“Americans are beginning to narrowcast their own lives. Technology has given us finally a universe entirely for ourselves — where the serendipity of meeting a new stranger, or hearing a piece of music we would never choose for ourselves, or an opinion that might actually force us to change our mind about something are all effectively banished. Atomization by little white boxes and cell-phones. Society without the social. Others who are chosen — not met at random.
“Human beings have never lived like this before.”
On the contrary: human beings have always lived this way. Until very recently, most people lived their lives — culturally and otherwise — within the confines of small homes, small towns, and small places. Geography dictated your language, religion, political beliefs, cultural preferences, and artistic tastes. You didn’t need a cell phone or an iPod or an Internet connection to link up with your tiny little subculture — you just needed to get out of bed in the morning. To be sure, there was room for variety within geographical areas — but for most of human history, location was destiny. Cultural jostling was largely restricted to merchants, soldiers, peripatetic clergymen, and perhaps the very rich. And while the constriction of cultural experience was hardly ennobling or intellectually fulfilling, it doesn’t appear to have made most people miserable.
The history of the modern world is the history of culture transforming from a geographical phenomenon into an ideological phenomenon. As information technology has blossomed, ideas no longer rely upon locations for transmission. But while the unit of atomization in the bad old days was the small community, the unit of atomization in the present is the individual. Either way, the constant is atomization.
Human beings are parochial animals; in the modern age, we dwell in parishes of the mind. Sooner or later, one form of homogeneity replaces another. The old differences — North vs. South, city vs. country, black vs. white — give way to the new: Red America vs. Blue America, investor vs. consumer, new wave vs. old school. We select our style of narrowness, but the narrowness never changes.
And what’s wrong with a little narrowcasting, anyway? Social life is a difficult thing — fraught with awkwardness, quirky taboos, the fear of rejection, and the discomfort of confrontation. The unfamiliar and the unexpected can stimulate but they can also exasperate — and exacerbate ill will. We surround ourselves with the familiar and unthreatening precisely because ordinary life is threatening enough, even within the confines of the familiar. To be sure, a select few will always strive to broaden their cultural horizons — but then, a belief in the value of broadened cultural horizons is itself a cultural position, and a surprisingly comfortable one at that.
The question is not whether we will narrowcast our lives. The question is how to create a broadcast society out of narrowcast people.