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Isolation and the Deterioration of Socialization . . . Oh My

by Nic Darling on September 23, 2009 · 13 comments

in Philosophy,Urbanism

We have talked before about how the home (particularly a large, suburban one) can become a tool of isolation, but since I can’t get enough of a good thing . . .

As we continue to fill our homes with amenities previously only available in public spaces, we increase our separation from our community. Movie theaters have moved into the home, and with the help of Netflix and streaming video, one doesn’t even need to go to a video store. With the increasing ubiquity of cable television, every sporting event can be delivered directly to your TV making a trip to the local pub unnecessary. Add the gigantic media room and you don’t even have to deal with strangers to watch the game with your friends. Pool tables, dart boards, horseshoes and other games of skill have plenty of space to exist in the home and the surrounding expanse of yard. Combined with driveway basketball courts and backyard soccer goals, public parks see less and less use. Now, I am no Luddite, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone some in-house games of skill, but I wonder whether this ability for self contained entertainment is injuring our socialization skills or, since I now have one on the way, those of our children.

We also see this compartmentalization in aspects of our lives outside the home. Online shopping keeps us out of retail areas, and while I can’t blame anyone for avoiding the malls and box stores, these are moments of interaction. For my part, I will say better moments might occur in the downtown shopping districts and main street environment, but regardless, these are times when we are outside our insulated shells, generating shared experience.

Cars shelter us from others as we travel to work (unlike buses, trains or walking), and cubicles continue the job when we get there. Even when we do enter a public space, we continue to surround ourselves with ourselves through our phones, iPods and video games.

I realize that this isn’t a new idea, and I realize that some of what I’m saying makes me sound like my grandfather after a day with his tech-savvy grandkids. I also know that this sort of thing has gone on for some time with books instead of iPods, carriages instead of cars, guarded castles instead of gated communities, but I would argue that the scope of our separation has increased. We have made a larger portion of our society into a semi-cloistered aristocracy, and we have done so with greater thoroughness than was possible in the past.

I would argue that there are important skills that go undeveloped when social interaction decreases. Diplomatic abilities atrophy. Compromise becomes a foreign idea. Selfishness becomes less a vice and more a reasonable trait because, after all, the self is dominant in isolation. Reasoned debate is based on the simplest of social skills and it suffers from lack of exercise. Empathy withers from disuse. Community becomes increasingly faceless, the recognizable whittled down to those few that you invite into your enclave . . . dinner guests and relatives.

I don’t necessarily think there is a true remedy for this. Nor do I believe that the components of this increased isolation are, in and of themselves, bad. I merely wonder at the potential ongoing effect if we continue along this course. If we keep building bigger, more self-contained homes, if we continue developing better and better means of electronic avoidance, if we are unable to free ourselves from the private automobile’s domination of our infrastructure, then what do we lose? For what will we become less equipped?

I will end with an opinion you have probably come to expect from me. I believe that part of the way we can return balance to our relationship with our community is by addressing the way we live, by looking, particularly, at housing and transportation. A reduction of home size and amenities is not only an ecological imperative, but a social one. It forces us out into the public sphere where we can share in the consumption of resources while we simultaneously interact to build relationships, understanding and social skills. The same is true with public transit and walking. Buses may teach us important, if somewhat unpleasant, lessons that cars have no ability to deliver. This naturally leads us to a denser, more urban way of living. Shared open space trumps backyards. Train lines are a higher priority than roads. Sidewalks are king. We improve the environment and increase the complexity and concreteness of our social relationships. Shouldn’t the benefits follow?

Now, I realize, as always, that I am not really qualified to pontificate on these matters. But, I know some of you out there are. So, tell me . . . Where am I right? Where am I wrong? What have I missed that adds to my argument? What have I ignored that undermines it?

Get into those comments.

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

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networks vs community « Erik’s Blog
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1 goran September 24, 2009 at 7:41 am

We (I) have lost socialization skills. I’m originally from an Island with a population of 150, where people a VERY interactive. People will stand outside one another’s windows and join in a conversation going on inside during dinner. When I go back there, I find it difficult to relax, but I know that’s me.

Some things I’ve seen that invite interaction with neighbors: An outdoor screen, maybe just a bedsheet, where kids and parents can sit around and watch a projected movie on a summer night. Community gardens. A garden in the front yard gives the owner the opportunity to interact with passers by. Any kind of volunteer work.

