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"Pumpjacks" by Arne Hückelheim

The division between us — books on societal change

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Posted by Mary Ann

Paul Roberts covers a lot of ground in “The Impulse Society.” His book helped me understand how much change people living in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have lived through. His examination of consumer behavior has sent me on a mission to figure out how to disable all the “place order” buttons on retail web sites that attract my attention — I’m afraid online shopping is one of my weaknesses.

I like Roberts’ work because, as one of his book jackets says, he writes about “the complex interplay of economics, technology, and the natural world.” A lot of writers write well about one or even two of these areas, but it takes someone with a deep bench of knowledge to try to tackle all three at once.

Roberts’ first book, 2004’s “The End of Oil,” looked at what is likely to happen when the earth runs out of its chief fuel source. To say this is going to be a dislocating experience is an understatement. This book was written before fracking, an advanced version of oil extraction, expanded our domestic oil supply, which is one reason gas prices are falling now. It would be interesting to hear Roberts’ thoughts on how that phenomenon has affected the scenarios he presented in “The End of Oil.”

Roberts’ 2008 book “The End of Food” looks at what is likely to happen to the world’s food supply as the world’s population continues to increase, and as climate change forces alterations in agricultural practices worldwide.

Here are some other books that touch on changes that are transforming society at lightning speed:

Bill Bishop’s 2008 book “The Big Sort” approaches the “impulse” problem from the point of view of politics. Americans have become increasingly “balkanized,” meaning that we increasingly tend to hang out with people like ourselves — those with similar political beliefs, religious affiliations and class distinctions. This has helped to create the current gridlock in Washington; it seems like the two political parties have abandoned any sustained attempt to understand one another, much less cooperate.

In the old days (of the 20th century) many people in the same town would attend the same institutional meetings: church, Rotary, Kiwanis, etc. Now we hang out online with people who agree with us. Once we all watched the same television channels; now there are hundreds of channels, and a substantial proportion of those are being watched by people on their own tablets or computers.

This is a very data-driven book, and it is strongest at illustrating the degree to which Americans now flock physically around those of their kinds; same neighborhoods, same “lifestyle choices,” same politics. “We have built a country,” Bishop writes, “where everyone can choose the neighbors (and church and news shows) most compatible with his or her lifestyle and beliefs. And we are living with the consequences of this segregation by way of life: pockets of like-minded citizens that have become so ideologically inbred that we don’t know, can’t understand, and can barely conceive of ‘those people’ who live just a few miles away.”

Another book that looks at the gulf between the working and upper classes in America is Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.”

Murray is a conservative theorist who has gotten in trouble for his writings on a number of subjects, but I found this book fascinating — a sociologist by training, Murray uses demographic data to demonstrate how, compared to the professional classes, which he calls the “cognitive elite,” white working-class people in America now marry less and have fewer children in which both parents live in the home. Churchgoing has declined. Men in this group are far more likely to be unemployed and drawing some kind of disability support. Murray chides the “new elite” for not calling out this kind of behavior as destructive to our society and its future.

Of course, Roberts and other writers would say that one chief reason for these trends is that good working-class jobs have declined. “Working-class whites are different from the cognitive elite in at least one way: They have less money,” wrote a New York Times reviewer. Plenty to argue about in Murray’s work, and plenty to think about.

Another book that addresses the phenomenon of technology’s impact on human relations is 2011’s “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other” by Sherry Turkle. The gist of Turkle’s book is that new technologies – social media, e-mail, texts and other forms of instant engagement – discourage human beings from doing the hard work of learning what it takes to get along.

This book suggests a frightening future regarding robots’ impact on human interaction: Humans are notoriously likely to give objects human “agency,” – crediting everything from dogs to dancing teapots (thinking Walt Disney here) with human thoughts and emotions. Imagine how that could work with a robot who anticipates your every whim? It could make a lowly human companion look pretty darn inferior. This was another book that was criticized by reviewers as excessively gloomy, but I kept thinking about that robot in the movie “Her” that its owner fell in love with … how could a fallible human girlfriend possibly compete?

Finally, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” a 2010 book by Nicholas Carr, makes the case that the instant gratification provided by the Internet is eroding our ability to give tasks and thought our sustained attention. This book got mixed reviews when it came out; Carr was making the case that sustained Internet use is actually changing our brains, but several reviewers said he did not include studies that have shown that Internet use improves certain kinds of mental functioning. This fascinating aspect of the intersection of technology and human cognition continues to inspire a lot of study, which will almost certainly result in a lot of interesting books.

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