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Human Connectedness and ‘”Society'”

June 1, 2009

I was walking up the hill towards home the other day. There was a man walking towards me – slightly older than me I guess. To my unconscious social auto-pilot I now reckon he was a 'probable' – that is, somebody it was worth turning my open face to in the expectation of making eye contact and saying "hello". I don't know him, hadn't seen him before, but he was just of a certain generation…

I was wrong – there was no mutual connection. If anything his social radar tipped him off that I was looking towards him and, it seems, there was an intentional avoidance as we passed – to ensure we didn't connect by accident.

It made me think – as it does when this happens… on the assumption that I wasn't wearing a particularly scary face at the time, or that I am generally intimidating in dress, posture and demeanour.

This isn't what it was like where and when I grew up – and where I live now isn't much different as a place. I'm pretty sure that if I went back to my childhood neighbourhood, similar to this one, I would now get just as high a 'no-contact' score. Don't get me wrong – plenty of strangers say "hello" – but the count is down and seems to be dropping, not least amongst those I consider my generation.., people like me.

If I'm right – and it has something to do with inhibition, less social living, more concentration on small groups of trusted friends and family, fear of confrontation or just lack of experience and confidence in connecting with those we don't know… how does this sit with the supposed explosion in social media, in social networks and sharing, and in all that voting and joining in with Britain's Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing?

Is it that we now connect by proxy? That somehow we can connect at the mind level because our faces and physical presences and social incompetence can't get in the way? Or is it that this is a facile poor substitute for the direct social contact that we are getting less good at, because we do it less – drive to the shopping mall, sit in a personal iPod bubble on the train, work with a small group of people – and deal with the rest by phone and e-mail?

There's plenty of society going on still – of course there is. But I'm interested in the trends and the majorities and how these relate to my personal count of those turned-away faces.

A grand scale argument would be that we are evolving again – into beings who can derive part of our social and mental satisfaction by connecting at a distance, via partial or virtual personae, and that in some ways this may lead to a larger number of deeper relationships – to supplement our 'normal' socialising and family life.

One's first reaction is to think of this as artificial – in particular to wonder whether our physiological and deep cognitive make-up can keep pace with such a change – if change there is – whether this will cause more disfunction and illness through a separation of physical and intellectual presence… a widening of Descartes' dualism.

But then – where do we draw the baseline for 'normal' levels of socialisation for the human species? If our natural programming is still that which works for a large family/small tribe living a semi-nomadic life on the African savannah… were the medieval agricultural fixed settlements of the Middle Ages (let alone the English suburbs and small towns of 'my' 1960s) any more natural to us than a world where we directly encounter few people – treat the rest as economic transactors (shop assistants, restaurant staff…) – and have quite other meaningful relationships with people we rarely or never see in the flesh?

This puts me in mind to do three things:

1. Go looking for whatever constitutes the hard data as regards real world 'connection' between strangers and its relationship to online connections and relationships.

2. Find out more about why campaigns like 'Love where you Live' and 'The Big Lunch' are suddenly cropping up. They bear a striking resemblance to ideas we discussed at UpMyStreet about local connection and the UpMyStreet Party… or UpMyStreet Street Party…

3. Resolve to keep turning my open face to everybody, put up with the disappointment when it's not returned, and refuse to be part of a process of disengagement. (One, that is, I've checked my teeth for spinach…)

Oh – by the way – "Good Morning"  ;0)



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