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As we retreat into our respective corners to enjoy the things we enjoy, we enjoy less and less in common with one another. The bonds that hold us together are loosening…

smart phones balkanizationFew things have changed day-to-day American life as much as the free flow of digital entertainment and information from producers to consumers over the past decade. Netflix began streaming content in 2007, and Hulu followed the next year. HBO, Showtime, Starz, and a host of other streaming services followed. By now it is possible to watch on demand just about every TV show, movie, and sporting event there has ever been.

Spotify launched in 2008, making it possible to stream just about any song that has ever been recorded. Want to learn something? Head to YouTube, or Khan Academy, or to any number of world-class universities that post their course lectures online, free of charge.

For the first time in human history, people can consume exactly what they want, when they want, how they want. It has become a boutique world.

The shift does not stop with entertainment. We are boutique consumers of news and commentary now, too. Where there were once just a few news outlets for most Americans, there are now, quite literally, thousands. And they are all accessible at any minute of the day with a few simple keystrokes. The raft of information available to anyone who wants it dwarfs what was available just a generation ago. The idea of waiting for the evening news or the morning paper seems quaint on the best of days, and ridiculous most others.

But all of this upside is not without potential ill effects. As we plunge headlong into a boutique pop culture, or more appropriately multiple boutique pop cultures, we come to miss both the wholesale and retail versions that defined previous eras of American social life. The ramifications of this will play out over decades and will prove to be at least as important as the immediate gratification this shift entails.

Balkanization

To understand where we are, it is important to understand where we have been.

For most of our history, we were wholesale consumers of information. Entertainment and news came from precious few sources, and people either accepted them or lived without. News came from the local newspaper and in short reels at the movies. By the 1950s, network news (and television more generally) was the new kid in town, and a national cultural identity began to develop.

And no sooner had it fully developed than it was under threat, as cable TV redefined the entire space in the move to retail consumption. The three channels available to most Americans became hundreds. There was one dedicated to nearly every niche market imaginable. Although cable news started by playing things straight, before long, clear ideological markets had developed. Progressives do not watch Fox News. Conservatives do not watch MSNBC. No one is all that clear on who watches CNN. It seems as if it has ever been so, but this division is a relatively recent turn of events. It is almost impossible to remember now, but, at one time, the entire nation got its news straight from the mouth of Walter Cronkite. And everyone believed what he said. It really was that simple.

The move to boutique consumption, made possible by the ubiquity of high-speed internet access, has brought us to a new level of complexity. The benefits are clear.

Most important is the beauty of boutique living. Everything is available at every moment. With Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and message boards of every description, just about anyone can interact with their favorite athletes, actors, writers, and even newsmen. For all the talk of inequality and social disparity in present-day America, the distance between the observed and their observers has been flattened, and remarkably so.

So what is the problem? For all the advantages that have come with the shift from wholesale, to retail, to boutique consumption, somehow it feels like something essential has been lost. As we retreat into our respective corners to enjoy the things we enjoy, we are balkanizing ourselves along preferential and, more important, ideological lines. And everyone is guilty. With each passing year, we enjoy less and less in common with one another. The bonds that hold us together are loosening.

This was Robert Nisbet’s mid-twentieth-century fear in a nutshell. In his landmark book The Quest for Community (1953), Nisbet showed that a growing individualism would result in a loss of community, which would in turn rob Americans of the ability to resist the encroaching power of the federal government. He was right, but he could not foresee the role that technology would play in isolating people further, only this time in very small pockets of their own making.

So what is to be done? First, be cognizant that you live in an echo chamber of your own making. Make the effort to break out of it from time to time. Take a wholesale view of things every now and again by reminding yourself of what links us all rather than dwelling on your own parochial concerns.

Second, check out the retail space inhabited by others. Leave your own world behind for a while and spend some time in the larger worlds still shared by groups of people who have thoughts considerably different from your own.

Finally, return to and enjoy your boutique space, but do it without forgetting that other people, radically different from you, are doing it too.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the Intercollegiate Review (October 2016).

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4 replies to this post
  1. I take no issue with this call for more than occasional honest reflection on that which others may be listening to, reading or viewing; as Leonard Cohen put, ‘there is a crack, a crack, in everything: that’s how the light gets in’. We can only see the cracks in our own thinking by looking outwards.

    I see, though, a subtle longing for the days of Walter Cronkite and an even subtler suggestion that the one source of news provided accurate reporting. There is also the related suggestion that dissent amongst news sources is a newer sort of phenomenon.

    With that I disagree. As a young student and graduate student, I had some occasion to read various newspapers from the 19th and early 20th century. I then even had some capacity to read as well such sources in French. In either language, the political stripes of the many papers then published were quickly made known. The dissent was clear.

    I will cite no evidence here, other than to note that the Guardian and the Times (of London, of course) were never, ever of like mind; perhaps, that is, until recently. And that, I think, is important.

    It is not technology, per se, that has caused this Balkanization. Technology has simply enabled the brewing reaction to the bias of CBS, NBC, CBC and the BBC; bias hidden by political correctness under the guise of neutrality or balance.

    Now, with the ready tools, people are simply returning to the news source they most identify with. That warrants a caution to avoid insularity, but it’s not new.

  2. Television and the Internet have displaced reality with a synthetic substitute, boxing in youngsters from a normal childhood. Kindergarten and daycare, of course, tighten the grip.

  3. “… be cognizant that you live in an echo chamber of your own making. Make the effort to break out of it from time to time.”
    Truly.
    Because if one is trapped (relatively) alone in their mind, they tend to go insane. I mention this since the recent “Twilight Zone” marathon over New Year’s started off with Episode One, where Earl Holliman is the subject of an experiment in isolation and becomes very delusional.
    But I honestly do not foresee how we can, as a society, break out of the increasing tribalism we seem to desire.

  4. I agree with the general tone of this article. However in New Zealand traditional news media outlets have been so dumbed down and trivialized that they have become irrelevant. In this country television news broadcasters think a major revamp of the news is a new hair style for the male and a change of lip-gloss for the female cue readers!

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