very progressive or very conservative.
DUNKELMANWhat's been lost in that wash are the relationships that are of an intimacy in between, so what I call middle-ring relationships, people who are familiar but not intimate. So the people that you would bowl with in a league or the people that would be in your Rotary Club or your PTA or just the person across the street who's your neighbor.
REHMAnd why do you think that that change, if indeed it is happening, is so important?
DUNKELMANIt's in those middle ring relationships where we learn to understand people who have different points of view. Your inner-ring relationships, your most intimate relationships, are with people that love you no matter what you think. The outer-ring relationships are relationships that you would abandon if they didn't agree with you.
DUNKELMANIt's in the middle rings, people who you would borrow the proverbial cup of sugar from, where you know that they're conservative and you're progressive or the opposite, or they root for a different football team, or whatever it is. But you learn to deal with people who have different points of view. It's where you get new ideas. It's where you learn to empathize. And it's where we begin to accept that we live in a society of people with a variety of points of view, and we all need to live together.
REHMSusan Pinker, your forthcoming book -- I gather it comes out in just a few weeks -- really echoes some of the same things as those of Marc's. What's happening on an individual level when we no longer have face-to-face contact with people in that middle level as he puts it?
PINKERWell, seeing people in person unleashes a whole cascade of biological events that help us not only get through the day in real time, in the present, but help us in the long term in terms of fighting off disease, in terms of, you know, incredible advanced, like, fighting cancer. It helps us, in fact, keep our memories and live longer.
REHMWhat is the proof of what you just said?
PINKERWell, the proof is not a single study but many, many different studies. Many of them look at huge populations and follow them over time. So, for example, an epidemiologist at Harvard named Lisa Berkman looked at all the bureaucrats who worked in the French electrical and -- service and then measured everything about them. And then she watched what happened and followed them for the next 10 years -- what happened to their marriages, what did they eat, how much did they exercise, every little detail -- and what she discovered was that the best predictor of who would be alive in 10 years was how integrated their social lives were.
PINKERAnd that relates a little bit to what Marc is saying. So we're not just talking about our tight relationships, which are important -- and I'll get to that in a moment -- but also our weaker bonds, meaning, do we get together with somebody every Wednesday at Starbucks or play tennis or go to church or synagogue? All those relationships are tremendously important on an individual level as well as a civic level.
REHMAnd are you arguing that our online activity is somehow getting in the way of those face-to-face encounters?
PINKERI think online activity is incredibly important in so many ways. It's a wonderful way to search for information to find out more. What it isn't good at is deepening your relationships, establishing empathy and maintaining empathy. And what we're finding out -- I mean, the research comparing online to the face-to-face is just emerging now. But what we're finding out is, without face-to-face contact, your relationships decay in as little as 18 months.
REHMAll right. And turning to you, Zeynep Tufekci, as professor in the School of Information at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, what's your reaction from what you've heard thus far?
TUFEKCISo I definitely agree face-to-face relationships are important. But I don't understand -- or I don't agree with the framing that the online takes away from it because what we find in research very clearly is that people who keep up with each other online also keep up with each other offline. It's not like you have a bunch of friends who are, like, virtual non-real beings, and you only see them online.
TUFEKCIFor most people, the social media, Facebook, telephone, texting, it's done with people you also see offline, and it's -- if you don't keep in touch with them, that also means that you also don't see them face to face as much. You know, when I talk to my brother on the phone or on Facebook -- he just lives in a different city -- it strengthens our relationship and sets us up for more offline reaction. Also want to go back to one thing.
TUFEKCIThe people that you live within the same neighborhood are a lot more likely to be like you than the person you met in your crochet club, right? Those people -- residential segregation in the U.S. unfortunately means that your neighbors are a lot more like you. So affinity-based relationships where you're just connecting on, say, a hobby, you're probably going to meet a lot more people who are in a different political party than you. And finally, in my own neighborhood, the email list is what really helped us connect and also connect us face to face.
TUFEKCIBecause otherwise, you know, we're working long hours. There's commutes. The suburbs aren't always set up for walking. It was those online relationships that helped us get to know each other and then meet offline as well. So I see online and offline as supporting each other. And I'm absolutely in agreement that, you know, we should see each other a lot. But it's not the online that's keeping us. It's usually commutes, work hours, television, other factors that make it harder for us to find the time for each other.
