May 5, 2009

One Book, Two Months

Posted in Business, Life, Technology tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 12:00 am by lindaslongview

bowlingaloneI am a voracious reader; typically I read a few books a month. I started Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” on 03/06/2009 (the day I checked it out from the library). I renewed it once and then ordered it from Amazon when I realized that I wouldn’t finish before I had to renew it yet again.

My long view journey with this book began with the question: “What to change in the workplace and in the community to increase collaboration and to reduce feelings of isolation?” This question arose from my observation that the world is changing as a result of our adoption of technology (this is a good thing), yet it affects both workplace and civic communities in ways that make it harder in many cases to be effective because of concomitant rising expectations.

My key observation was that each of us has many demands on our time (more and more), making it harder and harder to get people to collaborate (workplace) and/or connect (civic) face-to-face (the old way) because we need lower transaction costs to do more and remain effective. The good news is that technology is lowering transaction costs everywhere – Clay Shirky in “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations” makes the point very effectively (if you don’t want to read this book, let Steve read it for you). As lowered transaction costs permeate our lives, we begin to shy from activities that exceed a certain threshold of time (or effort) because we require reduced transaction costs everywhere (lowered tide lowers all boats) in order to participate.

Weighing in at only 414 pages, “Bowling Alone” was a dense and demanding read — chock full of statistics and data of all sorts. It required slow absorption, but I learned much!

On page 335, I hit resonance. Putnam summarizes that many of us in modern society feel down because we have a stronger investment in our own autonomy than commitment to duty and common enterprise, thus leaving us unprepared to deal with the inevitable setbacks, losses, and outright failures that are part and parcel of commercializing emerging technology or just living life! In prior eras, the commitment to duty and common enterprise was stronger than personal achievement (flipped balance), enabling a stronger network of family and friends (social capital) to be available to cushion our dips.

Although the shift from community to autonomy created a reversal in the strength of our personal connections, it was accompanied by the strong positives of greater diversity and tolerance (gender, race, religion, orientation). Thus, I celebrate the era of self-determination, meritocracy, and achievement through perseverance; yet as a leader (workplace and community), I look for guidance as to how best to ignite greater connection (social capital) in our transformed world.   I desire self-determinant workplaces and communities that create much more needed human camaraderie to re-balance toward the common good.

Putnam’s guidance is sparse, but positive.  He does not tell us what to do, but gives us direction for solution: we must build mechanisms with our new tools (reduced transaction costs) to create (more and more) reciprocity, trust, and mutual aid. Putnam makes the point that during the Progressive Era (following rapid industrialization), reformers of social capital then were activist, optimistic, and hugely successful by using the new tools of their era.

How best to accomplish this mission?!  Do you have ideas?


1 Comment »

  1. […] Robert Putnam points out in Bowling Alone: “Strong ties with intimate friends may ensure chicken soup when you’re sick, but weak ties […]

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