Is social distance sending us off grid?
Words & images © Paul Ransom
Ever since humanity began to organise itself into permanent, sedentary settlements and create food surpluses using agriculture and animal husbandry, our species has been engaged in the formation of increasingly abstract societies. In other words, societies of strangers. Societies for which we have names like Rome, America and Asia. Impersonal, highly stratified societies bounded by jurisdiction, economy and broad scale political and cultural narratives. But are we really suited to the social world we have concocted for ourselves and are we starting to see, in the increased visibility of identity polemic, nativism and anti-elite sentiment, the beginning of a retreat from the global village? Is it time to secede from the abstract, atomised super-state?
In asking these questions I am not appealing to sentiments rooted in the ‘blunt object’ tropes of ethnicity or nationalism, nor indeed utopian nostalgia or dystopian doomsday paranoia. Rather, I am wondering if the size and scale of our urbanised, tech mediated, clickspeed world is just too much for many of us – or even most of us – and whether the seemingly headlong acceleration of post-industrial society is driving a reactive withdrawal into the slowed down comforts of apparent certainty.
If we consider the way in which our brains are wired to deal with evolutionary and environmental imperatives, it is no wonder the present and future always appear more threatening than the past. After all, we didn’t die this morning – but who knows what tonight has in store? At the level of raw survival, the ability to reliably anticipate future events is obviously critical, not just physically but psychologically. Thus, individually and collectively, we tend to cluster around what we regard as fixed points (or reassuringly predictable patterns). Hence: custom, religion and ideology, not to mention the stories we tell ourselves about national character, us/them, and the legitimacy or otherwise of certain power structures. We cling to our ‘certainties’ (delusional or rational) in order to stay sane and function in an uncertain world of constant flux. True, we may love the shiny and new, but maybe not quite as much as we like the cosy and familiar.
However, what we have been witnessing since the Industrial Revolution is an increase in the pace of socio-economic change; perhaps best illustrated by the shift from low density rural to high density urban living. In the post-WW2 era this has quickened further still and now, in the so-called digital age, with our globalised economy, fluid labour environment and 24/7 updating, many of us feel uncomfortably unmoored. Left out, left behind. Bewildered. Beginning to want out.
Whereas some seek to pathologise and demonise this phenomenon – and others to exploit it for profit, power and various ideological crusades – perhaps the current spectacle of polemic and polarisation bubbling up in our polity and infesting social media feeds represents an opportunity to ask ourselves serious questions about the very construction of human societies.
As we know, for the vast majority of our species’ history, we lived as foragers, organising ourselves into nomadic and semi-nomadic groups. Amongst other things, this mode of living meant we existed within more direct and concrete social networks and were significantly more embedded in the environment (our ‘range’ or territory).
This has prompted anthropologists and neuro-scientists to speculate about a possible cognitive limit with regards to human social relationship. Or rather, to ask how many people can we have meaningful, stable relationships with, and what does that then say about the ‘natural’ (or evolved) limit of functional group size?
In the 1990s a British anthropologist named Robin Dunbar suggested a range of 100-250, with 148 being the mean group size. Whilst others have disputed the accuracy of ‘Dunbar’s Number’ (some opting for lower, others higher) the point is that no one is suggesting a number of twenty million, or even a hundred thousand. The reasons for this, so the various theories go, stem from factors including brain size, long term memory capacity, and environmental factors; notably the availability of food. Whatever the number, the take-out for the billions of us living in cities and towns is that the society in which we find ourselves exceeds the limit of our ability to create and maintain ongoing personal relationships and stable, cohesive networks.
Regardless of what we think of Dunbar’s Number and speculations of this kind it is clear that settlements the size of New York can only ever be seriously regarded as ‘communities’ in a purely physical and administrative sense. (Lines on maps, jurisdictional limits and tax catchments.) Clearly, communities like Mumbai, Khartoum and so on are of a fundamentally different tenor than that of the hunter/gatherer clans of yore.
At a bare minimum, what we can say is that the human animal has gone from approximately a quarter of a million years of living in social groups where we personally knew virtually everyone to a situation – barely twelve thousand years later – in which we live in super-sized societies where we know virtually no one. Supremely adaptable though we are, to dismiss the rapidity and nature of this transformation as being unimportant is, I think, either wildly optimistic or evidence of ostrich-like denial.