2 jan September 24, 2009 at 1:36 pm

Thanks for the rant! It’s a terrific review of the situation. The loss of society, culture and community feeds a plethora of growing problems. Keep up the good fight. You are greatly valued.

3 GreenBuildinginDenverdotcom September 25, 2009 at 1:47 am

I just realized that your homes don’t have a front porch. Before air conditioning, THAT was where folks socialized while they waited for their homes to cool down in the evening.

Denver’s new zoning code will actually require roofed front porches in some zones because it’s such a favored form.

4 jan September 25, 2009 at 11:49 am

In many co-housing situations, the house is set up so that there is a “social area”, usually at the kitchen window side that faces into the community’s center area. But there is also a private area, because sometimes you want to sit outside and not socialize—read a book, contemplate, talk with family members. That area is usually off the “back” of the house, or the area that faces away from the center of the community. People in the community respect these areas and socialize in a way that is appropriate to each area. This works because of the thoughtful design, but also because the community recognizes the need for social as well as private space.

5 PLeBlanc September 26, 2009 at 10:27 am

Having the darts and whatnot in the house makes for more social interaction, because one is equiped to host friends and family (and others on occasion).

And weren’t you the guy who wanted the heat pump cooled keg? I think that might keep you from the pub a bit more than cable TV…

6 Belinda September 27, 2009 at 7:41 pm

Amen, brother. You are right on in your diagnosis as well as in your recommendations for treatment (housing and transportation). Several years ago PBS did a great documentary called “Affluenza” hosted by Scott Simon of NPR fame. An interesting stat I gleened from that piece is that the average 1950′s home was about 900 square feet, while the average 1950′s family size was 3.3. Today, the average American family size is 2.5, but the average home size is – ready for this? – 2349 square feet*! That means that while the average family size decreased by 25%, the average home size increased by 260% – more space with fewer people occupying it.

*The 2349 sq. ft. figure is from this NPR story, circa 2006, on the pursuit of the dream house:

For more on Affluenza, check out this depressing quiz ( as well as the rest of the show’s website. It’s good stuff.

And if you decide to homeschool that little one when s/he arrives, you can use the free guide as part of your social studies curriculum. Homeschooling is also good stuff. :-)

Love your work. Thanks!

7 Todd Oskin September 28, 2009 at 12:09 pm

hmm, seems to me that homeschooling would further isolate your children and your family…rather than public (or private) school..

i’d personally send my children to school.. and add a little homeschoolin/guidance at home….

Here is a survey that essentially confirms alot of what nic has said –

The built environment (which housing is a large part of) definitely affects our social life and our quality of life.

Other factors definitely come into play as well. I think one of those factors is that a lot of people seem to be spending a lot of time doing things they don’t enjoy (their work often times) and not a lot of time doing things that they do enjoy—that are often social activites (partially because of the time and energy they spend doing things they don’t enjoy–their ‘work’).

also, their seems to be fewer social institutions that people actively participate in (whether its a community group… church…sports club… etc…—-we need more of that…luckily there are quite a few in the city)

just my thoughts,

8 Belinda September 28, 2009 at 5:02 pm

Actually, the socialization that occurs via homeschooling is quite often superior to the socialization that takes place in a public or private school. Think about it: in school children are placed in classrooms with 25 – 30 same aged peers and one adult and given only lunch (often 20 minutes or less) and recess (only in grades K – 5) to socialize in any sort of unstructured, semi-authentic manner. And often, because of the emphasis on popularity, pop-culture, fitting-in, and conformity, the socialization that is able to take place during these sparse moments is far from authentic.

After school, completely drained from the early rising time and long day taking in large amounts of unnecessary information aimed at helping them to perform well enough on a slew of standardized tests that their school will continue to receive inadequate funding, many kids (after whatever extra-curriculars they might have going on) come home and zone out in front of the TV, computer or video console before plunging into hours of homework, getting to bed late, and starting the whole process over again the next day.

My kids rise when they wake up, eat a leisurely breakfast with me, spend an hour or so on structured academic work, and then play. Together, with friends, at the park, at the beach, at their book club, at the museum, at MIT (where we’re headed tomorrow for a homeschool science program) – wherever. They have plenty of peers (varying in age from 8 – 15) that they see on a regular basis, and they see their friends siblings as well, which further adds to the age diversity. Their extra-curriculars fit into their daytime schedule, and they can do homework whenever they choose.

