Civic Engagements, Social Capital, and Resilience

Stephen DeAngelis

June 26, 2006

Sebastion Mallaby, in his Washington Post column [“Why So Lonesome,” 26 June 2006], explores the interesting subject of personal connections — what Robert D. Putnam refers to as civic engagement and social capital. Putnam brought current social trends to light in his best-selling book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000). Why, you might ask, would I discuss such a topic in a blog about resilience? I believe that dense (i.e., strong) civic engagement and social capital are as important to making societies and businesses resilient as are dense IT connections. As President and CEO of a company with dispersed employees, this subject is important to me. Individuals are also more resilient when they are surrounded by family and friends. The medical community, for example, is always commenting on how important “support systems” are for helping people recover from everything from addictions to cancer. The fact that we know having friends is important to our physical and emotional well-being, but do little to nourish such friendships, is the grist for Mallaby’s column.

This is the age of Oprah and MySpace, of public emoting on television and the Web. Apparently people watch “Friends” but don’t actually have many. When the new loneliness numbers appeared Friday [23 June 2006] in the American Sociological Review, some experts cautioned that the problem can be overstated. Americans say they feel close to an average of 15 others, according to Barry Wellman and Jeffrey Boase of the University of Toronto. But there’s a difference between extensive networks and deep ones.

Mallaby notes that the decline in friendships has been mirrored by a rise in emotional problems — “the prevalence of unipolar depression in affluent countries has jumped tenfold.” He continues:

People’s myopia on friendship is like their myopia on saving. They know that jobs are insecure, that a health problem can cause bankruptcy, that retirement is fabulously expensive; but the household savings rate has fallen below zero. Equally, people know that spouses aren’t immortal and that divorce is common. But nearly one in 10 — a much higher share than in 1985 — reports that their husband or wife is the only person they confide in. People are taking these financial and emotional risks even as they neurotically avoid other risks.

Mallaby points out that society has facilitated the decline in deep relationships by increasing the ease with which casual relationships can be maintained through email, instant messaging, and social-networking Web sites like MySpace.com. I would like to add text messaging to Mallaby’s list of tools that foster casual but discourage deep relationships — they are simply emails using another media. I recall reading a study a few years ago that lamented the lack of face-to-face contact in business with the rise of email exchanges. The study indicated, as I recall, that many emails are misinterpreted. People try to read between the lines of cryptic notes trying to detect emotions and generally get it wrong. It takes more time trying to sort out that kind of miscommunication than a telephone call or face-to-face meeting would have taken. The benefit of emails, of course, is that it doesn’t take a same time/same place or same time/different place meeting. Email fosters a different time/different place exchange — which can save time and improve efficiency if an emotional investment is not required. Too often, however, an emotional investment is required.

Mallaby indicates that the reason people don’t make and keep more friends is that they make choices whose logical outcomes inevitably lead them to that result. In other words, path dependency of people’s choices is what makes fostering deep civic engagements so difficult.

The biggest reason for American loneliness, and perhaps the clue to some kind of cure, lies in path dependency. People know that tending to friendship is important, but their behavior follows the path created by countless other decisions — and friendship is neglected. Social science experiments reveal lots of behavior of this kind. People who agree with their doctors that they need hip replacements seldom get around to having the procedure. There are ways to beat path dependency, however. Another experiment has shown how undergraduates who agree to get a tetanus shot seldom actually do so, but if you make them an appointment and hand them a map to the clinic, the odds that they’ll comply leap tenfold. Savings habits are equally sensitive to slight tweaks in incentives. Invite workers to sign up for 401(k) pensions and many will procrastinate. Tell workers they are part of the program unless they opt out and the participation rate rockets.

Mallaby asks, “Can Americans be prodded to invest more in friendships?” He really doesn’t offer many answers, but does make this interesting observation:

But there’s one antidote to loneliness that is at least intriguing. In an experiment in Austin, Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman found that commuting — generally alone, and generally by car — is rated the least enjoyable daily activity, but commuting by car pool is reasonably pleasant. Measures that promote car pooling could make Americans less isolated and healthier.

Although I’m not a sociologist, I’d be willing to bet that using public transportation in lieu of car pooling doesn’t result in the same “reasonably pleasant” solution. That’s because car pools usually involve people from the same neighborhood, who know one another (at least casually) before joining the car pool, and they self-select their companions. The intimate confines of a car also encourage social discourse.

As I noted earlier, my company’s employees are widely disbursed. They live from New England to Florida and from the East Coast to the West Coast — with Tom Barnett in between! Much of our internal business is done via email (with all of the challenges I noted above). To overcome that enormous, I travel to meet with them and ask that they travel to meet with me. When that can’t happen we have teleconferences or personal telephone calls. I also host occasional socials to foster the face-to-face time that is essential to create a camaraderie that can’t be established via email. I know that some of my employees use Skype (with its video capability) to keep in touch with their families who are also spread across the country.

The cell phone is one new technology that has helped deepen civic engagements (with the exception of the text message capability for reasons addressed above). One company, Helio LLC, is marketing a new $250 ultra-high-tech cell phone and is targeting three interesting groups: “spoiled teens, tech geeks and Korean Americans.” [“Cellphone Company Makes A Call: Korean Americans — Firm Targets Tech-Savvy Population,” by Sara Kehaulani, Washington Post, 26 June 2006] The most interesting of these groups for the topic at hand is the latter — Korean Americans. The article points out that most people with Korean ancestry living in America weren’t born here, which means they have strong ties back to Korea. It also points out that Korea is one of the most tech savvy populations in the world.

“When I was in Korea, I went through so many demos about what they’re using [cellphones for], from monitoring your dog’s food and water to the electronic wallet,” said Gary D. Forsee, chief executive of Sprint Nextel Corp., which has allowed Helio to piggyback on its network for a fee. The possible applications in the United States, he said, are “almost unimaginable.”

Helio is banking on attracting customers by offering unlimited text messaging (a medium widely used in Korea), but they hope to make a profit selling long distance minutes, which is really how deep relationships are sustained. They may be on to something.

Another interesting article on mobile phones, if off the subject a bit, talked about Iridium Satellite LLC [“Satellite Phone Firm Focuses on Crisis Network,” by Chris Kirkham, Washington Post, 26 June 2006]. The company has emerged from bankruptcy and posted five straight quarters of profit. Originally, the company had targeted frequent travelers and people living in remote areas for their service, but cost and the size of their handsets made those groups uninterested. Recent disasters from earthquakes to 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina have shown the unreliability of cell phones and so the company is moving into the crisis arena looking for business.

The company sent thousands of its phones to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, when satellite phone traffic surged and federal officials called for creation of a system that would allow emergency workers to more dependably communicate during severe crises. “What this hurricane proved to everyone is that there are more extreme elements out there than most people wanted to believe or were willing to believe,” said Greg Ewert, an executive vice president of Iridium Satellite. “Most people are racing back to review disaster recovery plans, and this marketplace has now opened up to us.”

The article points out that the service is still expensive, but when communications are critical reliability is more important than cost — especially when lives are at stake. The company got back on its feet with a large contract from the Department of Defense (which makes sense), but now 70 percent of its business is from the commercial sector that requires reliable communication even during disasters. Communications is all about resiliency and face-to-face communications (i.e., mouth-to-ear) is still the best way to foster sustainable relationships.