No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior

By Joshua Meyrowitz | Go to book overview

7

The Separation of Social Place
from Physical Place

The book of Genesis tells of God's visit to Abraham and Sarah when they are old and childless. God tells Abraham that within a year Sarah will give birth to a son. Sarah overhears this promise from inside her tent, and she laughs to herself because she is already well past menopause. Since Sarah is alone in her tent, she assumes that her laughter will go unnoticed. But God quickly asks Abraham: "Wherefore did Sarah laugh? ... Is anything too hard for the Lord?" So surprised is Sarah by the exposure of her private behavior that she denies that she laughed. 1

Our awe and surprise over such eavesdropping feats has diminished greatly in an age of electronic media. Being "alone" in a given place once meant that one was out of range of others' scrutiny. For people to experience each other directly, they had to travel through space, stay through time, and be admitted through the entrances of rooms and buildings. And these rules of physical place pertained to tents and palaces alike.

Although oral and print cultures differ greatly, the bond between physical place and social place was common to both of them. Print, like all new media, changed the patterns of information flow to and from places. As a result, it also changed the relative status and power of those in different places. Changes in media in the past have always affected the relationship among places. They have affected the information that people bring to places and the information that people have in given places. But the relationship between place and social situation was still quite strong. Electronic media go one step further: They lead to a nearly total dissociation of physical place and social "place." When we communicate through telephone, radio, television, or computer, where we are physically no longer determines where and who we are socially.

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