‘Man is by nature a social animal.’ So said Aristotle (and many others since him). I’ve always thought the validity of this statement was simple common sense. Until recently, when I found myself stuck in a horrendous traffic jam (even by London standards) on my way home from work. As I observed the human behaviour going on around me, this statement popped into my head and I found myself doubting it for the first time. I could see plenty of evidence for man being an animal, but a social one? Not so much.
Traffic jams, second only to war zones, truly expose humanity at its worst. There’s the sheer selfishness and stupidity of the motorist who drives into a yellow box at a busy junction just as the lights are changing. The mean-spirited pettiness of the driver who refuses to let cars in despite the fact that the lane beside him is about to run into roadworks. The crass obscenity of the man who slams down the horn and sticks two fingers up at his neighbour in retaliation.
In short, this is man at his most anti-social. It makes me wonder whether there really is anything natural about sociability. Modern history is largely a story of our collective retreat from social interaction. As we’ve become more affluent, our lives have become more privatised and ‘home-centred’, our social lives revolving around a select few family and friends while we mostly do our best to avoid contact with strangers.
Pubs, churches and cinemas have notoriously been in decline for decades, unable to compete with the allure of our widescreen TVs, well-stocked wine rack and self-help guides. The super-rich largely buy their way out of society entirely, choosing to live in gated communities and only venturing out into the world when safely behind the blacked out windows of their chauffeur-driven Lexus or Mercedes. If they go to the Football or the Opera, you can rest assured they won’t be sitting with the rest of the great unwashed. (The lamentable rise of skyboxes at baseball games is something Michael Sandel writes about passionately in What Money Can’t Buy, which I’ve referenced on here before). You hear of celebrities having shops closed to the ordinary public just so they can go shopping without risk of an unwanted social encounter.
Given how prevalent these behavioural trends are, you have to wonder whether we would all avoid unplanned social contact entirely if we could afford to. Perhaps, by our nature, we all aspire to be blissfully anti-social.
Despite the fact that I am myself at most times a grumpy anti-social sod, I can’t quite bring myself to believe that the natural state of man is anti-sociability. It seems rather that our nature is being corrupted and at the risk of sounding like a hippie and a Luddite, I think the main culprits are money and technology.
As I’ve already alluded to, the correlation between wealth and anti-sociability is significant. The negative impact of affluence (and its twin, inequality) on social cohesiveness is well documented.
Less attention (as far as I’m aware) has been paid to the role of technology. We worry about the impact our cars are having on the planet and occasionally one sees a scare-mongering headline proclaiming that we’re all probably frying our brains by using mobile phones so frequently or that working with your computer on your lap (where else are you meant to put a laptop?) kills your sperm (in which case I’m becoming less fertile by the minute right now). But for the most part we don’t pay much attention to the way technology affects our behaviour.
I read an interesting piece in the Independent yesterday arguing that using smartphones in bed is one of the main reasons we as a nation have less sex now than we did a decade ago. That’s a pretty stunning behavioural shift resulting from our unthinking adoption of new technology and raises questions about what other side-effects the pieces of kit we take for granted are having.
So what about the social impact of cars? Is it possible that what my traffic jam experience really indicates is not that man is inherently selfish and uncaring of others, but rather that cars make us behave that way? If we had all been on bicycles, would it have been different? Surely if we weren’t so safely cocooned within the air-conditioned bubbles of our personal motor vehicles, we might pay a little more attention to those around us and understand the need to compromise occasionally.
What’s more, cars undermine sociability because they provide us with yet another way to opt out of the kind of social contact with strangers that comes from – god forbid – walking places or taking public transport.
If we’re serious about revitalising our civic life and sense of community (and most politicians at least pay lip service to this ideal, whether it’s the ‘Big Society’ or Blue Labour’s spirit of nostalgic communitarianism), then we need to get serious about the causes of our current anti-sociability. And that includes lots of things that most of us are quite keen on, like money and cars.