In a previous e-mail, I discussed various possible root causes of the decline in social engagement and community participation along with the potential consequences.  I also discussed the benefits of community participation and how we can use community dining as a vehicle to become more socially engaged and have more face-to-face interactions.

I now want to focus on the difference between communities and networks and how not to get fooled into thinking a network represents a community as discussed in Brett and Kate McKay’s insightful article on this subject.  I had touched upon this distinction briefly when citing former public school teacher of the year and author John Taylor Gatto’s thoughts on how we are lonely because we live in networks rather than communities.  But what does it mean to live in a network and how can we become aware of how our environment affects our behavior and development?

Gatto elaborates in his book “Dumbing Us Down – The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling”:

Networks, even good ones, drain vitality from communities and families.  They provide mechanical solutions to human problems, when a slow organic process of self awareness, self discovery, and cooperation is what is required if any solution is to stick.  Aristotle saw, a long time ago, that fully participating in a complex range of human affairs was the only way to become fully human.  Networks, however, don’t require the whole person, but only a narrow piece.  If you function in a network, it asks you to suppress all the parts of yourself except the network-interest part – a highly unnatural act although one you can get used to.  In exchange, the network will deliver efficiency in the pursuit of some limited aim.  This is, in fact, a devil’s bargain, since on the promise of some future gain, one must surrender the wholeness of one’s present humanity.  If you enter into too many of these bargains you will split yourself into many specialized pieces, none of them completely human.  And no time is available to reintegrate successful networkers and doubtless generates much business for divorce courts and therapists of a variety of persuasions.”

We may not all read about the differences between networks and communities, but I believe we do inherently know when someone only shows a narrow interest in us and when we are in a setting where we only need people for a certain function.  Granted, sometimes a network can be useful and efficient, such as when we need a referral for a mechanic to fix our car or an attorney to help us with a legal issue, but is there a cost to using networks as a substitute for communities that is not readily apparent as Gatto mentioned?

When I see a mechanic, attorney, or another service provider, for example, I only think of these people in terms of what I need.  I do not see them as people in the way that Brett and Kate McKay describe:

“There’s no identity splintering in a community.  Yes, you may have the role of town barber, but people don’t treat you merely as a barber in one-off transactions.  They treat you as Bill — husband to a wife with terminal cancer; father of three beautiful children; cantankerous man who’s capable of immense kindness; devout and dedicated deacon in his church who also happens to be a free-thinker.  Oh, and you cut men’s hair for a living.

When a person suffers a crisis in a community (say for instance a debilitating accident), the community comes to help the whole person.  Food is brought over; yard work is done; rooms are cleaned; hats are passed around; spiritual and emotional comfort is given.  The same person steeped in network living would have to depend on paying strangers specialized in different areas to get the same sort of help: a cook, a house cleaner, a yard worker, and a therapist.”

What if, instead of having to join a networking group to have access to everything I need, I could just turn to my community who meets regularly in a physical space and would actually notice if I was gone and help me if I was sick or had an emergency?  Gatto describes this “what if” – a community – as “a place in which people face each other over time in all their human variety, good parts, bad parts and all the rest.  Such places promote the highest quality of life possible, lives of engagement and participation.”

He also offers more insights and questions:

“Who can deny that networks can get some jobs done?  They do.  But they lack any ability to nourish their members emotionally.  The extreme rationality at the core of networking is based on the same misperception of human nature the French Enlightenment and Comte were guilty of.  At our best, we human beings are much, much grander than merely rational, at our best we transcend rationality while incorporating its procedures into our lower levels of functioning. This is why computers will never replace people, for they are condemned to be rational, hence very limited.

Networks divide people, first from themselves, and then from each other, on the grounds that this is the efficient way to perform a task.  It may well be, but it is a lousy way to feel good about being alive.  Networks make people lonely.  They cannot correct their inhuman mechanism and still succeed as networks.  Behind the anomaly that networks look like communities (but are not) lurks the grotesque secret of mass schooling and the reason why enlarging the school domain will only aggravate the dangerous conditions of social disintegration is it intended to correct.”

“If the loss of true community is not noticed in time, a condition arises in the victim’s spirit very much like the ‘trout starvation’ that used to strike wilderness explorers whose diet was made up exclusively of stream fish. While trout quell the pangs of hunger and even taste good, the eater gradually suffers from want of sufficient nutrients.”

I never actually considered that my own feeling of disconnectedness in a world that has become increasingly network-driven may actually date all the way back to my experience in the compulsory public school system that by design promotes efficiency and blind obedience to external authority rather than substance and enlightenment.  Yes, I developed friendships, some of which I still maintain today, but everything about the environment that compulsory schooling created, from being forced to learn in predetermined time allotments, to being separated from my peers by age, to only studying subjects approved by the state, to not even being able to use the bathroom without a pass or some kind of permission slip (seriously, how do sane people not question this subordination of will?!), instilled a feeling of being a robot on an assembly line whose purpose was to efficiently accomplish tasks passed down from a central authority whose rules had no connection to the needs of its subjects.  What is the point of striving for efficiency when this desire ultimately leaves you empty?

