Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Tower of Babel Phenomenon - Part 2

Continued from here.

In addition to the disconnection from nature that a mass aggregation of humans living in an area necessarily involves, there is also the unexpected effect of the isolation and alienation of people from one another. It is a counter-intuitive effect because it would seem to be that where there are more people, individuals will feel more connected and more social. Yet, observation of actual human behavior and interaction reveals a very different effect. This alienation is caused by several powerful factors, working in conjunction with each other.

One vastly noticable difference between highly-populated areas and and less-populated areas is the general demeanor of people. In larger cities and more urban environments, people are generally more aloof, distant, hurried, busy, and even uncaring. In smaller places, people are much more likely to be friendly, relaxed, genuine and interested. This isn't simply an American phenomenon. Even in countries such as Romania, Nicaragua or Columbia, the difference in general demeanor correlated with population density can be witnessed. Economic theory explains that things are valued relative to their scarcity. That which is relatively plentiful is not valued as highly as that which is more scarce. As such, it follows that when there are vast quantities of people, each one seems less valuable, less interesting and less important, on average. Similarly, where there are fewer people, fewer potential friends, fewer potential lovers and fewer potential business partners, each individual is perceived as more valuable and more important.

Another part of living in a Tower of Babel area is the relative anonymity that accompanies such a life. In a lower-density area, there is a higher level of connectivity. In smaller towns or communities, everyone knows everyone else and everyone else's family. In highly populated areas, you can easily go out without seeing anyone you know. Unless you frequent a local venue, there are numerous places you can go where everyone is a stranger. Additionally, people are generally regarded as individuals rather than as part of a family. You can have friends you've known for quite a while and never have met their families. You may have little knowledge or connection with the family of a significant other. These factors combine to offer higher incidences of feeling disconnected and isolated for those who live in urban places. There are often times when people feel (and not completely without validity) that no-one truly knows them or cares about them.

Similarly, because of the increased focus on individuality instead of collectivity, most of the groups and communities that urbanites participate in are synthetic groups rather than natural groups. Synthetic groups are ones that are formed by individuals on the basis of similar interests, hobbies, pursuits, values or outlooks. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with synthetic groups, there is a danger of being involved in too many synthetic groups and too few natural groups. Natural groups are ones that are more transcendent, binding individuals together based primarily on blood relationships and geographical location. Natural groups typically consist of people with a broad variety of characteristics, with a higher degree of natural divergence than synthetic groups, which tend to be more homogenized.

The higher incidence of participance in synthetic groups and the rarity of high levels of participation in natural groups results in a socially smaller world, even for those people who are very socially connected in a high-density environment. G.K. Chesteron expresses such a sentiment in his book, Heretics. He writes:
It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.
For these many reasons, it is thoroughly evident that not only is the Tower of Babel phenomenon an evil one because it invariably involves a disconnection from nature, it also is an evil one because it causes very real social and personal harm to those who live in close proximity to too many other people. It promotes a mindset that devalues people and views them as unimportant, uninteresting and thoroughly replaceable. It disconnects people from naturally-emergent community and leaves them on their own devices to connect socially. It reduces personal accountability through the relative anonymity of the urban environment. It fosters a general attitude of distrust, avoidance and apathy towards strangers rather than allowing the natural attitudes of curiosity, friendliness and genuineness to grow and flourish. And it encourages people to live in a relatively small world consisting primarily of homogenized synthetic groups, rather than offering the wisdom and breadth of natural groups and communities based on blood relation and geographic location. In short, urbanization isolates and disconnects people from one another.


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