Essayist Clarence Page Discusses Friendship and Technology

August 14, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, essayist Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune talks about friendship.

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: Feeling socially marooned? You’re not alone. Social fragmentation is on the rise, experts say. We Americans have more ways to connect to one another in the Internet age, yet we report fewer close friends.

Researchers at Duke and the University of Arizona say the number of true confidants that Americans say they have has dropped on average since the 1980s from about three to about two. And about a fourth say they have no confidents at all outside of their families. That’s twice the percentage of two decades ago.

It’s not hard to imagine why. Friendships are built over time, and increasingly we don’t have enough. The world has speeded up, and so have we.

SOCCER TEAM: One, two, three, go purple!

CLARENCE PAGE: Our families are busier. Our kids are overscheduled. We have less time than we once did to cultivate a nice circle of friends. It’s the great paradox of the Internet age: The more connected we are to the world, the less we get to know each other.

Like the chatty people you used to meet while standing in line for something, chances are they’re too busy to meet you now, too busy chatting on their cell phones with someone far away standing perhaps in some other line.

We still turn to our families, the authors of the Duke study say, but our family members are increasingly scattered across the American landscape. We spend more time in cars and planes to get to Grandma’s house. Our children have fewer chances to know their aunts, uncles or cousins.

Small, tightly knit neighborhoods, they’re so last century, man. American life is fragmented now in suburban sprawl and a couch potato culture of DVDs, cable news, video games, and lavish home entertainment systems. Who has time left for live people?

We often find new friends at work, but we’re changing jobs more often than ever and making friendships shorter. It is part of the American character to be restless, always on the move, still probing new frontiers, always proud of our autonomy and self-reliance.

Robert Putnam saw much of this coming six years ago in his book, “Bowling alone.” He argued that Americans have been joining fewer and fewer clubs and civic organizations, even bowling leagues, ever since the 1960s. That was the decade when the Beatles sang about all the lonely people and asked, “Where do they all come from?”

THE BEATLES (singing): All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

CLARENCE PAGE: Sounds almost pathetic day. “Where do they all belong?” Looking for love online perhaps, or, in another American innovation, the speed date, with five minutes to make a first impression and check out that certain someone before moving on to the next one.

We’re not surprised then to see religion repackaged in today’s new American megachurch, stadium-like cathedrals where whosoever will may come and meet a ready-made community of fellow seekers to check out before you commit, no obligation, whatever works.

“You’ve got to have friends,” Bette Midler famously sang. Or do we? We know it’s nice to have friends. Social fragmentation leads to social breakdown. Close communities have less crime, fewer problems with their children. Well-connected people live longer, the experts say, and who can argue with that?

We want connections, as soon as we find the time. I’m Clarence Page.