Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Belonging

Among the people whom I know best, one of their greatest concerns is that they don't feel that they belong to any particular group. I think the need to belong is hard-wired into us and is a manifestation of our eusocial nature, as discussed earlier. We have evolved to live in cooperative groups, and if we're not integrated into one we are likely to feel uneasy, because it was once impossible to survive alone. A genetic predisposition for a solitary life is weak in our gene pool, because over hundreds of thousands of years it tended to result in early death.

Even though I am a relatively solitary person myself, I also have a need to belong, and it used to affect my decisions more than it does now. In my early years I thought that I might fit in well in a college environment, but I eventually determined that I am too independent and unscholarly for academia. I moved to Oregon in 1975 with the hope that the local culture would agree with me better than it had in the Midwest or the East Coast. It didn't. By the time I moved to Vermont in 2011, my view was that I was unlikely to fit in anywhere, and the decision to move here did not assume that I would find friends or like-minded people, and in fact I haven't and don't expect to.

You could also describe some aspects of my recent forays into the Internet as efforts to connect with specific groups of people. In that sense the efforts were of no avail. I eventually discovered that Internet communities are transient and often illusory. Besides that, they can be downright unpleasant, because it is a place where people can behave uncivilly with little or no consequence. As discussed, the New York Review of Books left me with the impression that it serves the needs of a small number of people who aren't necessarily cohesive themselves, and there is no evidence that they care about anything beyond their individual needs. Incongruously, the NYRB, which supposedly promotes ideas, has no apparent interest in the discussion of ideas or the public who wish to participate in it. From the standpoint of belonging, the Internet has been no different from my previous life experience. In effect, I have withdrawn to my own blog with no expectation of group participation, except perhaps on a minuscule level with a small number of readers. If the readership ever went up, the blog could easily be ruined.

Since we live in a capitalistic society, I should also mention that the widespread need to belong creates economic opportunities. A fairly large percentage of TV programming amounts to nothing more than a substitute for an actual social life. It took a while for TV executives to figure it out, but by the 1960's sitcoms and talk shows had become staples. Talk shows have changed little since then, but sitcoms have expanded broadly into the miniseries and reality TV formats. Network news is now far less devoted to actual news than to infotainment and feel-good moments. Most of this programming places an emphasis on providing an artificial sense of community. Its very existence can be attributed to profit motives that have nothing to do with artistic value, as I often complain. Because families and friends are often geographically separated and fragmented by contemporary living conditions, the media cater to them by providing substitute products to satisfy that basic human need.

The exploitation doesn't end there. Professional and amateur sports could never exist as dominantly in American society as they do without someone promoting their expansion. Team sports are quintessentially about group affiliation, and by association they become monopolies over large geographic areas. For example, I'm supposed to be a Boston Red Sox fan even though I live in a different state, about 200 miles away, and don't care about baseball. Likewise, colleges and universities have figured out how to use sports to generate funding directly through sporting events and indirectly through alumni giving stimulated by sports. They have also recently expanded their marketing to alumni by encouraging them to retire in or near their campuses, providing an even more concrete sense of community.

With advances in technology, it is beginning to become a little frightening to think about what might happen if current trends in the creation and marketing of artificial communities continue. It is easy to imagine younger people who have grown up in a digital environment inhabiting virtual communities tailored to fit their personalities and interests. Prima facie, given the plasticity of the human mind, I see no reason why people couldn't learn to live in the complete absence of actual human contact if suitable artificial substitutes were provided. As for myself, I am satisfied to inhabit the more traditional world in which I have created an imaginary relationship with the mostly invisible readers of this blog.

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