REHMAll right. Marc, do you want to respond?
DUNKELMANYeah. I think those are interesting points. There's research that shows that -- from the General Social Survey that if you ask Americans, who have you socialized with over the course of last month, the percentage that say that they've socialized with a member of their family has gone up over the course of the last few decades. The percentage that shows that they've -- that claim that they've socialized with someone who lives a few miles away has also gone up. But the percentage who have socialized with a neighbor has actually gone down.
DUNKELMANAnd that's a fairly remarkable trend. I think Zeynep is right, that we are -- that there is often a connection between who we see online and who we interact with online and who we see in person. But on the whole, this specific category of relationships, of people who are familiar but not intimate, I think most of your listeners will find that if they compare who they knew to who their parents knew or their grandparents socialized with, they'll think it's interesting that there was a whole category of people that are absent from my life that animated theirs.
TUFEKCII agree. I agree. But the thing is the online relationship helps those what you call that middle category. I work with the General Social Survey. There's a lot of research on it. The people who are online are also more likely to meet all those people too. So I think for -- with our parents and grandparents, I would say television, suburbanization, two-parent working families, lack of time, those are big factors. And that's...
TUFEKCIYou know, if you look historically, that's where it is.
PINKERI think that Zeynep is right in that people who are socially engaged use online tools to amplify that. And I think it's wonderful. So it's true that the people that, for example, are most likely to email and text are close relatives. And that's excellent for those of us who are already extroverted and social types because it's just another way to connect. But it can't really replace the face to face. And I'll give you a few examples.
PINKERFor example, there's a wonderful study on adolescent girls where they actually induced stress and by giving them math problems to solve in front of an audience. And they divided these girls into three groups. And one group, after the test, when their cortisol or a measure of stress went up, got a phone call from their mom. One group got a text from their mom. And one group got nothing at all. And what they found was that those who got texts had the same level of stress and those who got nothing.
REHMInteresting. Susan Pinker, and when we come back, we'll talk about how this moves into the political realm.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about online communication, as well as face-to-face communication. Coincidentally, in this morning's Washington Post, our friend E.J. Dionne writes, mentioning your book, Marc Dunkelman, saying that, "In 'The Vanishing Neighbor' Marc argues that one of the most significant changes in the U.S. in recent decades is the decay of what you call the middle ring." Now, from your perspective, how do you think that affects our political interaction?
DUNKELMANYou know, Diane, there is a frequent litany that we hear all the time about why Washington is broken. You know, money and politics, gerrymandering, the filibuster. These are all familiar to all of your listeners. What's so remarkable about them is that on almost every county they existed even before Washington became so dysfunctional. So the question is, what actually changed? What changed is the places where we learned to deal with people who had different political persuasions have evaporated.
DUNKELMANAnd whether it's because of online media or because of suburbanization or the big sort or a whole variety of changes in American life, the end result is in the course of our routine everyday lives, we no longer talk to people who have different points of view.
REHMYou know, I grew up right here in Washington, on a block where we were in row house. And porches, front porches all the way up and down the block. Everybody knew everybody else. You walked out on the front porch or left, next-door neighbor would say something or teach you something or ask you something. Whether, in fact, politics was even part of that, who knew. But you got along with everybody. And now it's as though politics completely divides us and that the internet somehow has exacerbated that, Susan Pinker.
PINKERWell, I think often the function of the internet is to exaggerate what already exists. So, for example, you know, I look a little bit more at the intrapersonal level than on the political level. But on the interpersonal level, for example, you know, many of us are -- because we're mobile, we're separated, even from our intimate family members. And Skype just does not fill the gap, as wonderful as it is, you know.
PINKERAnd one of the reasons I call the book "The Village Effect" is because I was fascinated by a phenomenon that I learned about by chance, which is that people in very remote Sardinia communities -- that's a part -- Sardinia is an island off Italy -- live longer than everywhere else. And not just that the men live as long as women -- it's the only place in the world where men live as long as women. And from my last book I knew that some of the biological effects of social interaction were helping to keep women alive longer and to keep their memories longer.
