Flagler sociology associate professor Mel Barber sees cars, television and air conditioning as forces that pull people apart
Photography By Scott Smith (‘04)
Click play to hear excerpts from an interview with Mel Barber
But unlike most Americans, Barber — an associate professor of sociology at Flagler — worries that, despite its many comforts and conveniences, technology is making people feel more isolated from each other than ever before. He argues that cars, air conditioning and television have caused a radical shift in society — one that’s destroyed local communities and led to a variety of negative side effects, from increased crime to diminished etiquette skills.
“We think that progress will always better our lives,” Barber wrote in an article published in the Journal of Evolution and Technology in 2006. “But if we weigh the benefits versus the costs, we will find that the benefits are small … Individuals have been insulated from interaction from others. The result is that we do not know others as persons, but we know them only in a restricted and formal way.”
Barber’s theories on technology and community come from his research into the social forces behind crime. Prior to joining Flagler’s faculty, he directed the Center for Community Development at Florida A&M University. He was also the principal investigator for a Florida Department of Juvenile Justice grant that recruited and trained more than 2,000 students to mentor troubled youth in detention centers and schools.
At FAMU, Barber was asked to speak to a group of colleagues about race and crime. But as he investigated the reasons behind crime, Barber noticed “every time it came up, there were issues dealing with community. In a community, people always watch what’s going on. Any strange things that take place, people all know.” Without that local involvement and awareness, Barber said, crime became easier to commit.
As he took a closer look at the neighborhoods around him, Barber realized most residents no longer bothered to speak with each other, let alone spend any time together. And when he researched why those once commonplace interactions had all but disappeared from neighborhoods, Barber found technology to be the main cause.
According to Barber, cars posed the first real challenge to community life. People used to walk everywhere — and run into neighbors, acquaintances and friends along the way.
“People talk, they touch, they laugh, they smile, they shout, they tap and punch,” Barber wrote. “In short, people get to know one another … [but] with the automobile, we can go wherever we wish without interacting face-to-face with anyone.”
Also, with cars to quickly transport people long distances, many activity centers relocated away from neighborhoods: workplaces, shopping areas, restaurants.
“We don’t know the people who work in our local businesses, restaurants,” Barber said. “That leads to a great deal of anonymity on our part.”
Air conditioning compounds that sense of isolation, Barber said. When people had to deal with extreme heat, they used to gather on their front porches or under shade trees. During cold seasons, they communed by a stove or another heat source.
“They would engage in story telling, news swapping and gossip,” Barber wrote.
That frequent gathering also allowed the younger generation to learn about the beliefs and social norms valued by their elders. According to Barber, this inherited collection of shared experiences and values eroded as people shrunk into the air-conditioned comfort of their homes.
Finally, Barber said, television killed American communities. While air conditioning and automobiles pushed families into their homes, television encouraged people living in the same house to separate. Most homes have more than one television, he said, allowing people to sit by themselves and watch what they’d like.
“Families take meals separately,” Barber wrote. “Instead of reading and telling stories, the family watches television … parents use it to baby-sit and take care of their children.”
The eventual consequence of all this technology, Barber said, is a society that doesn’t pass down strong moral codes or teach the importance of civil interactions. Hence, more crime — and a tendency to fear the unknown people around us.
“We’re in a society where we are actually encouraged to be protective of ourselves, to insulate ourselves from prying eyes,” Barber said. “These forces are pulling us apart.
“People say, ‘Oh it’s just natural for us,’ but it’s not … We have to realize that the automobile is a killer in more ways than one.”
On an individual level, Barber had little advice on how to reverse technology’s effects and revitalize communities. It’s not his role: as a sociologist, he looks at the majority, the larger group. And, as he pointed out, it takes more than one person to change a society.
On a bright note, Barber called it “serendipitous” that global warming and other environmental issues linked to overuse of technology have recently become highly publicized problems.
Meanwhile, some theorists find hope in the Internet. They see online communities and social networking sites evolving into valid and positive replacements for local connections. And some people argue that modern privacy, individuality and autonomy are positive side effects of technology.
Barber doesn’t buy it. “A lot of the things we consider our freedom are directly related to the fact that we are pretty isolated,” Barber said. “When you spend a lot of time around people, you get to learn a lot about them — and a lot of it is not something that is said or typed.
“You don’t see their reaction when you hurt people online … In some ways, it [online interaction] may be counterproductive. It doesn’t do what communities do, where you have close-knit relationships, which allow you to develop as a person with a distinct place in life and a distinct outlook and a distinct history … where people know all these things about you, and they still like you.”
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