Wednesday, April 18, 2018


Male chimps grooming (da da da da) on a Sunday afternoon, Via Cooler Insights.

David Brooks ("The Blindness of Social Wealth") begins with a story from Robert E. Hall's This Land of Strangers: The Relationship Crisis That Imperils Home, Work, Politics, and Faith (2012) illustrating how you can you take a concept of "social wealth", understood here as a kind of capital of human relationships, as literal wealth, money in the bank, that you may be able to draw on in a tight financial spot, a share in a company you thought went bankrupt long ago and that turns out to be thriving:
Bob Hall was a rancher. In 1936, in the midst of the Depression, he was suffering from a cancer that was eating the flesh on the side of his face. His ranch had dwindled to nearly nothing, and weeks after bankers took the last of his livestock, Hall died, leaving his family deeply in debt.
His sons pleaded with anybody they could find to make a loan and save the family ranch. No one would do it. Finally, in desperation, they went to their neighbor, Buzz Newton, who was known for his miserliness, and asked him to co-sign a loan. “I always thought so much of your dad; he was the most generous man I have known,” Newton answered. “Yes, I’ll co-sign the note.”
Bob Hall’s grandson, also named Robert Hall, drew out the lesson in his book “This Land of Strangers,” noting: “The truth is, relationships are the most valuable and value-creating resource of any society. They are our lifelines to survive, grow and thrive.”
Which seems like a dubious moral to me; old Bob Hall had saved the ranch for his children not by the strategic investment in relationships but by heedlessly befriending anybody at all—all the decent people he'd been friends with turned the kids down. It was the least likely friend who came through, like the little man in the forest in the old fairy tales who gives the simple-minded third brother woodcutter a treasure in exchange for a charitably offered sandwich. Old Bob Hall wasn't a capitalist of friendship, he was a nice guy.

Anyway social wealth in our society is dwindling, Brooks feels, as evidenced by the the pervasive problem of loneliness (a real problem, by the way, though not as bad as true social isolation, especially among the elderly, which is truly lethal—I mention it because Brooks consistently confuses the two), and is probably all the fault of those damn kids and their smartphones ( citing the same research by psychologist-of-faith Jean Twenge as he did last November, which I felt I was able to dismiss at the time). And he feels it's dwindling in an unfair distribution:
I summarize all this because loneliness and social isolation are the problem that undergird many of our other problems. More and more Americans are socially poor. And yet it is very hard for the socially wealthy to even see this fact. It is the very nature of loneliness and social isolation to be invisible. We talk as if the lonely don’t exist.
The example being that "we" object to Facebook because it threatens our privacy, but the real problem with Facebook is that it makes socially poor people imagine they have friends and spend all their time online. "We" just so you'll know that David F. Brooks himself has plenty of friends.
But the big issue surrounding Facebook is not privacy. It’s that Facebook and other social media companies are feeding this epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. It’s not only that heavy social media users are sadder. It’s not only that online life seems to heighten painful comparisons and both inflate and threaten the ego. It’s that heavy internet users are much less likely to have contact with their proximate neighbors to exchange favors and extend care. There’s something big happening to the social structure of neighborhoods.
Obviously at this point I would normally be trying to explain that this social wealth inequality might just have an explanation other than Facebook, like general inequality, the corporatization of middle-class life and education, the suburbanization of housing, the sheer squeezing of most of us into temporal and spatial peg-holes from which it's increasingly difficult to move around and get to know people, while the economically wealthy have the leisure and mobility to relax in company, in spas and on golf courses and at dinner parties.

But then I was caught short by a familiar name I wasn't expecting Brooks to check:
The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar observes that human societies exist on three levels: the clan (your family and close friends), the village (your local community) and the tribe (your larger group). In America today you would say that the clans have polarized, the villages have been decimated and the tribes have become weaponized.
Oh, question to Radio Yerevan: Is it true that Dr. Dunbar observes that human societies exist on three levels, clan, village, and tribe?