However, rather than posit this as a catch-all explanation – or indeed as a ‘ta-dah’ moment of evolutionary psychology – my intention here is to suggest that, in transitioning from societies formed around direct personal contact to ones based on mere location or allegiance to the abstractions of flags or isms, we have created a socio-cultural space that is, by dint of size, essentially dehumanising. So, rather than blowing on the standard ideological dog-whistles of failed modernist utopias (global village) and neo-liberal conspiracies (globalisation), what I am suggesting is that much of our current unease, distemper and sense of alienation is underpinned by the fact that we have lost touch with one another. Instead, we live in highly impersonal societies that reduce both ‘the us’ and ‘the other’ to an abstraction – a label, a placeholder, a spectacle.
For instance, my hometown (Melbourne, Australia) is a metropolis of approximately 4.5 million. The idea that this panoply of people is a homogenous community or that there is a ‘Melbourne type’ is farcical. To insist that Melbournians are this, that or the other is to engage in a form of essentialisation bordering on either idiocy and/or fantasy, if not outright manipulation. In fact, all we can reasonably assert about Melbournians is that they live on a patch of land and within the administrative boundaries of a city commonly known as Melbourne. What’s more, said Melbournians routinely self-divide into sub-groups variously called westies, southsiders and so on. From where I sit, I can safely say that all but a handful of my fellow Melbournians are strangers, most of whom I will never even pass on the street, let alone meet or share a beer with. Sure, there are local cultural nuances and idiosyncrasies, but even these are memes principally generated and maintained via the spectacles of media and public commentary, and/or employed by marketing departments and political parties to sell us football jumpers and coax our allegiance or outrage.
This is (or should be) obvious. Even if we allow for the more measurable impacts of socio-economic, ethno-linguistic and age related factors, commonly applied group markers like Hungarian, GLBTIQ and ‘white’ lapse into something close to meaningless when considered from the social distance typical of large population centres.
By ‘meaningless’ I am suggesting something akin to what Dunbar and others are inferring when they speak of cognitive limits to human social group size. Stripped of the context created by proximate, ongoing relationship, we simply cannot regard these distant others as fully human. (Academically maybe; but not psycho-emotionally.) Thus, our empathy decreases, and these dehumanised others can then readily be ascribed characteristics that enable them to be cast as either good, bad, stupid, lazy, dangerous, etcetera. Whilst simplistic in/out group classifiers pre-date the Agricultural Revolution, the size and scale of modern in groups is such that even the self is reduced to an abstract. Even the ‘fixed points’ I alluded to earlier have receded into an untouchable, often opaque distance; such that for many of us even our anchors are little more than acronyms, epithets or references to skin colour.
- Is this why drone strikes and automated warfare now seem both inevitable and acceptable? Because when we murder one another via the internet we can’t see the blood?
And yet, our headlong plunge into digitally networked disconnection, (into the vagaries of globalism and the hyper-liberalisation of everything), is being loudly challenged. Many would decry this reactive phenomenon as a fearful retreat into tribalism, entitlement and victim whinging. Others suggest that although it is a real trend, its significance is magnified by the distorting drama of news media and the opportunism of cynical operators amongst the commentariat and political class. Either way, what appears to be showing through the cracks in our hi-tech social edifice are strong currents of Luddite refusal, manifesting as everything from cultural nostalgia to anti-immigrant sentiment, from Brexit to Trump, and alt-right to loony left. Even if our impression of an increasingly febrile discourse is magnified by the reductionist tendencies of infotainment and the Facebook echo chamber – and in fact the apocalypse is nowhere near nigh – the spectacle of such rancour points at the immanent perils of a society too abstracted, and a population dehumanised to the point where un-modulated either/or dichotomies appear to pass for sound policy and genuine critique.
When the undergraduate braying of identity politics sees supposedly educated adults spouting inane drivel like ‘it’s okay to be white’ and ‘boys will be boys’ you know that these people feel a) under attack and, b) are seeking a kind of certainty. They may dress up their slogans as intellectual positions but, drilling down, we find frightened people lost in a world that moves too fast and blurs the boundaries to such an extent that they can’t quite work out who they are, what they’re meant to be, and with whom they belong. In a social species like ours this sense of dislocation should not be dismissed as either irrelevant or merely stupid (even if it does result in pitchfork mob, placard waving vitriol).
