Giles Slade, who received his Ph.D. in cultural history from the University of Southern California, believes that human relationships are in decline and that our over-reliance on technology is to blame. In The Big Disconnect: The True Story of Technology and Loneliness, Slade revisits old territory to bolster his argument that Americans are caught in a destructive loop. Our interactions with machines dull the pangs of loneliness, but also cause us to retreat further from messy relationships with other people, which in turn leaves us feeling more lonely, and so on. He asserts that if you read his book you will "understand the real cost of numbing the pangs of human loneliness with human- mechanical friendships."
Although this is a compelling promise, it is not one that is delivered in this book. Despite the interesting, far-reaching premise, the body of his work reads as a series of interconnected vignettes, and fails to cohere into an adequate sense of historical narrative. For example, over the course of 30 pages, he traces the development of the boom box and Walkman in the late 1970s in urban areas, jumps back to the Neolithic creation of songs as a form of "distance grooming," and then forges ahead to a study of popular music on the frontier in the 1830s and harmonica use in New Orleans during the Civil War. Slade's book is easily accessible to a general audience. It contains no technical jargon, and reads as though it were written by the Huffington Post blogger Slade became after he retired from teaching at university.
The Big Disconnect promises to be of most interest to readers interested in mental health in the introduction and conclusion. Again, Slade makes a compelling hypothesis, but without sufficient substantiating data. It may indeed be true that Americans have come to "rel[y] on distractions and diversions to deflect the emptiness of an untrusting world." However, as his quotes from Henry David Thoreau, writing in the 1850s makes clear, alienation and fear due to technology has been inundating American's psyches for well over the past 150 years. Greater information concerning the specific nature of this alienation in the present time would have saved Slade's book from becoming a vaguely impressionistic plea for a return to an earlier time when people had a more direct, less mediated relationship with nature. I want to be clear here. I do not necessarily disagree with Slade's hypotheses. Most people in most times have felt that the world is changing rapidly, and that this change is dangerous. But his book would have benefitted greatly from more data to back up his claims that indeed this time period is changing too quickly.
© 2013 Kyra Grosman
Kyra Grosman received a bachelor's degree in history from Brown University and a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Wright Institute. She works as a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org