Thursday, March 13, 2014

Social Disconnect from NYC to Silicon Valley


Fifty years ago this morning, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed, robbed, raped, and murdered near her apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens.

At first, in a metropolis roiling from the rising crime and social turbulence being visited upon many cities in the 1960's, the attack on Genovese received scant attention.  It wasn't until two weeks later, when her story was casually recounted by the city's police commissioner to an editor at the New York Times, that the public learned about Genovese, and what had happened to her five decades ago this morning.

The Times ultimately figured there was a story in this brutal crime because, according to initial police accounts relayed by the commissioner, over thirty of Genovese's neighbors overheard her screaming and calling for help, yet apparently did nothing.  At the newspaper's prodding, after learning what was believed to have happened, New Yorkers quickly examined themselves in an uncharacteristic display of guilt and shame:  is this what the world's greatest city had come to?  Dozens of otherwise normal, middle-class New Yorkers had turned a deaf ear to a woman's final moments, either out of ambivalence, or an assumption that somebody else would do something about it.

Social scientists had a field day with the Genovese case, and when I was majoring in sociology in the late 1980's, we were still studying it as a prime example of the bystander effect, and "anomie," a phrase coined by Emile Durkheim to express the breakdown of social norms and morality, and the resulting disconnectedness from what society has traditionally expected from them.  In the bystander effect, people individually refuse to take a personal initiative in resolving a problem, which means that collectively, nothing positive gets done about that problem.  Between these two related social phenomena, humanity itself can devolve into a collection of autonomous actors living for their own selfish goals.

Recently, as the Times, other reporters, and social scientists have re-investigated the Genovese attack, it's been learned that over the course of its 30-minute duration, over 30 people may have heard something of it, but only one or two of the people initially interviewed by either the police or the Times ever actually said they didn't want to be bothered to help her.  Most of the residents of the mixed-use apartment and restaurant complex who heard the ruckus Genovese created assumed it was the result of inebriated patrons of an on-site bar, fighting or protesting last call; sounds to which they'd become somewhat accustomed.  Nobody actually saw the attack, or the victim, or her attacker.  One neighbor did yell out of his window for the attacker to leave her alone, but that neighbor did not have a direct line of sight to what was taking place.  And eventually, another neighbor, a female, did come outside to find Genovese dying on the sidewalk outside her door.

It's also been established that Genovese was a lesbian, and living with her lover at the time, an arrangement that some of her neighbors may not have entirely embraced, especially in the mid-1960's.  New York City has always been a socially liberal city, but in its whiter, more middle-class districts, particularly during the upheaval of white flight in the 1960's, same-sex attraction was hardly celebrated.  Nobody has been able to prove that discrimination against Genovese because she was gay played any role in her calls for help going unheeded, until it was too late.  But maybe that's because nobody wants to consider it.

With our penchant for nostalgia, we don't tend to associate the America of fifty years ago with social disconnects, or alien-sounding French terminology like anomie, or even alternative sexuality.  And to a certain extent, the Genovese case is more representative of New York City than it is of America as a whole.  Especially then, but even today.  But I found it curious that as I recalled my college studies of Genovese's death this week, I stumbled across another article that at first seemed completely unrelated, but now makes me wonder how far along we Americans have come, in terms of our jaded engagement with social constructs.

In a compelling article by technology grad student Yiren Lu for the Times, which she titled "Silicon Valley's Youth Problem," what struck me wasn't just the age polarization within America's high-tech industry, but the apparent disinterest on the part of young techies in traditional marriage.  Or even traditional dating.

Lu writes of one smartphone app that became popular only because it helped college students find somebody quickly to have sex with that night.  She almost complains that although women shouldn't have any problems scoring dates and husbands in male-saturated Silicon Valley, they're finding that all the eligible men are more interested in creating the next big app, instead of investing in romantic interpersonal relationships - let alone finding a wife, and settling down for the conventional family life.

I doubt she meant to reveal so much social dysfunction within her chosen profession, but Lu wistfully recalls the upbringing she had as a daughter of a Silicon Valley pioneer, and even selects two current entrepreneurs of a successful Silicon Valley tech family to profile in her piece, perhaps unwittingly connecting the stability from which these two children benefited with the family life they don't appear eager to have for themselves, now that they're the age at which many twentysomethings used to get married.

From reading her blog, I don't get the impression that Lu herself is interested in marriage and family as much as she is interested in simply finding a man who can look up from his computer screen for more than a minute at a time.  But the social immaturity she chronicles - even as an aside to her overall description of differences between seasoned tech workers and college grads entering the field - sounds like some sort of anomie, or disconnectedness.  Doesn't it?

Even as they're pulling down six-figure salaries - many even without a college degree - it seems as though technology may be for these guys the disconnect factor New Yorkers feared urban life was for them after the Genovese murder made headlines.

Is that too much of a stretch?  Lu's isn't the first article to remark about how technology appears to be enabling young men towards social immaturity.  But as much as they may seem to prefer women more for sexual gratification than personal enrichment - as ironically Neanderthallish as that sounds for men who make a living with computer code, they seem to be able to strike up a suitable camaraderie among their fellow male peers.  They're not completely antisocial.  And it's not like the declining marriage rate in other sectors within American society isn't making these choices by tech-centric males unique.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers may be the cold, off-putting drones they anecdotally appear to be to outsiders, but from personal experience, I know that they can make some of the deepest friends a person can have, once they get to know you, and you get to know them.

Plus, isn't it telling that there hasn't been a case along the scale of Kitty Genovese's murder since 1964, although New York has not been lacking in impersonal drama?

With the techno-wizard man-boys, however, for whom commitment means new apps for their phone, instead of developing relationships with people to actually call on that phone, anomie and disconnectedness may be the price they're willing to pay to play in Silicon Valley.

Ironic how an interpersonal communication device has become the object of such individualistic fervor.


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