Saturday, January 26

Book: Strangers in a Strange Land

I picked up Strangers in a Strange Land: Humans in a Urbanizing World to get an academic sociologist's perspective on the urban condition. The book is really four books in one: part Steven Pinker-style reduction of the human experience to cognitive science, part Jared Diamond-style outline of the environmental forces acting on all of human history, part overview of modern sociological perspectives on urbanism, and then ending with an essay on the problem of socio-economic inequality.

The main point here is that humans have evolved within small groups organically connected with the natural world, and human nature has remained fixed ever since. The process of urbanization has jolted us out of our appropriate environment into large macro-social groupings, rendering us "strangers in a strange land." Put simply, we should all be hunters and gatherers, but we find ourselves in this world of cities. This incongruity is the source of a majority of our problems.

For most of the book, Massey writes as if this is the inevitable result of urbanization. Our ancient ancestors tended to be egalitarian and cooperative within small kinship groups, but the onset of a food surplus and technological advances created larger sociological systems. Within this new urban world, relationships are formed mostly on the level of hierarchies of authority or market transactions. This trend has only continued as human civilization has advanced and become more complex. The account has an almost Marxist quality in its commitment to a deterministic materialism.

Massey does not pretend to offer many solutions. Although he does argue in the final chapter quite forcefully that the only way to avoid outright class warfare caused by urbanism is to impose a strong central government to force people to redistribute wealth and deconcentrate poverty. Still this suggestion has only the feel of a provisional counterbalance, and its moral appeal is lessened by the fact that it is simply tacked on to the end of an entirely amoral account of how we arrived at where we are.

I accept his argument that humans have a hard time processing the sheer quantity of relationships that the modern world affords (although I would call into question whether this varies much from rural to suburban to urban modern societies). It's true that economic inequality, all forms of social segregation, and a focus on individual autonomy have probably been the results the changes that he describes. And these are issues that need to be addressed. Yet there is also something that feels deeply human about cities. The vibrant source of human innovation seems to fit well with our innate drive to be creative. Cities allow us to share the limited common resources of land and energy, and they offer physical expressions of our instinct to group together to solve problems. In many other ways, isolated groups wandering through the wilderness are the ones that seem like strangers in a strange land.

Somehow, we seem to have originated in a garden, and at the same time we are headed toward a city. Neither of these expressions of our character can be pinned down as the definitive expression of human nature. That's just the tension we live in.

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