Answer: In principle, yes, but
  • first of all, he names at least six levels, not three;
  • second of all, clans in Dunbar's scheme are around three times the size of villages, not smaller;
  • third of all, the characterization is designed not to name the levels of integration but to establish just how large they are, in what are now called the Dunbar Numbers, as witnessed especially in the study of hunter-gatherer societies, but also some other types of community ancient and modern; and
  • fourth of all, that's only the beginning, covering groups of no more than around 2000 members, since that's about how big hunter-gatherer tribal groupings get, so that the communities Brooks is thinking of in his levels 2 and 3, towns and urban neighborhoods, political parties and nationwide ethnic groupings, aren't considered at all, and the way Brooks is using these terms is entirely unrelated to Dunbar's.
Or (via Agile Elephant)

  • Core group – up to 5 people (family)
  • Close Group – c 15 people (close kinship group)
  • Acquaintance Group – c 50 people (band of related close kin groups)
  • Personal Social Group – c 150 people (bands of common lineage – typical size of a human small village through the ages, and what Dunbar believes is the biggest group of people one Human can have close personal relationships with)
  • Clan or similar organisational entity – c 450-500 people (cohesive sub tribal unit)
  • Tribal Group – c 1500 – 2000 people (a tribe)
So in America today I would say that things started to change around 2000 years ago, when the Eastern Woodlands people began cultivating tobacco and various food products and became capable in theory of maintaining wider cross-territorial groupings of more than 2000 members, but be that as it may. In any case the significance of the central Dunbar Number, that of the 150-person group, would (and according to some research does) hold throughout all human societies, more or less, as a kind of universal feature of what Dunbar thinks human capacity for interaction of a certain intensity consists of ("the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar", as predicted by the size of the human neocortex (which has a direct association with the size of the basic large social group, for all primates).

It just happens that I've been completely enchanted by Dunbar for so many years I'd had time to forget about him, on the account of the book he was working on when he developed these numbers, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (1996), which answered a question that had long puzzled me: why it is that our language seems designed for the earnest transmission of important information but is overwhelmingly used for anything but: oral caresses and aggressions, jokes and complaints, poetry and nervous babbling about nothing. Dunbar's thesis is that talking evolved, as our long-legged, short-armed ancestors moved out of the African forests and into the plains, as an alternative to primate grooming, the typical mutual (rather than hierarchically ordered) manual scratching and combing and delousing of most monkeys and apes, with which they reinforce group solidarity and build a community of trust; humans do the same by talking, and the natural subject of talking, as it develops sufficient richness and complexity, is the interpersonal relationships of everybody in the group: idle gossip, in fact, but it's not idle at all: it creates the groupiness that allows the acquaintance group to function as a team, and that, not information transfer, is what it's meant for.

"Evolutionary psychologists" hate it, naturally, presumably because it doesn't offer a just-so account of the natural dominance of males, and I loved it for a number of reasons, some pretty technical, which I may still try to write up one day; but it occurred to me just now that it provides a bit of an answer to this continual Brooksian complaint about the Internet destroying human relationships.

What the Internet really has become isn't a friend or enemy but an environment in which we function, just as the ancestors functioned in the savannahs (where gnu and zebra wandered prey to teams of humans if the humans could work together successfully). Corporatized life forces us to spend a lot of time with our screens, at school or at work and after, as socially incompetent bosses send us more emails, and at the all-important shopping without which our economy would collapse, and it's in that sense that the Internet isolates us the way the cubicles did 20 years ago; the fourth wall of the browser is where we always are and always alone.

But we're humans after all, and we mess with it. We join interactive games designed purely to addict us, and social media platforms meant to drive us to more shopping, and we improvise community: communities on Facebook and Instagram that duplicate real communities in meatspace, enabling gossip to circulate among people prevented by school and work from seeing each other in person, and DMs for interpersonal; and exotic, partly imaginary communities on Twitter where you can rub shoulders with real and parody presidents alongside intellectual cosplayers like me and eager and very smart kids. The blogging world, which looked kind of moribund a few years ago after the loss of some beloved sites  (T-Bogg and Rumproast, for instance) is now looking kind of strong again—I can't begin to keep up with the sites I want to read any more—and extremely suggestive, if you think about the numbers involved in a place like this, where we probably work with a pool of 1500 to 2000 people who are likely to visit more than once in the course of a given month, 150 to 500 regulars, and 50 who go beyond lurking to be participants. NMMNB is the clan-sized unit where more or less everybody here feels at home. LGM or Alicublog or the Frogpond might be real tribes where 150 people, 50 of them your friends, are occupying the bar at any given moment.

In any case, it's a destructive socioeconomic situation that destroys relationships, not the electronic environment in which it subsists, and it's people demanding to function as autonomous individuals, refusing to work or to shop, who make relationships in spite of the environment. Brooks doesn't get that because he doesn't want people to function as autonomous individuals, but it's just too bad. You're never going to be able to explain it to him. And the younger people, in the meantime, are learning to treat their online and physical relationship-worlds as extensions of each other (a millennial is somebody who comes to your house and texts you instead of ringing the doorbell), and I'm convinced they're going to be all right.

Not that it won't be better, Mr. Brooks, if you and your class learn to share some of the financial wealth, preferably through the tax system. And you can keep your social wealth to yourselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment