by Barry Edelson
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The Poisoned Well

For good and ill, the Internet has returned urban
mankind to its small-town roots

When Marshall McLuhan coined the term "global village" to describe how communications technology was making the world smaller, the Internet did not exist. At the time, his predictions were taken by some as a harbinger of a more cooperative world, a hope that humankind would return to the ethos of its agrarian origins and live in greater harmony with the planet and one another. In the context of the Cold War, others saw a darker meaning, a future in which governments could exercise ever greater control over their populations, a small village not of closely connected and like-minded souls but of utterly subjugated individuals, stripped of their rights and their privacy. Both variations of this vision have, to some degree, come to pass, though not in ways that McLuhan could have foreseen.


We Left the Village, but the Village Never Left Us

So dependent have we become on the trappings of civilization and the conveniences of technology that we are easily fooled into forgetting that we were born, and in many fundamental ways remain, a rural species. Our ancestors, like all other creatures, lived off the land. And like many other mammals, we organized ourselves into small groups, sacrificing freedom and individuality for the embrace and protection of the tribe. When we eventually settled into farming communities, the basic social unit remained quite small, and for many thousands of years the hamlet or village was where nearly everyone lived. The circle of acquaintance was never more than a few dozen or a few hundred people, to whom existence was bound literally in blood. Then, a few thousand years ago, at the faintest beginnings of recorded history, agricultural production and the domestication of animals became sufficient to support far larger settlements. The city was born.

Though tiny by contemporary standards, the early city's social dynamic was utterly different from anything mankind had previously experienced. In a town of just a few thousand people, it was no longer possible to know everyone, or to trust those one didn't know. Whereas the roaming band or farming village comprised a single social unit, the city contained competing groups within the same space. Other tribes that once would have lived in distant encampments were now side by side within the tight confines of the town. Naturally, as cities grew larger, social structures became ever more layered and complex, with multitudes of families, tribes and factions, all fighting for relative advantages of power, prestige and property. Cities were equal parts cosmopolitan melting pots and blood-soaked battlegrounds.

With the birth of the city, humanity discovered a precious and previously unknown commodity: privacy. It was now possible to separate the interests and proclivities of one group from those of another, to have "our business" and "their business". While the individual was still deeply bound to family and tribal loyalties, he or she was no longer subject to the same degree of daily observation and judgment by every other member of the community. We do not know to what extent, if any, individuals felt oppressed by the social constraints of living within the closed world of a band of hunter-gatherers or a little farming village; whether there were some, who by nature and temperament, chafed at the unwritten rules and rituals of the group, and whom today we might call rebels or iconoclasts. They could not have felt isolated from the rest of the world when they could scarcely have known that any other world existed but their own. But we do know from the historical record, especially in literature both ancient and modern, that once men and women traded the muddy fields and forests for the stone pavement of the city, intermingled with people who were not their own kin, and found that survival no longer depended entirely on the suffocating confines of family or tribe, the tension between individual expression and group solidarity became a defining and enduring part of the human story.

Grandma Moses
We like to imagine the village like this

With the advent of industrialization, and the growth of very large cities in modern times, the individual's ties to the group have grown ever more tenuous. Over the last two centuries, more people have literally walked away from hamlets and villages to seek opportunity in much larger communities than have moved from one place to another at any other time in the life of our species. We still see this unending dynamic playing out in such places as India and China, where vast numbers of the rural poor, hoping to escape the grinding poverty of the countryside, continue to herd into crowded cities to seek employment in factories and other businesses. While the reason for this migration is largely economic, the social and emotional consequences of leaving small towns behind are as widespread and pervasive as they were when the first walled cities arose between five and ten thousand years ago.

Peter Breughel the Younger
It was really more like this

To be sure, we have never entirely escaped our fundamentally tribal nature. Even in nation-states of massive size, the tendency towards group identity is a powerful social and emotional force. Patriotism and nationalism take the place of, or are grafted onto, family and tribal loyalties. They fulfill our instinctive need to belong, but on a larger scale. Many characteristics with which we stereotype small, isolated towns are also hallmarks of urban societies at large: a chauvinistic attachment to one's own beliefs and way of life, an insistence on conformity, and a distrust of outsiders, leading often to hatred and violence. Learning whom to exclude is as much a part of social development as knowing how to recognize those within one's own circle. What the history of the last century has taught us is that isolation is not just a matter of where one lives, but a state of mind that survives intact from our rural beginnings, and is easily aroused even among apparently "civilized" individuals. Indeed, the very word "civilization" derives from the Latin civitas, meaning town or city. The city therefore has always been, by definition, the origin and center of civilization and culture, even when the conduct of city dwellers falls far short of modern notions of civilized behavior. Without the accumulation of property that made the rise of cities possible, and elevated mere chieftains to kings and emperors, human society would not have had recourse to such horrors as slavery, war, and the subjugation of women. Nonetheless, country folk by default are the ones deemed uncultured and uncivilized, a prejudice widespread throughout the world.

