Walk into an Old Port coffee shop looking for a place to sit and you’ll often find that a lot of the tables are taken by people in their twenties or thirties sitting alone, heads down, eyes fixated on a computer screen, fingers fluttering over the keyboard now and then, burrowed in for what you know will be a very long time, a cup of long- forgotten coffee sitting off to the side. They’re “elsewhere,” as some of them have described it. They go there and they stay there, reflexively switching from one online activity to another: messaging, e-mailing, whirling around in the buzz of social media, conducting business with people across the world, playing a game, reading a novel, chatting about nothing in particular with someone lounging on a houseboat off the coast of New Zealand, gambling, having sex, maybe even taking an online course in situational ethics from Brandeis University. Who knows?
All well and good, they can go “elsewhere” all they want, but a question arises: If good coffee and human contact are not what these good folks are here for, why don’t they just stay home and go “elsewhere” there?
Good question, that, so — what else to do? — I Googled it. I started with “online in public places” and eventually came upon the writings of Sherry Turkle, a professor of the “social studies of science and technology” at M.I.T. Turkle has been studying the effects of online connectivity on humans for the last 30 years, since the beginning of the Internet Age, and is considered the preeminent expert on the subject.
I learned from Professor Turkle that many of the people online in coffee shops actually are socializing. They’re texting one another across the room. Never could have figured that out on my own. Thank you, professor. As to why they’re texting instead of sitting at the same table chatting with the person, well, that’s complex. Basically, Turkle writes, it’s that texting is less risky, and less personally demanding, than face-to-face conversation. One of the things they’re most afraid of, she says, is a conversation they can’t periodically check out of. Real conversation calls for someone to be fully present and vulnerable. Texting does not.
That’s, ah, scary. And sad.
Professor Turkle cites reputable studies showing that, due primarily to excessive amounts of time spent online, there has been a 40 percent decline in empathy — the ability to share in another’s emotions or thoughts — among college students over the past 30 years, and the steepest decline has taken place since 2000. In other words, young people are increasingly losing their ability to relate to other people.
I don’t know, though. I’m confused. Yes, there are the head-downers in the coffee shops who don’t give a hoot for your presence, or for your desire for the table they’re sitting at. And they and a lot of others their age are probably spending far too much time online. But the 40 percent decline in empathy thing doesn’t quite ring true, at least as it pertains to the Portland scene.
Scads of people in their twenties and thirties are involved in fine, upright, community-building activities all around the city. These young people are far more evolved than people of their age were in the past. I can testify to that, because I was there in that past and wasn’t very evolved myself.
SPACE Gallery is a prime example of what I’m talking about. The city has never seen a venue quite like it. From 1897 to 1933, there was the fabled Jefferson Theater, on Free Street, but it was strictly an entertainment venue and didn’t host community workshops and events like SPACE does. Everyone involved in SPACE Gallery has their head on straight, too. No lopsided egos or axes to grind. It’s the coolest place in town, but it doesn’t feel cliquish.
Or take the now defunct Mama’s CrowBar, on Munjoy Hill, which was like a salt lick for creative types who wanted to share their talents with a community of like-minded souls. In a bar, though? Yeah, the place was bursting with creativity seven nights a week, and there’s never been more togetherness anywhere. Let’s hope the spirit of Mama’s CrowBar gets revived someday, someplace else, somehow or other.
Then there are organizations like Cultivating Community. What a name. They’re giving newly arrived immigrants the opportunity to grow crops that will contribute to a sustainable future for us all, but they’re also adding meaning to people’s lives. Imagine what Cultivating Community means to newly arrived immigrants who had given up hope of ever working the land again.
Or The Resilience Hub, a permaculture organization comprised of people who got connected through the Internet, mostly, and are now doing things like planting a fruit orchard on the hillside by East End Community School with help from the students there. They’ve named it Mt. Joy Orchard, a reference to what is conjectured to be the hill’s original name, before residents slurred it into Munjoy. The kids have been assured the orchard will always be called Mt. Joy, though. Someday they’ll bring their children to Mt. Joy Orchard to pick apples and apricots from trees they planted there themselves.
Oh, OK, then there’s the Green Party. When it first appeared on the political scene with its radical notions and irreverent attitudes, then managed to get Kevin Donoghue and
David Marshall elected to the City Council, many of us were braced for havoc. But, lo and behold, the young councilors settled quietly into the job and, by most accounts, became voices of reason and good sense, and accomplished a great deal of good. Who would have thought?
Like I say, I’m confused. These Digital Age people are said to be 40 percent less empathetic, yet they’re the ones doing all these wonderful community-building things around town. Still, when I go to a coffee shop hoping to get lost in the Sunday New York Times all afternoon, it’d be nice to have a place to sit down.
Editor’s note: In last month’s column, “The State of Maine Biennial,” Portland Museum of Art director Mark Bessire’s name was spelled incorrectly, and artist Emily Nelligan was incorrectly identified as one of two Passamaquoddy basket- makers represented in the PMA’s 2015 Biennial. (In addition to George Neptune, the other Passamaquoddy basket-weaver exhibiting work in the show is Jeremy Frey.) We regret and apologize for the errors.