To provide an example, I still remember my fourth grade teacher regularly admonishing me for not listening in class.  The boredom that I felt from being forced to read from a book that I had no interest in continually lead my mind to wander, and when being called on to read a passage, various times I would not have my book open to the correct page.  Each time this conflict arose, my teacher did nothing but tell me to improve my listening skills (once in front of the entire class!) rather than show the slightest interest in me as a human being and my learning style (primarily internal auditory in case anyone was curious – precisely NOT the kind of learner who processes information from a lecture).  Yet I do not blame my teacher, as she was just doing her job in a system that treated her in the same way she treated me.  I just didn’t fit the national plan of categorizing, indexing, and controlling she sought to enforce, so she didn’t know what do to other than castigate me.

So the question I now ask is:

How can any human being develop a sense of self-efficacy and inner fulfillment and gain the emotional nourishment that being part of a community naturally provides when an institution so disconnected from the needs of the individuals who comprise it prevents us from making even the most basic decisions regarding how we spend our time?  Or maybe that’s just the point.

Gatto further explains the harm that networks cause:

“I want to repeat this until you are sick of hearing it. Networks do great harm by appearing enough like real communities to create expectations that they can manage human social and psychological needs. The reality is they cannot.  Even associations as inherently harmless as bridge clubs, chess clubs, amateur acting groups or groups of social activists will, if they maintain a pretense of whole friendship, ultimately produce that odd sensation familiar to all city dwellers, of being lonely in the middle of a crowd. Which of us who frequently networks has not felt this sensation.  Belonging to many networks does not add up to having a community, no matter how many you belong to or how often your telephone rings.

With a network, what you get at the beginning is all you ever get.  Networks don’t get better or worse.  Their limited purpose keeps them pretty much the same all the time, as there just isn’t much development possible.  The pathological state which eventually develops out of these constant repetitions of thin human contact is a feeling that your “friends” and “colleagues” don’t really care about you beyond what you can do for them, that they have no curiosity about the way you manage your life, no curiosity about your hopes, fears, victories, defeats.  The real truth is that the “friends” falsely mourned for their indifference were never friends, just fellow networkers from whom in fairness little should be expected beyond attention to the common interest.

But given our unquenchable need for community and the unlikelihood of obtaining that community in a network, we are so desperate for any solution and are driven to deceive ourselves about the nature of these liaisons.  Whatever “caring” really means, it means something more than simple companionship or even the comradeship of shared interests.”

Gatto has articulated what I never could quite so clearly:  that so many people I have connected with over the years don’t meet the criteria of a true friend, and that many of these same people likely (and rightfully) view me the same way because we are all simply part of each others’ network, where we only share parts of ourselves for limited mutual gain while sacrificing deeper human contact that ultimately provides greater personal growth.  What if my focus would have been on creating a life based on sharing my entire self rather dividing myself into networks?  What would the world look like it we all had this focus – one in which I argue inherently exists within us but has been largely stamped out by an increasingly planned society?  It’s interesting to think about how I came to live my life this way and the effect it has had on me and those around me.

So when I bring up the concept of community dining and connecting with others through consciously sourced food, community, and meaningful conversations and see the way people react, it seems like I’ve touched a nerve, and that for this reason, the pervasiveness of networks lacking substance and promoting only thin human contact fail to provide true fulfillment.

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has a similar view, but from a bit different perspective and background.  Through his research, he determined a connection between the average brain size and the number of social relationships humans can maintain, and that this number for us is about 150.  However, even with the growth of social media that allows us to keep in touch with far more than 150 people, the number of relationships we can handle still remains the same.  While being able to keep up with so many people who would otherwise have disappeared from our lives can have real benefits and give us the feeling of being more connected, does this benefit come at a greater cost of sacrificing the face-to-face interaction that we need to fully develop as human beings?

As Dunbar pointed out in an interview with the New Yorker, “In the sandpit of life, when somebody kicks sand in your face, you can’t get out of the sandpit. You have to deal with it, learn, compromise,” he said. “On the internet, you can pull the plug and walk away. There’s no forcing mechanism that makes us have to learn.”

So what can we learn from all of these insights and questions?  Perhaps that large and impersonal groups do not inherently harm us, but substituting these large groups for the challenges, benefits, and growth opportunities of interpersonal relationships that require sharing a greater part of ourselves can do long term damage.  To illustrate, a recent study published in Psychological Science indicates that gossip and ostracism, while seen as harmful behaviors, can actually promote cooperation in groups, but as social sciences writer at Stanford News Clifton B. Parker asks, “What if if gossiping and ostracism were impossible?” 

As our world becomes more dominated by impersonal networks of much greater than 150 people where social bonds disintegrate, self-correcting forces such as gossip and social ostracism can no longer promote cooperative behavior.  Services like Yelp do fill some of this void, but only in the sense of keeping networks more honest.  They do not fully make up for the absence of these invisible self-correcting forces that hold communities together.