Scene from Black Mirror
And we traded it for this

The duality of our natures, at turns seeking enlightenment and resorting to barbarism, parallels the historical divisions between rural isolation and urban sophistication. This is plainly evident in the way that modern cultures of many nations romanticize, even fetishize, rural life, even as they condemn the small-mindedness of small-town people and belittle country bumpkins lost amid urban chaos. We see this expressed in American political attitudes today, with much traction gained by appealing to the vanity of "real" Americans and condemning "urban elites", notwithstanding the urban and elite upbringings typical of those leveling this criticism. What could be a more apt and obvious expression of the age-old transition from village to city, and of the tensions that accrue between those who leave and those left behind? J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy is a recent evocation of the city/small town divide that the country and its leaders find so difficult to bridge. Our literature since the 19th century has been rife with examples of this cultural tension, beginning with Mark Twain's small-town bigots and Sinclair Lewis's smug pillars of society. By the middle years of the 20th century, the clueless rube at the mercy of city slickers was a familiar Hollywood theme. On how many occasions did Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper play the good-natured fool who is taken for a ride by scheming smart-alecks? That we can so easily picture their befuddled expressions shows how deeply rooted this idea remains in our culture. That the rube always wins the struggle and gets the girl in the end shows exactly where our cultural sentiments remain.

In the modern city, as traditional social bonds gradually lost their hold, privacy evolved into anonymity. Herman Melville, with extraordinary prescience, wrote what is arguably the first story of urban alienation, "Bartleby the Scrivener," in the 1850s. It became evident to some that, by moving from the soul-stifling regimentation of the village to the soul-crushing indifference of the city, people had traded one form of isolation for another. Novels depicting the lives of the well-to-do on both sides of the Atlantic show a different side to this same phenomenon: society's tight control and harsh judgment, which ruin the lives of many characters in the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James, are little different from the small town's tribal imperatives that keep individual aspirations in check. From Jane Austen to John Galsworthy, members of England's moneyed classes continually struggle against the traditions that bind them, as though high society comprised a kind of small town spread across the Empire at large, its unwritten rules understood only too well by all of its inhabitants.


And Now, We Return

All of this would seem far removed from the experience of most contemporary people, Americans in particular. We have vastly greater choices than the members of any society that came before us: what kind of work we do, whom we marry, where we live and what we do with our time. These are all understood to be rights to which we are entitled. All we have to do is read the news from the more remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to understand what tribal life may have once been like for all of mankind. Until very recent times, one's parents and community dictated all of life's choices: you did the sort of work your parents did, you married only someone socially acceptable to them, you lived in the same town, if not the same house, and followed only those pursuits, if any, that the society around you considered permissible. The freedom to chart one's own path, to befriend outsiders, to go and do what one wished — none of this would have been possible without the transformation from village to urban society. True liberty requires privacy, the ability to act on one's own behalf without interference from others. It is highly doubtful that the Founding Fathers, all of them raised upon strict English notions of propriety and family obligation, and Calvinist teachings about work and obedience, would have recognized our idea of liberty at all.

Nonetheless, modern man carved out a space for himself where he could live by his own lights. Some of this new-found liberty is no doubt illusory, and the pull of group solidarity still lingers in the recesses of collective memory, but this hard-won privacy appeared until recently to be highly valued. All of our social and political institutions demand attention to the imperative of individual fulfillment. The Internet, however, has brought into question just how attached we really are to our own privacy. As the digital world proliferates and permeates more and more of our existence, and as more people in more places plug into the electronic web, we are losing the privacy and anonymity which only a few decades ago were seen as great advances in the quality of living. Now, the advent of "social media" has lain bare the weakness of the foundation upon which these liberties rest, and threatens, in short order, to undermine them permanently. Would we really fritter away rights for which mankind struggled for centuries, for which many gave their lives and which are as yet far from universal, for the sake of mere daily convenience? Are we allowing technology to drown our individual natures? Or is there something deeper at work, a tendency towards group behavior that happens to be well matched with the technology of the moment, and towards which we are perhaps unwittingly steering ourselves?

