Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Study Guide

Robert Putnam

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Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Section 3, Chapter 13 : Why? (Technology and Mass Media) | Summary



Putnam in this chapter asks whether technology and mass media are lowering Americans' ability and desire to engage in civic activity. He notes that the rate at which technology of all kinds developed and was integrated into society at the end of the 20th century is "astonishing." He further states "the electronic transmission of news and entertainment changed virtually all features of American life."

He asks whether the decline of the newspaper in favor of television as a source of news could be lowering civic engagement. He concludes, however, people who read newspapers watch TV news, and those who don't read newspaper don't watch the news. In other words either you're a "news hound" or you aren't. He references the Internet as a source of news but notes that, at the time of writing, there was too little information to make an informed prediction.

Much more important than the decline of newspapers and print media, says Putnam, is the rise of television. "Watching TV at night," he says, "has become one of the few universals of American life." Could this be a major reason for the decline in civic engagement? He finds "television watching and especially dependence upon television for entertainment are closely correlated with civic disengagement." But, does that mean TV causes Americans to disengage?

Putnam cites several studies suggesting yes: television does actually cause disengagement. It takes up time that would otherwise be spent in social activity; it encourages lethargy and passivity; it is habit forming; and overuse can lead to poor health. In addition, it provides "a kind of pseudopersonal connection to others." In other words, we feel as if we know the people on television, and so we don't feel the need to leave home to find friends.

Putnam concludes "television and its electronic cousins are willing accomplices in the civic mystery we have been unraveling, and more likely than not, they are ringleaders."


In this chapter, Putnam finally puts his finger on what he believes to be a true reason behind Americans' loss of social capital. He paints television as a social problem—a force that isolates and pacifies without giving anything back.

At the time when Putnam was writing, however, television was also a major social driver. The 2000 Summer Olympics, for example, were televised by NBC; the opening ceremonies were watched by 27.5 million viewers. Shared events such as this and including, for example, New Year's Eve events in New York, the World Series, finales of favorite TV series, and even soap operas and reality shows, do unite individuals even when they are physically separated.

It's important to note the trends Putnam reviewed in this chapter—in 2000—have changed radically since that time. For example, when Putnam was writing, few large newspapers or major news organizations had a robust online presence. Many, such as the New York Times, were publishing only a few items on its website while keeping "important" news exclusive to print.

Another major technological change is in the way people consume television and streaming video. In 2000, while it was possible to watch a video online, it was time consuming and difficult. In addition, few personal computers could access enough bandwidth to make watching videos online worthwhile.

In the time between 2000 and today several trends in technology have changed the way Americans consume and create information. For example, it is now easy and cheap to create websites and populate them with video, streaming video, podcasts, and more. Sites like YouTube and Facebook make it easy for individuals to find, record, and share news with a tap of the finger. Smartphones make it possible for audiences to view and respond to news instantly.

While these changes don't have an impact on Putnam's conclusions as he drew them in 2000, they do have an impact on today's world.

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