The Age Of Cool Isolation: How air conditioning changed the world and how Facebook might change it back
BY WAYNE GREENE World Editorial Writer
Sunday, July 05, 2009
7/05/09 at 3:55 AM
My neighborhood was built in the 1920s. If you walk down the street, the houses all look different, but they all share common characteristics: big porches, tiny rooms and high ceilings.
Last week's brutal weather reminded me of why.
In the 1920s summers were spent outside. You didn't need any extra room in your rooms because you weren't going to stay there. You wanted the ceiling where the hot air gathered as high above you as possible.
Spring, summer and fall evenings were spent on the big, shady porch — talking to neighbors, reading, watching the kids, trying to stay cool.
Air conditioning changed all that. Air conditioning changed America.
After World War II air conditioning became increasingly common. Eventually it became practically universal.
And people moved inside. They wanted big living rooms where they could watch television in the time they used to spend on the porch.
Walk through a neighborhood built after World War II and you'll see smaller porches. In the '60s they turned into stoops. Today there might just be an awning over the front door.
We got a lot when we got air conditioning.
We got a refuge from brutal days of Oklahoma summer and better sleep at night.
For the Southern states we got a boom in economic activities as business discovered that the Sun Belt could be made bearable.
But we lost our neighborhoods. Or more precisely, we lost our neighbors.
An opposite reaction
Instead of sitting on the porch in the evening, talking over the day's news with the neighbors and comparing notes on our children, most Americans sit inside watching television.
In his book, "Bowling Alone," sociologist Robert Putnam has documented the other things that happened after World War II.
Membership in civic groups and churches started sliding. Voting turnout went down. Newspaper readership declined.
In Putnam's language, "civic engagement" eroded.
The reasons are complex, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of air conditioning in all of it.
When we started going in for the evening, and the television became the central altar of family life, we disconnected from our neighbors, our neighborhoods, and ultimately society outside of our living rooms. Ironically, the television was often tuned to programs that celebrated the halcyon days before air conditioning.
I'm not about to turn off my air conditioner, and neither is anyone else in my neighborhood, but there is a reason to think our age of cool isolation may be turning around.
The Internet has reached into our air conditioned living rooms and has led us to do something nothing has accomplished before. We're turning off the TV.
While the world has been fascinated with Twitter in the past two months, I think the much greater impact will be felt from another social networking site, Facebook.
At the repeated urging of a friend in Seattle, I rejoined Facebook earlier this year. I figured I would use it to keep in touch with my eight or nine closest friends, and at first that's how it worked.
But then a few coworkers asked to join my network, and then some readers, and then sources, and now there are a couple in there who I'm not even sure who they are. I've got 154 Facebook friends, and I'm just an amateur.
Some of them are the quiet kind who just sit on their porch and wave.
Others are more outgoing, the kind who walk up and down the street visiting with everyone.
I know when they get home from work, what's for dinner, what they think of Michael Jackson's career and their five favorite movies.
I knew when the wife of a friend I last remember seeing in third grade had surgery the other day and that things didn't go well for her at first.
I knew when a former coworker discovered online that 21 registered sex offenders lived near her.
I told everyone I know when my bad cholesterol numbers went down and my cat had surgery.
They're the sort of things we might have told neighbors over the porch rail in an earlier day.
From the air conditioned comfort of our front rooms, we have a chance to recreate the communities that we lost 60 years ago.
So, I asked some friends over to the porch to talk about that idea.
A new game in town
I posted this thesis on my Facebook page — "Being on Facebook is like sitting on the porch and talking to your neighbors was in another era."
It turned into a pretty good electronic discussion.
One friend agreed: "You can whisper to some people, broadcast to the world your opinions or just listen without comment. Plus you can show us pictures of your vacation."
Another one pointed out that the conversations on Facebook don't work like conversations on a porch do. You post, wait, and sometimes someone posts back. Sometimes your thought just floats out in the ether.
Another friend told me I was full of beans. Facebook isn't the new front porch. It's something else entirely, she said.
She told the story of connecting more fully with a cousin who lives in Chicago. In a pre-Facebook world they would have seen each other at funerals and weddings, but through Facebook they have had the leisure to actually get to know one another.
"And, that is just one example out of my 100-plus Facebook friends," she said. "In my opinion, Facebook augments my human interactions, it doesn't replace them."
Both friends were making a good point. Facebook is unlike sitting on your porch because you're talking to people who are sometimes hundreds of miles away and who sometimes don't talk back to you.
You could add this: Facebook is a community you select. You don't get the stranger walking down the sidewalk who randomly stops by to chat.
In the neighborhood of old, you had to live amongst all your neighbors on their porches, including the crabby old guy who voted for the Prohibition ticket and grew garlic in his flower pots.
If someone grows garlic in his Facebook pots, you unfriend him.
So Facebook isn't the front porch. It's different, but I think it might be — or something like it might be — the substitute for the front porch that we've been looking for in our air conditioned worlds.
If we can build communities online — increase our civic engagement to use Professor Putnam's term — all those things we lost when we started coming in every evening might be regained.
We can have our air conditioning and our front porch too.
Wayne Greene 581-8308
Is being on Facebook like sitting on the porch and talking to your neighbors was in another era? James Gibbard and Cory Young/Tulsa World file
Nicole Thomas, a dropout turned high school senior, types on a computer project at Tulsa Learning Academy, inside Tulsa Promenade, on Thursday, Feb. 5, 2009. CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World