Saturday, February 17, 2007


Guest Blog by Carl

I've been thinking lately about society and how it is composed and how communities are formed. To do this, I've been trying to think like a physicist (admittedly, not my strong suit. I barely got a 90 in high school.)

To understand a complex material, scientists will break it down to the smallest logical component: its atoms. We can do the same for societies, to a degree.

Obviously, the smallest component of a society is the individual. All of us have some things in common: we're born, and we die. It is only by dint of circumstance that you're sitting there reading this, rather than being dead, just as it's only by dint of circumstance (and the good work of teams of doctors) that I'm alive to type this.

Each of us walks around in our own universe, in which we are comfortably in charge. In this universe, things go pretty much as we want them to: we work where we want, we buy what we want, we do what we want, we eat what we want, we hear what we want, we comprehend that which we want to be comprehended. For most of us on this planet, that's more than enough. We call these "Republicans".

Kidding! On the square. For most of us, the sense that there's a bigger world out there simply doesn't exist. Even when we deal with other people, we're still in our own little bubble: these are the people we want to deal with. Our bubbles bump together only when we want them to. These tenuous bumps are what create our communities, however. A shared experience, joint vision, communal values.

So the sense that there are other people out there whom we don't interact with is an abstract concept, and to think about how they live their lives requires the use of our imaginations. In concept, I can imagine life on a farm in Russia: it gets very cold in the winter, it can be very isolated, you have a very short growing season, the ground in the spring requires back-breaking effort to till. Families spend a lot of time indoors. They probably get pretty good at card games, and so on.

But do I really know how these people live? No. Of course not. Anymore than I truly understand what it's like to grow up in Appalachia with a single mom who makes a poverty level wage when she can work and yet manages to feed and clothe me and put a roof over my head. Or Harlem. Or the Dominican Republic. Or Africa.

And yet, like the electrons of an atom, I share values with all of these people too. The difference between me and many people in this country and on this planet is I'm aware and bother to think about these things. Doesn't make me superior to anyone else (because this is where liberals get smeared with the "elitist" charge), it merely makes me someone who has a bit more compassion in his heart than someone else, who probably has some other quality I lack (like humility!).

So how do we communicate this information? How do we get our community to care?

Atoms do this using a quantum concept called action at a distance, one of the creepier concepts of particle physics dealing with the immediate transfer of information at speeds apparently faster than light. Read up on it Fascinating stuff. Einstein even called it "spooky" and he should know from spooky.

Societies, however, apparently don't have this available to them (although one suspects that two teenagers in malls miles away who buy the same T shirt thus starting a fad probably qualifies). So we use words, which, as Sting put it "poets, priests, and politicians" have to thank for their positions.

Which raises another point. It's not just information. We get information from the television all the time: what to buy, who to watch, who died. But you'll note that, for this information to be effective, it not only has to be passed along, it has to be passed along by someone who can create an image with it to influence the receiver. Raw data is insufficient for the masses of folks who sit on the couch and absorb without thinking (cf. Republicans)

Which is why I blog. Which is why Lydia blogs. Which is why we are trying to shape the world, one bubble at a time.