Having said all this, it is also important to note that not all perceived injustice is imagined, or the result of issues relating to Dunbar’s Number. Furthermore, not all objections to globalisation, the influence of technology or the actions of power cliques and economic elites are mere whinging. Neither should we dismiss the numerous benefits of modernity, nor the advantageous synergies of large, densely populated settlements too lightly. After all, anonymity has its benefits; not the least privacy.
And here we come to a fascinating duality. The human animal is both social and highly private. We desire both connection and alone time. Perhaps what truly irks so many of us, (and is so deeply dissatisfying about our abstract cities and live stream culture), is the dissolution of genuine communal bonds and the simultaneous cramping or invading personal space, leaving us with neither. Reduced to a name, a demographic category, a consumer, an online avatar. A hollowed out, holographic representation of a person. Always on show but almost entirely overlooked.
The salient point here, I would argue, is no mere intellectual trinket, because a society that permits the dehumanisation of self makes the dehumanisation of the other easier still and, as we have observed throughout history, the dehumanised other is more readily raped, tortured, cluster bombed and enslaved. As Camus and others have noted, a hundred million dead is little more than maths, an almost Platonic form of slaughter.
However, before we rush off to our bunkers to ride out the apocalypse, it’s worth reminding ourselves that, despite what the news tells us, statistical measures suggest that we may in fact live in the least violent moment in recorded history1. For all the school shootings, suicide bombings and drone strikes, we are (with some notable exceptions) fortunate to live in the most civil, law abiding, physically comfortable conditions in our species’ 300 0002 year existence.
Here again, we find ourselves at a point where contradicting trajectories disturb the societal waters and simple answers are but a dream (or a construction of ideologues and demagogues). The result is a complexity that can seem like chaos. In the absence of easily available answers, is it any wonder people crawl back into the nursery of nostalgia or gravitate towards the handy umbrellas of less ambiguous formulations?
Our brains are lazy, always seeking the shortest route to an efficacious outcome. We sift and sort sense data into edited patterns for the pragmatic purpose of avoiding death, injury and other discomforts (in addition to sourcing sustenance, shelter and sex). This capacity also helps us to co-exist – except that co-existence has now become so complex and abstract that our evolved talent for kith, kin and clan relations is perhaps no longer fit for purpose in a planet-sized tribe. Indeed, for the most part, ideas like ‘humanity’ and ‘Earth’ are themselves little more than dry, intellectual motifs.
Which leaves us where exactly? The most appropriate answer here may well be: who knows; because maybe that’s the core of the problem. Nobody really knows. Some of us pretend we do in order to kid ourselves and/or others, yet perhaps we have become so disoriented, so without a reliable compass, that we have arrived at this juncture, alone in our billions, barely able to recognise one another without name tags – and a name is a reduction.
For the best part of 280 000 years we were a gendered social species adapting to and dealing with concrete social and environmental relationships. We ran away from predators, hunted down other animals, worked out which plants to eat, paid close attention to the seasons, and formed highly networked intra and inter-clan bonds that enmeshed us in a richly personal lattice of tangible inter-dependence. Today, we remain as dependent on the biosphere and on each other as ever; it’s just that now these critical, existential bonds are mostly invisible. Out of sight, out of mind…maybe even out of control.
- Until we looked up from our phones to smell the greenhouse gases, notice the plastic in our drinking water and wonder where the rest of the clan went while our attention was elsewhere.
Now we’re not so sure about all this abstract geometry, this grid that connects our fridges but splits us off from one another – and, as if in ironic rebellion, we throw petrol on the fire and vote for border walls.
Thus, the question is raised: are we seeking to cure the abstract blues with yet more abstraction? Will we seek to re-humanise ourselves simply by exclusion, by shutting out the other, by saying I am not like you? Not white, not black, not PC, not Muslim…not worth the effort.
Pondering this, I wonder now if we have already drifted too far apart. I like to think not, but I do feel it’s a question worth asking, if only to ensure that an adverse answer not become painfully evident. Cos, y’know, human lives matter, right?
1: Although this is still conjectural, folks like Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker and social researcher Bobby Duffy have made this point in order to counteract the widespread and statistically unsupported perception that we are living in the midst of a crime wave or about to be overwhelmed by terrorist atrocity.
2: Bones found in Morocco in 1961 and re-analysed using more modern dating and DNA techniques suggest that our species is somewhat older than the previously accepted 200 000 year estimate.