PINKERI mean there's incredible research showing that those who avoid dementia have the most complex and integrated social network. So not just our inner circle, but what Marc is also calling the middle ring. So I decided I want to know why this place is so different from the way we live. What are they doing? Because, you know, here we are, we're popping mega vitamins and we're going to hot yoga, and we're using sunscreen. And we're doing all these things and we're living 30 years shorter lives than they are in these villages.
PINKERSo I went to this -- these villages in Sardinia to investigate. And what I discovered by experiencing these villages is that their elders are never alone, ever. So unlike us, where you go to visit say an older relative, they're usually in an assisted living facility. Usually there's nobody in their room unless they're sharing. There's a lot of solitude. I was frustrated at first because I could not interview these centenarians and get them to finish a sentence without being interrupted because everywhere I went, the Giuseppe and St. Theresa were surrounded by a whole web of family and neighbors.
PINKERSo right away that -- they had not only their intimates, which, by the way, I think that is reducing. I don't think we're -- it is as strong as it used to be. And that middle layer was there as well. So that as, for example, their spouses died or if their children moved away, there were neighbors to fill in for them.
REHMAnd indeed, we have a message from Twitter, which says, "We are so much more than mind. And mind is all social media can transmit. No body language, no pheromones, no touch." Zeynep, do you want to comment?
TUFEKCISure. Just want to go back to the idea that we are sorting ourselves to different camps, which I think there's a point. But I live near a university and the only place, to be honest, where I interact a lot with Republicans is online because I live right next to campus. And to be honest, this is like blue country. So -- and sometimes those online interactions lead to making friends. This has happened to me many times. Who were kind of weak bonds for me and then I go someplace and there they are and we have coffee.
TUFEKCII'm absolutely for the power of face-to-face. You know, there's some moments where a hug is just what you need. I just see that my online life has made it more possible for me to get more hugs. And also into more arguments. And I agree with both of the other guests that, you know, the country needs a lot more of respectful argument and empathy. And I just see my own social media use as helping me find more.
TUFEKCISo maybe we need to talk about how do we do it so that online we go seek people and we go look -- because residentially, to be honest, I could knock on 20 doors and I wouldn't find a political difference or 30 or 100.
REHMMarc, what do you think?
DUNKELMANWell, I think it's a little bit less helpful to talk about whether the issue is online or not. The issue is we're not talking to people about -- across issues of difference. So whether it's online or whether it's because we've been sorted or whether it's because we go now to a shopping mall that speaks exactly to our taste, rather than a department store that catered to a whole variety, all those reasons together make it so that we're having fewer interactions.
REHMAnd here's an email from Alyssa in Hollywood, Fla., who says she's part of GenX. "This weekend my husband and I went to a party with people we did not know. We were forced to be introduced, interact and learn. We also visited elderly friends to talk, eat and play cards. It actually is a fight, a struggle to maintain face-to-face interactions. It's too easy to send a text, as the teens I work with do. It's time to make true socializing a value. Without the crucial relationships will disappear." Susan?
PINKERYou know, I find it so fascinating that you're quick to accept concrete fixes, like doctor says to give up smoking, we do our best to lose weight or to exercise. And that the research is telling us is that our social bonds are at least, if not more protective to our health and wellbeing than those things. In fact, men who've had a stroke recover faster with kind of a very embedded social network, the close layer and the outside layer, then they do with medication. So it's very powerful.
REHMBut couldn't that include online interaction?
PINKEROf course it can. And I think the mistake is to say one or the other, as opposed to it amplifies. I think for me the really important question is, why are we having this debate right now? And one of the reasons is because of the political polarity that's facing us. But another reason is that we've never been lonelier than now. The general social survey has said that even our intimate connections are declining.
PINKERSo when they asked the question, in the 1980s, how many people can you confide in, how many people can you depend on, well, the answer was three. Now, the answer 30 years later is less than two. And that's including our spouses and family members. I'm just shocked by that.
DUNKELMANYou know, at the end of his last book, Tom Friedman talked about how technology has made it so that residents of Manhattan and Mumbai are now virtual neighbors. What I love about the title of Susan's book, "The Village Effect," is that it makes a very distinguishing point. You may be able to be in touch with somebody in Mumbai if you're in Manhattan, but a neighbor is a very different kind of relationship.
