Open for public business, too

What if more and more of us went our own way in public life to pursue our own personal agenda? What if each of us was to find our own news, only to forgo that which doesn’t resonate with us? What if you and I began to see ourselves primarily as individual consumers, with little connection to one another? Crying wolf about such trends won’t cause any of us to take notice or do anything. But something is happening in our society that we must know. In so many ways – some big, others quite small and almost imperceptible – we are moving to a new individualized society. Think back just five years or so ago; our society is a much different place.

It is not merely that our society has tended to commoditize everything, from charitable giving to volunteer service to even selling naming rights to public school buildings. It’s that the very notion of aggregated consumers is becoming a misnomer as well; we now live in a “micro world” in which each of us acts as a sovereign individual – a kind of free-agent unto ourselves.

Take, for instance, FaceBook and MySpace, which enable kids to proclaim their individuality as if they are new corporate entities or celebrities. Or, think about how we can customize products as if we own our own showrooms.

Or, take how we can create our own news products – aggregating stories that fit our distinct personal profile and interests. What’s more, new “news” products are focusing on what publishers call hyper-local coverage. I had one such product come into my home just last week. But rather than offer news, the reality is that it’s more like a high school year book in which neighbors and their kids are prominently highlighted. There’s barely any news copy other than the captions under the pictures.

At each turn we are now able to create our own world, even though there are more and more people who live around us. In fact, the larger our surroundings become, the more we opt for closer-knit circles.

On one level, trends for giving people more control can be for the best. They definitely tilt power away from large, faceless institutions, the likes of which I have railed against for much of my professional career.

But I also believe we must concern ourselves with these trends. They can deftly play on people’s narcissistic tendencies – the desire to “see and hear and celebrate me!” Moreover, there can be a kind of sense of exclusivity, even smugness – “I’m okay, who cares about you?”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with individualism or with customizing consumer products. But I often hear a kind of dismissive tone taken to the concerns I have raised here; a belief that all will work out if we merely aggregate each person’s whims and wishes.

But determining the public good requires more from us than merely going our own way. We must see and hear more than our own mere customized desires. We must open ourselves up for public business too.