The British/American series Black Mirror strongly advances the latter argument. Each episode dramatizes a profoundly troubling aspect of how technology is taking control of people's lives. While it is ostensibly science fiction, the world of Black Mirror is entirely our own; only the technology is slightly more advanced, making it possible to depict a higher degree of social control. Characters are impelled towards deeply disturbing attitudes and behaviors, and living lives so restricted by online protocol, one gasps at the sacrifice of personal freedom to which they seem so willing to subject themselves. It is frightening because it is so familiar, so easy to envision. In a brilliant stroke on the part of the show's creator, Charlie Brooker, there never appears to be any overarching force dictating the oddly transformed world in which the characters find themselves. This isn't 1984, with its totalitarian crushing of personal freedom and pervasive invasions of privacy. In the cautionary tales of Black Mirror, the subjugation is entirely voluntary. We are doing this to ourselves, and that is the most troubling part of all.

We now live in closer contact with others than has ever been possible. But technology would seem to have removed the one overriding constraint that actually made small-town life tolerable: proximity. In the village, social cohesion depends on people getting along; a fractured group will not long survive. The worst excesses of humanity are mitigated, to some degree, by having to co-exist. It is a truism of modern times that getting to know people is the best way to overcome divisions and promote harmony. To that end, there is a proliferation of organized contacts: transnational talking shops, student exchanges, and so on. But the jury is still out on whether becoming better acquainted with people who are different from us actually makes the world less violent and more secure. After all, most murders are committed at close range by someone the victim knows. Moreover, our tribal instincts are very powerful. With vastly more information available to us than ever before, and more opportunities to discern the truth, we still cling to parochial viewpoints and harbor deep resentments against "others" that are predicated on easily falsifiable ideas. The Internet's ease of communication and its inherent remoteness have proven to be a dreadful combination. It enables cruelty as readily as kindness. Its speed and ubiquity make bullying and harassment impossible to avoid. The child bullied at school, in the past, could run home and close the door behind him. There is no sanctuary on line.

Imagine a society in which the small-mindedness and forced conformity of the small town are merged with the alienation and anonymity of the urban landscape, where social rules are spread and enforced at lightning speed and without the intercession of any governing principles. There are no village elders to adjudicate disputes, nor courts of law where one can regain one's shattered reputation. This is where we are heading now. It is freedom run amok, the rights of individuals subsumed by the law of the jungle, where the jungle is the worst excess of our own depraved imaginations.


Whither Privacy Now?

The abandonment of small-town life in favor of the city represents one of the most profound changes in the long story of human migration and social development. How peculiar that the World Wide Web, an advanced technology that is itself a direct product of urban dynamism, has wrenched us back to the small-town existence on which we expended so much effort attempting to put it behind us. Whether McLuhan was a prophet or a naive fool has been debated ever since he came on the scene. But wise or unwitting, he seems to have stumbled upon a truth that for some reason is stubbornly elusive: that mankind, for all his advancements, can never escape his tribal identity. When faced with the slightest perception of danger, we instinctively huddle around the campfire for support and protection, either literally or metaphorically. For many, the Internet is now our campfire. It is where we find our own kind, search for reassurance, connect with the like-minded. We are not deterred by the viciousness and thievery that permeates the web, somehow imagining that if we don't see it on our screens, even if we know it's lurking somewhere out there in the dark, it does not affect us.

But the cesspit of degeneracy that characterizes so much of cyberspace is not something that only hurts us when we randomly encounter it, like the bad luck of running into a mugger as we turn the corner. It defiles the entire social fabric, and does so with a speed and efficiency that the tribal animal within us cannot properly adapt to. We are day by day surrendering our privacy and getting very little of value in return. It may feel like freedom to shop and pay one's bills online, share photos with friends, adjust the thermostat at home from hundreds of miles away, and look up trivia that's keeping you awake at night. But you are not free when you are tracked every minute of your life by rapacious corporations, online gangsters and over-powerful governments. Both of these experiences are equally real, and either one, if it goes awry, has the potential to command or end your life. We have returned not to a real village, but a virtual one. And in a virtual world, rights and freedoms are virtual, too.

July 29, 2017


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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.