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Jewish World Review August 5, 2002 / 27 Menachem-Av, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Quiet hours come
to the water cooler | STERLING, Colo. "Now, that's certain to be the subject of water cooler conversation tomorrow morning," someone said, and my first thought was:

No it's not.

Not because the subject wasn't interesting or provocative -- it was. It's just that "water cooler conversation" . . . well, it has a nice sound to it, but it doesn't mean much anymore. When was the last time you stood around your office's water cooler, shooting the breeze?

Oh, it happens -- some office and factories still have the old-style water coolers, with the big inverted glass containers that have to be switched when they're empty. And even at conventional water fountains, people have the opportunity to talk. But do they?

We're dealing mostly with symbolism here, so we might as well delineate the two competing symbols. If, in a previous America, the office water cooler was emblematic of the way people swapped stories and opinions, then today the bottle of designer water -- the individual bottles of spring water that so many people carry around -- has replaced the water cooler both literally and figuratively. If you're carrying your own water with you . . . well, you see where this is going.

Office e-mail -- undeniably convenient and almost frighteningly efficient -- has played a role in this too. Water cooler conversation -- when it actually happened, and as a societal symbol -- involved a lot of hemming and hawing, and wasted words. E-mail inside the office is like an arrow to the heart, quick and direct. The water cooler has moved to the computer screen -- except there aren't dozens of people gathered. Just two -- except when no e-mail is being exchanged, in which case the number at the new cooler is one.

Take a look on any American downtown street at lunchtime, or after work. There are lots of conversations going on, all right -- except they aren't with humans you can actually see. The picture of people strolling along talking into personal cellular phones -- a novelty so recently -- has now become the new American self-portrait. This is who we are now -- men and women who don't exist in any one place, or at least not the place where their feet currently touch the ground. A sense of community? Look at those downtown streets -- the people striding along with the cell phones to their ears are there, but not present. The no-eye-contact message they send off is that no one near to them on the street has anything to do with them. Step back some afternoon -- take a good look. All the human planets, each in its own orbit.

Several years ago, a very bright scholar by the name of Robert D. Putnam summarized all of this with a cogent and telling phrase: "bowling alone." His theory -- at least part of it -- was that the decline in membership in bowling leagues was an accurate, and ominous, measuring stick of what was happening to our country and its people. If a person bowls alone, and not in a league, he or she is still bowling -- but something important is missing. The bowler still goes home with a score -- the same way those people hurrying down the street eyes-forward talking on their phones to invisible friends still go home having had conversations -- but it's not the same. We are voluntarily becoming islands.

Some of the online services actually use the phrase "water cooler" to tell their members that there is a place available on the computer site where opinions about the hot subjects of a given day can be exchanged. This, it would seem, is the ultimate permutation of the meaning of the water cooler -- the computer-screen water coolers promise the same kind of group dynamic that the literal water coolers historically provided, but without any water, without any cooler, and, most significantly, without any human beings whose faces you can see. You might as well be locked in a prison cell with that computer, for all the true human interchange that is afforded you.

Some will argue with that; some will say the water cooler is still with us, but is merely taking different forms. Maybe. But on this trip, when I heard the person comment that something was going to be the subject of water cooler conversation the next morning . . .

It just sounded wrong -- inaccurate. You may disagree. We can talk about it over the back-yard fence.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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