DUNKELMANIt spans across a whole variety of issues, whether it's -- you may disagree in politics, you maybe agree, but you're learning to deal with somebody in relationships that will span across generations and interests so that you begin to understand what other people are thinking.
REHMAnd is your fear that we have become so separated that we're no longer doing that, even on a neighborly level or at the Congressional level?
DUNKELMANI think that the fact that we have fewer interactions in our routine lives in most of the country, makes it so that we're less willing to have our representative in Washington reach across the aisle and make a compromise or a collaboration with somebody who has a different point of view.
DUNKELMANIf you know that the independent bookstore owner down the street, who's a little more conservative or the university professor around the corner who's a little more progressive, if those two people know one another and they've talked at a coffee shop or their kids go to the same school, they think, you know, I may not agree with that person, but I know they're not crazy. They've got a legitimate point of view.
DUNKELMANAnd if my Congressman goes to Washington and finds a representative on the other side of the aisle, who represents the interests of the other person, and they find some way to strike a compromise, it doesn't seem like apostasy. It seems like a reasonable accommodation for somebody that has a different point of view.
REHMI want to ask another question, though, regarding the internet. And that is whether you are worried about the increasing isolation that use of the internet brings with it.
DUNKELMANI am worried about isolation. I do think that many people, like Zeynep, feel connected through the internet. And I think that that's a blessing. And I think we should take advantage of that wherever we can. It's also wonderful that you can find people with different points of view on the internet. On the whole, this experience and what Susan writes about in her book, these face-to-face interactions between people who are friendly, but not intimate, that's a very particular kind of relationship. You can only have so many in your life. You learn a lot from those relationships.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got lots of callers. I do want to open the phones. 800-433-8850. First to Alex, in Peru, Vt. You're on the air.
ALEXHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
ALEXYeah, here in Peru, we're a small town. And I would ask Marc, in particular, if his view on, you know, this thesis would apply to life in the country. Because here, you know, I do rely on my neighbors and I do see people in my day-to-day life who would fit into that middle ring. And I'm just wondering, you know, how his theory fits in with the folks in the mountains, let's say, or in the country.
DUNKELMANThat's an interesting question, Alex. The change has happened across American life everywhere. It's happened in urban life. It's happened in rural life. It's not that there's nowhere where middle rings are still strong. And it may be that they're stronger in places like Peru and in small towns around…
DUNKELMANI happen to move from Washington, D.C., to Providence, R.I., explicitly to be on a street where I knew there would be thick middle rings. So those do exist in the country. And indeed they may be thickened over the course of the next two decades if the younger generations are desperate to know people who live nearby.
REHMWhat do you think, Susan?
PINKERWell, I think that even in a small town like Peru, Vt., which is actually close to Canada, you have to make an effort because in those towns often the properties are much more separated than they would have been in -- where you grew up, Diane, where you had town houses and everybody could see other from their porches. So people will get into their cars and go to work. And it's considered to be more polite now not to interfere and not to discipline other people's kids, not to make comments if somebody doesn't look very well.
PINKERAnd I would maintain that, you know, you have to make an effort. And in fact, when I was researching this book, slowly but surely the human stories that I was investigating and writing about and the research started to change my own habits, even though I would consider myself already a pretty social person.
REHMZeynep, do you want to comment?
TUFEKCISure. I think if people can afford it, moving to walkable neighborhoods, perhaps turning off their television, you know, not having as long commutes, those are wonderful suggestions. But the general social survey numbers show very clearly that the people who are using online to supplement are also having more of the kinds of relationships that are both guests are saying.
TUFEKCISo that's what I want to emphasize. If you want -- and this is a great advice to try to get to meet more people. But if you think staying offline is going to help you, the research is pretty clear, that's not going to do it for you. Getting out there, meeting people online, offline and doing whatever you can in your life, whether it's moving, whether it's changing jobs, those are wonderful suggestions. Not isolating elderly people -- it's not going to happen if you just stay offline. In fact, you're probably more isolated that way.
REHMZeynep, describe for us what you see as the difference between ascribed ties to achieved ties.
REHMWhat do you mean?
