The Journey to Elsewhere, U.S.A.

A professor explains how new technology drastically altered the modern American family unit

New technology, with all of its conveniences, has created a new society called Elsewhere, U.S.A., according to professor Dalton Conley. (morganl / iStockphoto)

What is this distracted, rootless place, where kids eschew stuffed animals in favor of online avatars, buzzing iPhones interrupt family dinners and the workday stretches late into the night?

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Dalton Conley, a social sciences professor at New York University, calls it, simply, “elsewhere,” and his new book tracks the social and economic changes of the last three decades that landed us here. Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety shows how the death of the old ways (auto workers’ unions, coal mines) and the birth of new (air conditioning, tip jars and the three-bathroom home, for starters) have contributed to our present predicament, where no one has the time or presence of mind to concentrate on anything at all, even our children’s voices. Even so, the author took a few moments to speak with us and guide us through this new and lonely landscape:

Where is Elsewhere, USA?

Elsewhere, U.S.A. is, ironically, everywhere. It’s really about a state of mind, (where you are) occupying multiple nonphysical locations at one time, managing data streams not only in your immediate environment, but from a laptop or BlackBerry or iPod, having emails come in and at the same time being on Facebook. All the spheres – home, work, social life – have collapsed into each other. It’s a different texture of life.

How did Mr. 2009, as you dub modern man, and Mrs. 2009 get into this mess?

I don’t think they had much choice. There is, of course, the changing technological landscape: the beeping, buzzing, flashing machines around us, demanding our attention. Those are the obvious things. The other forces include rising economic inequality and the increased labor force participation of women, especially moms.

How will their children cope?

It’s really my generation – I’m about to be 40 – that’s the most discombobulated by all this. People in their 70s are in their pre-techno bubble, doing things they way they’ve always done. The kids have no collective nostalgia or sense things were different once, because this is all they’ve ever known. They’re toggling back and forth between games and talking to friends and they have an enormous amount of overscheduled structured activities. And maybe that’s what they need. That’s what it’s like to be an American today, to be overscheduled, behind on work, and managing multiple data streams. So we are preparing them well, so to speak.

What is an “intravidual,” as opposed to an individual?

It’s the notion that whereas once we had a coherent, private self that we had to discover and then use to guide our choices, values and actions, the intravidual is about learning how to manage multiple selves and respond to multiple data streams in virtual places. The idea is not to find a core of authenticity but to learn to balance.

About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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