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Is permanent connectedness really something we all need?


An Associated Press report of Apple Inc.’s CEO Steve Jobs’ resignation last month stated, “Jobs helped change computers from a geeky hobbyist’s obsession to a necessity of modern life at work and home.” This testifies to Jobs’ genius but fails to raise what seems an obvious question: Is it a change for the better or for the worse?

The question is not raised, perhaps, because the answer is considered self-evident. Under Jobs, Apple went from a start-up in his parents’ garage to “the most valuable company in America,” topping Exxon-Mobile. What can be bad? Business wise, nothing. Otherwise? The word “necessity,” for example, seems a red flag. Did the world really need another necessity? Weren’t there enough of them?

More concretely, this is, as the business magazine The 21 put it in its August issue, “the age of being connected, always, everywhere.” Jobs didn’t do it alone, of course, but if the computer revolution has a symbolic, personifying figurehead, he’s it. Without him the 21st century would be different. We’d be, probably, less inextricably connected. Is being inextricably connected an unqualified good?

The 21’s answer seems to be yes. Its package consists of several articles by experts in various fields. One is corporate headhunter Etsuko Okajima, who refutes a perception she notices in many successful but not conspicuously gifted people — namely, that they were “just lucky.” Not so, she asserts; at least not merely so. Their secret? “They steadily built connections. It is absolutely not true that they simply got a lucky break.”

An article by “network researcher” Naoki Masuda vividly illustrates the power of 21st century networking. To the old cliché “It’s a small world” he gives a new twist. Time was, you’d bump into an acquaintance at the local mall or watering hole and say, “Well! Small world!” Now the small world is global. On average, Masuda figures, each of us is no more than five or ten connections away from any stranger we might want to meet — a celebrity, say. You contact a connection who contacts a connection who contacts a connection, and in a surprisingly short time there’s your celebrity on your hook. It’s become that simple.

Never mind celebrities — think of the implications for business, as Okajima does. “Especially now,” she says, “when business projects increasingly cross divisions within a company, or involve collaboration among several companies, you need a growing network of personal relationships.” Need it and, thanks to our heightened connectivity, have it.

As with business, so with friendship. Web marketing consultant Shigeo Nakajima’s contribution to The 21 is a paean to social-networking services, Facebook especially. “Think about it,” he says. “Don’t you feel it’s more difficult to make new friends in the workaday world than it was when you were at school?” Of course it is, and virtual friendships numbering in the hundreds and thousands are now an entrenched feature of the social landscape. Young people can scarcely imagine social life without it.

Once upon a time, before the global village, there was the local village, the village that few inhabitants ever strayed more than a few kilometers from in the course of a lifetime. Until recently most humans were villagers. Modern hyper-urban Japan is often called a village society at heart, and megalopolitan Tokyo an agglomeration of villages. There is much sentimentality about the old back-country furusato (home town), much longing, real or imagined, for old ties and lost community, but village life had its constraints which those who escaped to the cities found stifling — everybody knowing everyone’s most intimate affairs, everybody seemingly seeing, probing, judging your every move, and so on. Villagers moved to the cities to breathe a larger, freer air. It was a liberating, if often lonely, experience. Is loneliness driving us back to the village? Is a virtual village that much different from a physical one?

It is surprising how readily, willingly, even eagerly the Internet generation has surrendered its privacy. In premodern Japan there was no word for privacy. There still isn’t. The English word must do when the subject comes up. Japan always was a more connected, webbed society than the proudly individualistic cultures of the West. Maybe all it’s doing now is recovering its lost connectedness. Which leaves open the question of why the West so eagerly embraced the Jobsian revolution, propelling Apple to its current stellar place in the corporate universe.

An American survey conducted in 2003 asked respondents to name the invention they could least do without. In first place, cited by 42 percent of adult respondents, was the humble toothbrush. Computers? Cell phones? Tied for distant third (behind the automobile) with 6 percent. Those numbers are probably different today, but they suggest an inference few seem to be making: Our needs are much simpler than the means we’re multiplying to satisfy them.

Is permanent connectedness to each other really what we as a species want and need? Whether it is or not — and to give it its due, dictatorships never had a deadlier enemy — it’s what we have, one consequence being the increasing prevalence of people who are not alone with their thoughts for a single moment of their waking lives. It’ll be interesting to see where civilization goes from there.