Books

'Elsewhere U.S.A.' Prods Us to Look Up From Our BlackBerrys and Ask, 'Where Are We?'

This reads more like the smart, well-informed, scatter-shot elsewhere-ish impressionism of Malcolm Gladwell than the sharply focused, outraged empiricism of Robert Putnam or the politically fueled reporting of Naomi Klein.


Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How we Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety

Length: 221 pages
Author: Dalton Conley
Price: $15.00
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2010-04
Amazon

Sociologist Dalton Conley has written a lament for the successful. In Elsewhere U.S.A., he tells what he sees as the sad tale of creative class types pecking away at their BlackBerrys while sitting in their Eddie Bauer folding chairs at their daughter’s soccer games, answering work e-mails, checking weather reports on the city where they are going the next day for a professional meeting, and tweeting about the latest goal in the match.

While husbands multitask and boast on the sidelines, their wives are away on business in another time zone doing the same thing, trying to manage jobs and family, work and play from afar. This is a book, then, about well-heeled busy couples with children, who are always on the go, constantly plugged in, constantly doing more than one thing, and constantly distracted. They can’t keep their eyes off their phones, Conley asserts, because they are afraid of falling behind (or having their children fall behind). They fear someone may find out that they produce nothing of tangible value, the they are mere frauds, impostors.

Conley calls this new order, the Elsewhere society, a world, (though as his title suggests, he confines his remarks to the United States) where we are never 'there' (or 'here'), but always somewhere else. Unlike like for such people during the seemingly rosier and more grounded days of the '50s, boundaries, over the last ten years, are collapsing all around us. What were once distinct realms are now linked together, and not for the better.

The divide between the public and private, work and leisure, and investment and consumption are melting away. All of these spheres of life, Conley maintains, have seeped into each other. In preparation for his inevitable NPR interviews, he has come up with a number of clever phrases to capture this pervasive and troubling interpenetration; we have weisure and convenstment. The citizens of Elsewhere, U.S.A. go by a new name, as well. Instead of being individuals in search of authenticity like their grandparents of the '50s, they are intradividuals living fragmented lives and juggling multiple roles and even selves.

Conley underlines three main factors leading to the development of the hyper-connected in Elsewhere U.S.A. First, he identifies the increased number of women working outside the home for pay in the last 40 years as a cause. (He does not, by the way, problematize this observation – and his book (see the subtitle ) -- does, indeed, have a rather “male” feel to it.) Second, he points to the explosion of information, and the technology delivering this mass of barely filtered data, as another key driver, forcing work into the home and other areas of daily life. Third, he argues that growing inequality at the top of the economic ladder bred the nagging anxieties and fears that tether people to work 24/7. If you aren’t busy doing something, someone else is, and he/she will get that next promotion, so you better work even when you are playing.

Despite his critical stance on the changes afoot in upper middle-class circles, Conley has not written a finger-pointing book. A parent and partner in a power couple, a professional, and a striver, he counts himself as a denizen of Elsewhere, U.S.A. Though sociology is his day job, Conley acts less like a social scientist here than a clever and weary observer. Again and again, he draws on his own life, relating, sometimes a bit clumsily, what is happening to him and his family and then linking these day-to-day occurrences to broader ideas and insights drawn from the behavioral sciences and sociological research. This tactic makes the book read more like the smart, well-informed, somewhat scatter-shot elsewhere-ish impressionism of Malcolm Gladwell than the sharply focused, outraged right here, right now empiricism of Robert Putnam or the politically fueled reporting of Naomi Klein.

Even though Conley’s Elsewhere U.S.A. is a short book – just a little over 200 pages – its tone and trajectory echo its main findings. The author seems at times distracted, often straying from his main points. In an interesting chapter in the middle of the book, for example, he looks at the prison system and only barely connects the ideas put forth here to his central arguments. In another section, he recounts a visit to Google headquarters. The reporting is funny and informed, but only loosely linked to our new permanently distracted selves.

Perhaps to his credit, Conley does not end his book with a list of instructions. Nor he does not puff out his chest and call for the creative class to storm the barricades or take over the White House. He doesn’t say anywhere that they have nothing to lose but their BlackBerrys. Nor does he link the plight of the forever connected and successful to the plight of the somewhat wired underclass. We are, he seems to say, struck where we are, running around trapped in a not so oppressive iron cage of our own making, but a cage, nonetheless.

Though I am certainly distracted by my smart phone, busy ball-playing kids, and a slew of other things, Conley’s book made feel me old school, Mayberryish even. Elsewhere, U.S.A.’s absence of prescriptions and tone of resignation made me want to act – to at least turn off my BlackBerry and pick up my tattered copy of the recent muckraking classic, Fast Food Nation and read it again and feel outraged again.

Elsewhere U.S.A. made me want to watch every play of my son’s playoff baseball game while distracted by nothing more than the company of the parents sitting next to me and the site of the city skyline. It me made want to be somewhere other than in Elsewhere, U. S. A., but I guess I need another book, or a road map, to get there.

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