Of course, homeschoolers vary tremendously in the way they approach education, but the majority of them have more time to forge authentic relationships with people of a variety of backgrounds and of varying ages and generations. They interact with peers without the social pressures that accompany mass education in an artificial environment (have you been herded from room to room with with a group of people all born within 6 months of you at any time since high school? do you have to ask if you can go to the bathroom at work?) and they interact with adults on a regular basis as well.

I could say a lot more, but – oops – this is a green building site and we were talking about housing and transportation. :-)

For an excellent take on homeschooling, check out this article on

Take care,


9 steven September 29, 2009 at 11:08 am

“A reduction of home size and amenities is not only an ecological imperative, but a social one.”

How bout a front porch on that there 100K house?

10 jan September 29, 2009 at 12:42 pm

It seems like there may be other solutions than the usual “front porch,” especially in urban areas. Any ideas? I have a small row house in Baltimore and nothing would be more incongruous than a front porch. People here tend to grab a lawn chair and sit out in the evening air. They don’t seem to need a physical structure to create conversation, partly because homes are so close together. Front porch, hmm, it feels like another era, another luxury.

11 William Brokhof October 1, 2009 at 10:05 am

I think one needs to really visualize the human condition over ALL time and location. This blog post imagines suburban America – but as a couple of the comments point out, location and geography play a big role in shaping our socialization. It seems some of the greatest thinkers that shaped our country only socialized intermittently. Many of our founding fathers commuted in from rural farms and such.

There is no doubt that interacting with ones community is a good thing on some levels, it seems that quality is more important than quantity.

I’m also not sure I agree with house size being related to the amount one goes outside or interacts with the community. I know a number of New Yorkers & Bostonians who spend an inordinate amount of time in their cramped little apartments avoiding the bustle on the street.

Just some thoughts your post provoked. For the record, I am a small house proponent and in fact live in about 825SF in Boston.

I guess my point is just that one can live an intellectual, satisfying and productive life anywhere…even in solitude.

12 Rita October 7, 2009 at 9:12 am

I’m the biggest lover of the BIG screen. I can’t imagine watching Citizen Kane on any size screen other than something in excess of fifty feet. But, the last three times I went to the movies the people near me couldn’t stop talking nor texting on their phones. That being said the convenience of Netflix or ITunes being streamed to my home so that I don’t have to drive to the theater, wait in line, pay a high fee and get ripped off for a soda and snack makes a lot of sense.
In today’s fast pace world time is a critical commodity. I can order merchandise on the internet in ten minutes and I am done shopping. I can drive to the mall, waste gas, go into the store and then find out they don’t have what I want. Then I must go to another store or even shopping center with the hope that they have my size or style. The difference often becomes ten minutes as opposed to a few hours. Those hours saved allow me to get other things done so that I actually end up with additional free time to walk my dog in the park, walk through the neighborhood or contribute time to the local hospital where I read and socialize with dozens of people needing some attention.
As far as mass transit, until the prices come down my ten year old Honda is the cheapest ride in town. Plus I don’t have to wait at train or bus stops that smell like urine. I don’t have to sit next to people that haven’t discovered deodorant. And I have the flexibility to come and go as I desire.
There may be important skills that go undeveloped when social interaction decreases but the last time I took the bus most everyone I attempted to engage in discussion had a third grade vocabulary and could hardly generate a grammatically correct sentence. In actuality if everyone quit all the texting and instead read one book a week the regional I.Q. would go up dramatically.
Big homes are a waste of materials, energy and finances. You are right-on there. But just like “clothes don’t make the man” – I don’t believe that homes shape the person. You can go into any house with a bunch of teenagers and they are probably the most social animals in town regardless of house size. Actually looking back when I was young, we lived in one of the smallest houses in the neighborhood to the point where I was, perhaps foolishly, embarrassed because we didn’t have much at all. Because of that I didn’t mix much and stuck to myself. If we had more, a bigger house like everyone else I probably would have had people over to visit more often. Crazy how little things like that can have such an impact. Each of these subjects have their pluses and minuses.

Great subject for discussion where there is not right or wrong position.

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