Humans escaped Africa by working together. Small tribes of people shared knowledge, tools, food, and love. This altruism is the key factor in humanity’s dominance over all of nature. None of us is as strong as all of us, a concept only shared by colonies of insects in the wild. We worked hard to get where we are today, and most importantly, we worked together. This is true in every society, in every culture, all across history. Altruism is the single most important factor in our survival, more than any amount of intelligence, any number of weapons, or any development in agriculture. Nowadays, however, we don’t live in tribes. We don’t live in communities that have to work together for survival. It’s perfectly possible and incredibly common for people to get along just fine without knowing anyone in their neighborhood. My parents didn’t have any friends. Friends and the like are for school, where you’re forced to rub up with other people and navigate socially. Once you’re done with schooling, all you have to deal with is co-workers, who you don’t get to choose. There’s no reason to make friends, so many people don’t. And why should they? Having friends is tough. There is all sorts of interpersonal drama inevitable with any size of group. You can avoid any of that altogether by simply not having friends. You can’t be disappointed if you don’t care about anyone enough to expect things from them.
That’s the world we live in today, here in suburban middle class America at least. Social interaction is voluntary and altruism outdated. Only here in this society, only here in this culture will you hear the idea that humans are all “competing” or that we’re all “ruthless motherfuckers who would stop at nothing for want of some resource” or the idea that humans are “inherently selfish.” It’s not surprising. We live in a culture that gives us the luxury of being selfish, but without significant moral or historical grounding for this attitude, so we start making the assumption that it’s just a base part of human nature and we selectively cherry-pick examples from nature or history or biology to support this simply so that we can justify our culture to ourselves. It’s not that we’re heartless. It’s not that we’ve stopped being altruistic. We just don’t live in a time or a place that supports it. Americans grow up and get out of high school and typically leave their homes and travel some fairly large distances away from their families and hometowns. We have to. We need to go where the jobs are to make a living. Our locality is determined by the fiscal potential of a place, much like nomads traveling the desert in search of oases. The difference is that now it is just you traveling, not your family or your tribe. So communities are destroyed simply by dint of necessity. It’s not a new thing, not at all. Here is a Time article from 1972 covering a book discussing exactly that. The author mentions that his closest relative is 110 miles away. How close is your family? I have two living relatives within fifty miles. Every other one is at least 300 miles away.
So here we have a situation that is anathema to the very functioning that humans developed to survive. It’s being held together by artificial concepts like money and the over-emphasis of very real concepts like individualism, but it’s not enough, and people know that. Have you ever wondered why high school musical is so popular that they went back in time and made a prequel called grease? Have you ever heard the phrase “high school was the best 4 years of my life?” What makes high school so magical and different? It’s the community. It’s the fact that everyone knows everyone else. That jokes can be shared across a huge body of people because they’re all familiar with the subject matter. That the people you see are the same people you’re going to see for the next four years. It is magical. It is totally outside the scope of adult experience. Like it or not, here in America and now at this time, you’re not likely to experience anything like it ever again. Sometimes I describe Las Positas as “high school part 2.” It would be true, except that there is no real sense of attachment to LasPo. Even at the larger schools, unless you’re in a fraternity or a member of dozens of clubs, the experience is just a hollow mockery of what high school was. People realize that. That’s why high school is so thoroughly fetishized in our culture. That’s why ridiculous things like alumni clubs, yearbooks, reunions, letter jackets, and all that stuff exist. When you get a job, you don’t take a lot of pictures and conglomerate your experience into a book every year. If you’re lucky there may be an employee of the month program or the occasional snacks in the breakroom.
So we do realize that we need community. We realize it to the point of worship. And we do try our best. There are dozens of clubs and groups and hangout spots even here in Livermore, all trying to keep a membership going and find people with similar interests to do stuff with. Heck, before it became over-saturated thanks to starbucks and its ilk, coffeeshops used to be a major hangout for the literati. But none of these are working, because not enough people care or are aware of their existence or are too scared to try or they simply don’t like and don’t trust strangers. That’s understandable; strangers are pretty much the most horrifying thing you’ll meet on a day to day basis. Other people walking around with the free agency and potential to kill you are good enough reason for many to stay in. But even so, everyone wants to “be a part of something,” even if that something is hating strangers. Humans are incredibly community oriented. What’s stopping us is not internal or mystical or interesting, it’s just simple geography. We live too fucking far from each other.
That’s not really new either. We spread across the U.S. pretty quick and spaced ourselves out quite a lot, under the (correct) assumption that the land would be totally worth something someday. For a long time, we didn’t have any real way of distant communications. There was the mail, which you could get on trains and such, but that still took a fairly large amount of time and was largely unavailable to most folks until the middle to late 19th century. Then we invented the telegraph, which was just like mail, but faster and shorter. It was rare and not particularly widespread until we ended up building lines all over the place. Good timing too, because we invented the telephone shortly after, which used those lines. And woah. Suddenly you’re hearing voices from the other side of the country. The phone played and still plays a huge role in the American life today. It has long since displaced mail as the primary method through which families keep in touch. It’s just something about hearing the human voice. Now we have the internet.
The internet blows the doors open for non-local interactions. It took all of our previous methods of communication, combined them, and added more. Want to send a letter? Send an e-mail. Want to have a chat with someone? Use any of the dozens of voice transmission services available for free. Want to post on a bulletin board for people in your area? Craigslist. Want to make friends with people who have similar interests? Join one of the hundreds of thousands of internet forums or BBSs. Hell, just want to talk to strangers and see their faces? Chatroulette is but one of several websites that do just that. Want to share the stuff you do with your time? Take your pick of twitter, facebook, tumblr, livestream, whatever. It’s amazing. This is where it’s at. These forums are communities, with personalities, drama, crises, all of the things that would affect a community in real life. Even better, these communities are totally voluntary unlike early human tribes, so you can be certain to find people who actually do think like you or share your interests. And if it upsets you, you can simply walk out without the bothersome worry of dying in the wild. At last we have overcome the problems of distance and isolation. At last we have transcended the physicality of our bodies and discovered a new locality, one that is not limited by petty things like “proximity” or “propinquity.”
In the end, though, it’s me sitting here with my laptop. Mern, as much as I love her, is just a blinking icon and some text and some low resolution video. Ina is a girl who I might have met once but I probably wouldn’t recognize in real life. Emily is a shout “hey you” and a fleeting glance. Both Gavins are just static pictures and interesting conversations to me. Ryan is an identity on a forum I was banned from plus some pictures. Adam is a guy I met based solely on his putting his aim screenname on 4chan. None of these people are “real” to me in any traditional sense. No matter how complicated and thorough interactions on the internet become, they’ll never be the same as being physically near someone. No matter how many quizzes are taken and pages liked, who you are on the internet is still a grossly distorted version of who you are in person. Many are comfortable with this facsimile, just as many use it only as a supplement to their “real” lives. It fills a need, even if not as satisfactorily as it could. Socialization lite, now without the potential anguish of a “Real” relationship. Still, physicality exists. Still, locality is a barrier. Still, I am trapped here in myself.