The Guardian carried a comment piece by Jenni Russell this weekend entitled The selfish generation, about the role of marketeers and market values in dictating changes to our social norms. The piece makes some interesting arguments that drill down as far as the physical impact a lack of manners can have in our day-to-day lives: “we are going through our days delivering small social injuries to one another, each one of which is felt as acutely as physical pain.” The crux of Jenni Russell’s argument in the piece is that the values of the market are “invading the social sphere” in ways that are not always conducive to positive social interaction
This idea has implications for the development of online social software and social networks, many of which have an in-built ideological assumption that social networks are markets and that social capital could and should be codified in some recognisable form (like a currency), which perhaps reflects their US origins. Whilst this approach is proving succesful and generating new forms of social capital in some areas, arguments such as those put forward by Jenni Russell in her article should give us pause for thought before we seek to codify and mediate all aspects of our social interaction through computers and technology
“Fewer people now observe the conventions of good manners. They accept invitations, only to withdraw at the last minute when something more desirable appears. At formal events, some people are ruthless about ignoring a neighbour in favour of a more useful guest. The old idea that one had a social responsibility towards one’s host or fellow guests is beginning to be replaced by a determination to maximise one’s individual satisfaction, regardless of the emotional injury caused to anyone else. The values of the market are openly invading the social sphere. Why practise duty when you could make a contact or secure a gain?
“The answer is that we are all diminished by this behaviour. If every social encounter is reduced to a self-marketing opportunity, we will all, at some point, be made savagely unhappy. It may work, temporarily, for the powerful and desirable. But at some time every one of us will experience failure, be perceived as dull or grow old. We all want to be valued as human beings, rather than commodities. It is the generosity and tolerance of others that makes our lives bearable.”