Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A human swarm

Americans spend a 3.7 billion hours a year in congested traffic. But you will never see ants stuck in gridlock...The reason may be that the ants have had a lot more time to adapt to living in big groups. “We haven’t evolved in the societies we currently live in,” Dr. Couzin said.
From Ants to People, an Instinct to Swarm - New York Times, Carl Zimmer, Novmber 13, 2007

I often wonder what degree of individualism is desirable if Western society- or indeed human society - is to thrive in the coming century. The Geography of Thought - How Westerners and Asians Think Differently - one of the most interesting of recent salvos in the nature nurture war - posits fundamental differences in decision making processes in Asian and Western societies. Westerners tend to make decisions based on isolated facts and set logical rules whereas Asians put much greater importance in looking at facts within a larger social context. When looking at a picture an Asian will take in the entire scene whereas a Western eye will search out and remember the most prominent objects within the frame.

In a century where world culture will become profoundly more urban and spiraling consumption threatens us with all manner of global catastrophe, will East Asia, with its emphasis on social harmony and context-based decision making, introduce a global value system as vital and controversial to the 21 st century as market capitalism was to the 20th? It could well be that Western economics and technology has built the cities that East Asia will someday show the world how to live in.

But I am not so sure.

What stands out to visitors of East Asian cities is a the lack overall order and planning. Some of this is what makes many of these cities charming - the walkways swarming with street food vendors, the outdoor markets that seem to cropup in even the smallest civic crevices - but the convoluted clogged roadways literally overflowing onto the sidewalks with two-stroke engined motorcycles belching blue smoke into the air; the massive fetid dwellings that seem to be placed in a fashion too indiscriminately to have been built by any conscious human mind - all of this seems not to jive well with the Asian society as a beacon for consensus based solutions to a growing world's ills.

While the family and the village are units that an individual can conceptualize - understanding his place within and seeking to maintain social harmony by assessing context rather then abstract logical constructs - a city is too complex for any individual to ever truly grasp his place or how his limited actions can effect the larger organism. It is when society becomes large and dense enough for the social context to be unknowable that abstract principles and laws become important. And for now the West has the edge on just this type of thinking.

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