TUFEKCIWe have been moving from relationships that are based on where we happen to live and where we happen to be born from, relationships like a church, our family ties, to ties we choose. Right? What Marc was saying about, like, people in our affinity groups. So that does change. Like you had a social network that kind of accepted you. You just were from the neighborhood. There was a church. Maybe there was a bowling league. Maybe there was a union hall. Those have all eroded. That's very true.
TUFEKCIWe've lost that neighborhood context. And I really do think, you know, work hours and suburbanization and television have done a lot to do with that. And I think people connecting online is actually people struggling to get back in touch. I see people trying to reach out and not be so isolated. And I think we need to find ways, both offline and online to support that.
REHMAll right. We'll take a short break here and take more of your calls, your comments, when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about online connections and how they can affect relationships otherwise. Here's an email from Charles in Florida. This for you, Mark Dunkelman. He says, "I feel I have lots of middle ring friends, but when a topic turns to politics I tend to remain silent to avoid a confrontation that seems to go from political to personal. Are middle ring friends beneficial if we ignore discourse?"
DUNKELMANI think that they likely are. Even if you avoid topics from time to time, I suspect that most people have some sense of what other people that they're talking to on a regular basis at coffee shop, in a union hall, in a bowling league think about the world. It puts a face with an ideology. Makes it real and seem more reasonable so that when you're reading the paper or in a voting booth or thinking about politics on your own, you begin to understand the other side and think, maybe I don't agree but they're not crazy.
REHMTo Bill in Dallas, Texas. You're on the air.
BILLHi. Thanks so much for all you do, Diane.
BILLYou know, a lot of the panelists had some good remarks. I wanted to say that although I do agree with the comment that the online technology can lead to social interaction, and Meet Up is a good example of that. You go online and you meet somebody in person. In my experience, I want to go along with what Susan and Marc said about the lack of personalization and the lack of empathy and the lack of the human touch that leads to easy misunderstandings and assumptions.
BILLA quick example is I work in a large office. I'm the deputy director of an agency where somebody whose office is less than 10 yards from mine, in that position right now there's a very young lady who's about 22. And her communication with me is always by text message or instant chat. And whereas anybody previously would come over and talk to me, ask me a question, call me on the phone. In that text messaging and chat, it's a quick thing to do, it's a simple answer but it leaves out every aspect of nuance and really of understanding what you're talking about.
BILLI just wanted to say something like that.
REHMI'm glad you did. Thanks for calling.
PINKERThat's such an interesting observation because it's the easy way out. And often when there's difficult information to convey, there might be a conflict which happens in the workplace quite frequently. People will send an email because then they don't have to deal with how their comment lands on the other person. They don't have to see the look on their face. They don't have to actually bridge that gap that Marc is talking about.
PINKERSo, you know, what's interesting is that when you look at the research, and there's some really interesting research on the workplace now that shows that when you bring people together and force them to interact, because right now there's less of that, all sorts of interesting unexpected things happen.
REHMZeynep, do you want to comment?
TUFEKCIWell, so this is -- part of this is generation. People made the same complaint about the invention of writing. So there's some ways in which people communicate differently but I want to say there are some times when the fact that your texting can make teens more likely to talk about difficult things. There's now a suicide hotline that connects through that. So if there's a generational difference, it might not be that the depth you're perceiving in it might be different for them. Maybe sometimes it's a little easier to talk about something really difficult that you can't handle face-to-face.
TUFEKCISo I want to bring the complexity of generational change as well as it's not unreal or superficial necessarily just because it's online. I have seen people talk about facing cancer online with great honest. And they say they can't do it as well face-to-face sometimes maybe because they don't have the same support group. There's all sorts of ways in which I can give counter examples where the online channel helps someone express themselves more deeply but, yes, let's organize our workplace as better. I mean, that's a different question.
PINKERI'd like to look at some of the research on people with cancer because actually it's something that I write about right at the beginning of my book. And there's no doubt that online is a great place for anonymous connections so that things that you can't express because you don't want people to necessarily know, great place to get information. But what the research is telling us is that say for example women with breast cancer who use computers to research their situation, they felt that the web helped them gain information. But the more time they spent on the internet, the lonelier they felt.
