Are We Connected Yet?

The word “connected” has added new meaning over the last few decades. It used to mean that you were what was called an “insider”. You knew the “right” people. Bill Clinton, with his enormous rolodex, was certainly connected in that way. That meaning still has traction. But being connected now also means just having internet access.

Let’s shift our focus from the word “connected” to “connectivity”. The word was not in common usage before the internet. We are now all connected through this technology. But has this improved our connections? Are we better connected in the personal, rather than technical sense? Has our personal connectivity gone up?

Before addressing that question, I would point out that pre-internet connectivity — the ability to make personal connections — was limited for many people. Whatever the quality of our connections now, we have not moved to it from a paradise of community. But some would argue that we have moved from not good to worse.

I first began thinking about that issue when I bumped into Robert Putman’s famous book, “Bowling Alone“.  It came out in 2000, and was based on an article that Putnam wrote back in 1995. Putnam’s point in the book is that going back to 1950, America’s stock of “social capital” has been declining.  His thesis is that this decline leads to a decline in public involvement, including participation in political life.

Putnam was first lionized and then criticized.  And there is no doubt that “social capital” is difficult to measure. Social capital in the US may have been low before 1950, and the social organizations that Putnam refers to may not have been very adept at building social capital. At the same time, I would argue that the rise of the Republican Party’s angry hard right wing has its roots in the decline of social capital. Where else does all of the anger and conspiracy theory come from? And I would argue that it is a serious threat to the republic.

We might expect that the social capital in our great cities would be higher, simply because of density and demographics. Perhaps. But CityLab points out that social isolation in cities is a serious concern. In part, it may be connected with how urban living is designed. And in part it is due to the high cost of living.

And btw, when it comes down to it, we do not have good models for building social capital where it is needed most. I am reminded of the experiment of “PieLab”.  PieLab was a well-intentioned attempt to promote social change in a small community by creating a shared public space – a cafe that served pie. That sounds simple enough. But the results of the experiment were far more complex. It was at best a partial success.

The problem with PieLab was that the locals — who were supposed to benefit from the project — begam to feel that the project was an intrusion. BTW, ditto for gentrification in cities. When new residents come into a neighborhood, they do not necessarily increase social capital there.

I find this to be fascinating for a simple reason. We know that we find new and great ideas through social interaction. Steve Johnson brought that out in his 2010 TED talk . So there is a good reason to think carefully how we can better design our social interactoins to achieve this. Corporations are not necessarily the best design, as they optimize capital allocation, not social interaction.

So how do we do this? That, my friend, is still an open question. We know that “teams” seem to exhibit a high level of social capital. In sports, for example, high levels of teamwork is called a key to success. So how do we take that concept, which seems so familiar in the sporting setting, and apply it more broadly? There is a lot of talk about team building in firms. And there is a lot of talk about networking to create teams. But once again, there is not a lot of clear solutions to handling this challenge.

Indeed, there is evidence from Sutton and Rao (see their book “Scaling for Excellence”) that the task of getting people in a large organization focused on a common message is very tricky indeed. It may be, therefore, that the need for more social capital in teams will lead to smaller, more tightly integrated firms. More modular types of organizations.

That type of thing is still in the future.

And we begin to see that our ability to join in and get the benefit of teams highly correlates with our individual social skills. I would include cognitive and communication and organization skills there. But so far, our schools are less focused on educating our young to be more adept in social skills and remain fosuced instead on individual knowledge acquisition and obsessed with testing for it.

We have a way to go it seems before we see significant gains from more widespread and enhanced team building. But at least we have a vision of what is needed. That is a starting point that even Sutton and Rao would applaud.

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