-OpEd-

BOGOTA — Once upon a time our cities had physical spaces and institutions that allowed people of different social groups to mix and interact, at least to a degree.

Downtown cafés attracted politicians, intellectuals, traders and students. Churches — back when people still attended mass in significant numbers — were another place where people could meet and converse.

Before the mass diffusion of the private car, parks, tramways and then buses were also, for better or worse, spaces in which people of different backgrounds converged. Public universities too, though they admitted relatively few people, allowed provincial students to interact with professors and students from wealthier families from the capital.

But in time, these meeting spaces and institutions, which permitted a rapprochement of the social classes, came to disappear or radically change. Downtown cafés vanished or stopped being places where people actually sat around and talked. Gradually they gave way to gourmet-type or highly stratified eateries. Parks have had to compete with shopping centers. Private universities have fragmented the university population. Hardly anyone goes to church anymore. And the proliferation of car use prompted many students from comfortable backgrounds to stop using public transport.

Liquid Modernity

Only one institution, the family, had some success resisting the modern world's assault. Until the arrival of the radio, then television, the family was the best place for people to gather and interact. People shared meals. Most importantly they spoke, listened, and looked each other in the eyes. Even after the arrival of television, which began in a way to undermine this basic school of socialization, interactions continued, for better or worse, and conversation remained a possibility.

But with the arrival of social networking on the Internet, tablets and mobile phones, the family is losing its role as the shaper of conversational beings. Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman says we now live in a state of "liquid modernity," whereby the family no longer prays, eats or even watches television together.

The new technology has changed social dynamics outside the family as well. In parks, shopping malls or busses, the places, in other words, where people could theoretically still interact, they don't. Instead they're like zombies, with their ears plugged up by earphones and their eyes fixed on some smartphone or tablet.

The social and political consequences of all these technologies are unpredictable. Perhaps of greatest concern is that dialogue is disappearing, both between and inside the social strata — and with it, age-old forms of solidarity, interaction and mutual defense on which civil society has forever depended. In our new hyper atomized society, will we be more exposed to new forms of domination, especially that of the state itself?