PINKERAnd similarly when there's comparisons, research on comparisons between online support groups and face-to-face support groups, Paula Klemm and Thomas Hardy have found that 92 percent of the electronic support group members were clinically depressed, where the face-to-face support groups had a much lower, almost insignificant amount of depression. So I think that in a way it's easy for us to conflate the two.
PINKERI think -- I agree with Zeynep that there is -- there's no going backwards. I'm not going to trash my Smartphone or my laptop. They're incredibly convenient and very, very helpful. But it's not the same. It's like the difference between a McDonald's hamburger and your mother's lasagna.
REHMAll right. Here's an email from Donna who says, "I managed technology professionals for years. Found that even though they work side by side, they were more comfortable emailing each other. After watching this for some time I realized they were all avoiding conflict. I exposed them to conflict resolution and negotiating classes and the team came together. They weren't afraid of disagreeing any longer." We Donna on Capitol Hill, Marc.
DUNKELMANWell, the conversation so frequently turns to whether technology is good or bad.
DUNKELMANIt's here to stay.
DUNKELMANIt's not helpful to debate that, but things have changed. Throughout American history right from the revolution, American exceptionalism was born from the fact that we had a social architecture that forced people who had different points of view, to interact, from colonial villages to frontier towns, even to urban tenements and first ring suburbs. That was right there at the foundation. Suddenly, over the course of the past few decades, that's changed. Those places, where people had different points of view had to interact even if they disagreed, are disappearing. And the question is, what do we do now?
DUNKELMANI think that there are a number of things we can do to rebuild those relationships. But at the same time we need to recognize that the change is here and it's come and it's here to stay.
REHMWhat do you think are some of the ways to improve the situation given what we have now?
DUNKELMANWell, there are lots of fantastic suggestions on how to reform Washington. But let's turn for a second to how we can reform our own communities. There are two ideas that I think are worth exploring. The first is, give people more opportunities to interact with their neighbors who have different points of view. So take a program like city year which is a national service program that puts people with different points of view together in a project for several months. One's from Louisiana, one's from California, one's from Florida, one's from New York. They all get together and they likely have different points of view. They probably would not have met but for that. That's one.
DUNKELMANThe second, and this is probably worth a second "Diane Rehm Show," is how to build grit in individuals. Because the thing -- the crucial ingredient, and it's actually what a few of your callers and emailers have suggested, is that we want to avoid conflict. What is it that makes it so that you are willing to engage with people who have different points of view?
DUNKELMANAnd generally it is a -- it's what researchers in the field of education call grit or character or self control. And it is the thing that makes it so that when someone says something you disagree with, you don't turn away. You continue to engage and you're resilient enough to have that conversation.
REHMBy asking questions?
DUNKELMANAsking questions, absolutely.
REHMAnd perhaps offering your own ideas without negating the ideas of the other.
DUNKELMANExactly right. Being interested and engaged.
PINKERWell, that leads me to a really interesting point which is we assume that the benefits that adults get from online connections extend to our children too. And there the research is really very slim. And what you just said, Diane, was incredibly interesting to me when you said by asking questions, by engaging the other person, this is what a skilled teacher does.
PINKERAnd what is happening in many of our educational communities and classrooms is that we are replacing skilled teaching with online tools, even for very young children like preschoolers who, by the way, are spending an average of seven hours a day in front of a screen, more than they spend on any other activity.
TUFEKCII completely agree. I mean, especially for children, allowing them more face-to-face interaction, especially for teenagers who can't drive and get stuck. And that's kind of why they turn to texting so much. That's very important. But I do want to say, let's not make the past into a rosy past that wasn't. And we had a Civil War to get 15 percent the country...
TUFEKCI...accepted as human. So it's not like we were wonderful, but yes, having young people more opportunities to be with each other in person is crucial. And if you look at, there's a great new book by my friend Dana Boyd that shows that -- it's called it's complicated, that teenagers do crave social interaction. If they can find it offline, they love it. If they're stuck in their bedroom because, you know, their parents can't drive them because they're at work, yeah, they're going to text each other. That's, I think, very normal.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Robert, let's see, he's in Sarasota, Fla. Hi, you're on the air.
ROBERTHi, Diane. Thank you for taking my call. I'm a huge fan of your show.
