Every community needs some kind of social “glue” to keep it together. It doesn’t matter how big or small the community is, the glue is always the non-productive, leisurely, intimate, fun aspect of the social connections. The glue has to do with established rites, the festivities of common identity, the acknowledgment of interdependence, culture and games, the repetitive patterns and habits of daily life.
People need to meet, to see and touch each other to reaffirm their feeling of security in their connections. Without this people feel detached, alone, they don’t really belong to the community. No wonder communities are falling apart in the developed world–we have too much e-communication and too little heart communication.
Christopher Alexander wrote it so well in his book A Pattern Language (pg. 629):
The following incident shows how imporatant freedom of movement is to the life of a building. An industrial company in Lausanne had the following experience. They installed TV-phone intercoms between all offices to improve communication. A few months later, the firm was going down the drain–and they called in a management consultant. He finally traced their problems back to the TV-phones. People were calling each other on the TV-phone to ask specific quesitons–but as a result, peope never talked in the halls and passages any more–no more “Hey, how are you, say, by the way, what do you think of this idea…” The organization was falling apart, because the informal talk–the glue which held the organization together–had been destroyed. The consultant advised them to junk the TV-phones–and they lived happily ever after.
This incident happened in a large organization. But the principle is just the same in a small work group or a family. The possibility of small momentary conversations, gestures, kindnesses, explanations which clear up misunderstandings, jokes and stories is the lifeblood of a human group. If it gets prevented, the group will fall apart as people’s individual relationships go gradually downhill.
This reminds me of the story of the cooked frog. If you put a frog in hot water, it will jump out immediately (so they say). But if you put it in cold water and warm the water up gradually, the frog will stay cozy in the water and ultimately get cooked.
The case of TV-phones in the company in Lausanne shows how a company can jump out of the water when a big change takes place quickly. On the other hand, our entire civilization could be used as a case study of the change happening slowly and our communities being cooked to disintegration. Can we imagine today jumping out of the global network of e-communication for the sake of strengthening local communities? Can we see the strength of human connections outside of the internet and mobile phones? Can we transform the electronic communication to something that truly benefits human connections?
The glue of our communities has melted world wide–with or without global warming. We’re atomized, cut down to pieces and unable to really communicate. We have the e-skills, but we lack the skill of being WE. I think the greatest challenge of our time is to rebuild the identity of “us”, the community, the collective being that exists beyond the singularity. There is no I, if there is no WE.
Reestablishing the WE should be the priority of our politics, economics and, ultimately, our common sense. If we fail to do so we might survive as the slaves of a foreign, constructed system which we don’t even understand, but we’ll disappear as a human individuals that strive only as members of meaningful communities.