People these days, staring at their screens all day,” some grumble. “We don't have the deep, personal relationships we used to. Everyone should just get off their phones, computers, tablets, and who knows what else and actually talk to each other.”
Even some 20-odd years after the invention of the internet, when social media is up there with online shopping, people of all ages are still saying this. And maybe it’s true, in some ways, to an extent. But this isn’t the first time people have thought community was on the brink of extinction, and it won't be the last. Nearly every innovation has prompted negative reactions from people who insist that the old way – whatever it may have been – is the right way, and everything newer than that is ruining everything by cheapening human connections.
Ruining Everything Since the Beginning
"Kids these days, reading novels," people once said. "Women will literally go insane from it."The obvious comparable invention is the television. “Kids these days, sitting inside instead of reading like we did!” people said. “That infernal contraption will be the death of society.” But we can go back even further.
A century earlier, with the invention of indoor plumbing, people suddenly stopped having to go to the neighborhood well or river for their water. “People nowadays, staying inside instead of getting out into the fresh air, gathering at the well to catch up with each other,” people sighed. “Besides, everyone will get sick and die. This is the end of neighborhood community.”
Around the same time, people worried about society for another reason too: reading. “People these days, spending their days reading novels,” they sniffed. “What a waste of time! And soon the women won’t be able to tell the difference between fiction and reality. They’ll damage their nervous and reproductive systems, they’ll go insane, and that will be the end of everything.”
Skipping back a few more hundred years, the printing press itself was seen with the same skepticism. “People these days, reading books instead of talking to each other,” men undoubtedly said as they shook their heads over their tankards of horrible ale in straw-strewn taverns while their wives shook their heads over the laundry. “This overload of information is going to confuse everything, and the availability of books is going to isolate everyone. This is the death of society.”
Roads wouldn't have helped, either. “People these days, constantly making the world more accessible, encouraging people to go off and travel, maybe even to live somewhere else! while strangers replace them in our own lands,” the older generation of ancient Rome mused darkly. “This is the end of the City.”
Some old-fashioned people probably didn’t like agriculture, either. “People these days, growing their own food instead of going out to hunt and gather together. What happened to the days of going out in groups every day to that one really good patch of bushes? And we all used to bond so well running from our predators together! This will kill community.”
Actually, the loss of community really started with the discovery of fire.The wheel messed things up a lot, too. “People these days,” our ancestors complained, “getting things from place to place on their own instead of all coming together to push and drag things around. Society will die.”
Even just building shelter was a blow to community. “People these days, living in little groups scattered around, protecting themselves from hungry animals and the elements with roofs and blockades instead of living in really big groups to keep each other dry and fight off predators together,” the first extroverts moaned. “This is the end of pack.”
Actually, the loss of community really started with the discovery of fire. “People these days,” our chilly forefathers grunted to each other as they huddled stubbornly in a group, “leading individualistic lives by keeping themselves warm with that infernal heat source instead of physically, literally staying together for body heat. This is the death of society.”
Always Moving Forward
It’s easy in hindsight to see how all these inventions have been good for humanity, even if it wasn’t always clear at the time. We’ve been inventing things forever. Literally. It’s just what we do. We’re a creative species, curious about the world and perpetually interested in improving it, especially from a societal aspect. Yet, manifestly, none of our social inventions have destroyed society.
Is society different now than it was a millennium ago, a century ago, a decade ago? Yes. But is that such a bad thing? Do we really want to live like we did before indoor plumbing?
The internet is unlike anything we’ve come up with in a long time. But it won’t be our last invention. Eventually someone will think of something even better to replace it. Even social media as we know it will change drastically with time. And then the naysayers will moan, “People these days, they don’t go on Facebook or text anymore! This is the end of everything.”