ROBERTAs a 21-year-old and an avid D and D player, I think that coming together every Sunday and playing D and D as a tabletop pro playing game, it's like a board game basically, I've been playing it every Sunday since I was ten. And I think the fact that I've been doing that, coming together with sometimes people I've never met before and forcing interactions, has really made me into a more dynamic business person. And just a better person overall I want to say.
REHMGo ahead, Marc.
DUNKELMANWell, that's a fascinating point of view in large part because in many cases people who want to engage in the same activity today are doing it online. So there are games like World of Warcraft. And there are stories that we hear about people interacting. They're going to storm a virtual castle and one is in Hong Kong and one is in the middle of Kansas. And they make a date and they do it.
DUNKELMANThe question is whether those relationships built across continents over a single game have the depth and the sense of mutual understanding that is built if you're actually sitting down on Sunday afternoon and having the interaction.
REHMAnd he's been doing that for 11 years. It's extraordinary. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Susan, you wanted to add to that.
PINKERYes. I think that there's simply things that happen when you're sitting down and playing a game like Dungeons and Dragons with real people. Because what we're learning is simple things like just a little fist bump or a high five or a pat or a hug unleashes oxytocin vasopressin which have an impact on our ability to deal with stress and our ability to fight off infection. And so I think it's great that it makes you a better businessman but I think it makes you a healthier businessman too.
REHMBut Marc, the question about the effects of suburbanization that Zeynep has talked about, I presume you agree with.
DUNKELMANAbsolutely. I -- this shift away from township to community, away from these middle rings hasn't happened because of any one intervention. It's not just social networking. It's not just suburbanization. It's not just changes in the marketplace. It's a whole slew of issues from the role of women in the workplace to our views of civil rights. There's a whole range of issues and they've combined. But the crucial point is to acknowledge that this social architecture that has been the basis for American exceptionalism for nearly -- for more than two centuries is suddenly evaporated and being replaced with something else.
REHMOkay. But what about the idea that the internet can in effect replace those lost neighborhoods and create, granted, something different but a relationship nevertheless?
DUNKELMANThere're incredible blessings to the fact that technology now allows us to be in touch with people across the globe who have similar interests or different interests that we can be much more closely tied to the people who we love the most, that I can text my wife all through the day or be in touch with a grandparent. All those things are incredible blessings.
DUNKELMANThere's innovation to be born in them. There are -- the Occupy and Tea Party movements probably by themselves wouldn't have emerged if the adherents hadn't been able to find one another online. They might've been sitting in their own homes 40 years ago with similar points of view but not been able to find each other. There's incredible dynamism born in these different relationships but we need to acknowledge that it's different and that there are costs as well.
REHMZeynep, would you agree with the fact as stated, the costs?
TUFEKCII would say that internet is not replacing them. If it's replacing them and if all you're doing is just, you know, staring at a screen, of course. But I don't think -- like the research is pretty clear that's not what people are doing. People are reaching to each other, say Occupy or Tea Party, and then they find each other and then they go offline as well.
TUFEKCIBut there is definitely a cost if -- especially mass media. We didn't discuss it but the polarization, it's so precedes the internet. You know, these polarized cable shows where dehumanization of the opponent, I think if I could point my finger at one thing and make it disappear, that would be my target. Because that's really hurt the political discourse in this country.
REHMAll right. And last word, Susan.
PINKERSo I'd like to go back to the idea that the internet is just exaggerating what we already are. And there are personality differences so that I agree that people who are really good at getting together will use online mechanisms to do that, whether it's for political reasons or for social reasons. But people who have difficulty say who are on the autism spectrum, what we're learning is that it's very comfortable for them online. There's no small chit chat but it doesn't relieve their existential loneliness. And it doesn't help them make friends outside in the real world.
REHMIndeed we did have an email from the parent of an autistic young person who communicates via the internet with others who are autistic and finds great comfort in doing exactly that. All right. Thank you all so much. Susan Pinker. Her forthcoming book is titled "The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter."
REHMMarc Dunkelman at Brown University. He's the author of "The Vanishing Neighbor." And Zeynep Tufekci, assistant professor at University of North Carolina. And thank you all. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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