“Cities: How Crowded Life is Changing Us”

Here are some insights into how the large concentrations of people in major cities could be changing human beings:

The sheer concentration of people attracted by the urban lifestyle means that cosmopolitan cities like New York are host to people speaking more than 800 different languages – thought to be the highest language density in the world. In London, less than half of the population is made of white Britons – down from 58% a decade ago. Meanwhile, languages around the world are declining at a faster rate than ever – one of the 7,000 global tongues dies every two weeks.

It is having an effect not just culturally, but biologically: urban melting pots are genetically altering humans. The spread of genetic diversity can be traced back to the invention of the bicycle, according to geneticist Steve Jones, which encouraged the intermarriage of people between villages and towns. But the urbanisation occurring now is generating unprecedented mixing. As a result, humans are now more genetically similar than at any time in the last 100,000 years, Jones says.

The genetic and cultural melange does a lot to erode the barriers between races, as well as leading to novel works of art, science and music that draw on many perspectives. And the tight concentration of people in a city also leads to other tolerances and practices, many of which are less common in other human habitats (like the village) or in other species. For example, people in a metropolis are generally freer to practice different religions or none, to be openly gay, for women to work and to voluntarily limit their family size despite – or indeed because of – access to greater resources.

The biggest takeaway from this in my mind is the reminder that the megacities of today are relatively recent in the scale of human history. Outside of the last 150 years or so, at only a few points in human history has a city or two had a million people. Cities have been very influential throughout history, whether in Rome, Constantinople, Baghdad, or elsewhere, but today’s scale and rate of growth is astounding.

I also wonder if seeing these kinds of changes won’t really be fully known for a couple of hundred years where we can then look back and see that the changes in cities starting in the 1800s really altered human life. At the same time, plenty of learned people have noted the changes that started taking place in European life in particular in the late 1700s and early 1800s, from the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution. The more I have thought about it, the more I’ve become convinced that sociology’s origins are intimately tied to these changes in urban life.

Quick Review (recent reads): The Social Animal, Love Wins, Connected, In the Garden of Beasts, Heat Wave, Travels with Charley

As the summer ended and school started, I was able to get through a backlog of intriguing books. Here are quick thoughts on this varied collection:

1. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. I thought I might not like the “story” that Brooks uses to convey research findings but I found it a helpful way to think about the growing body of research about how our brains and emotions affect our lives. Overall, I like Brook’s argument that we should pay more attention to the British Enlightenment than the French Enlightenment emphasis because of how much humans are truly influenced by their emotions and subconscious and not just reason and rationality. I’m not quite sure what Brooks wants us to do with this information in the end (and why use the term “the big shaggy” to describe our subconcious?) but I do enjoy Brooks skewering certain groups in hilarious paragraphs that mirror some of his commentary in earlier books like Bobos in Paradise. And perhaps I’m required to say this as a sociologist but I think Brooks gives short shrift to the role of culture plays in shaping the subconscious. (See a preview post about the book here.)

2. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell. This book created quite a stir in evangelical circles earlier this year as some, like John Piper, essentially kicked Bell out of their circles. On the whole, I would say the book is uneven: some chapters are quite orthodox in their understanding of God, love, and evangelism while other chapters stray and Bell is not as careful with his words as he pushes boundaries. Also, the book seems aimed less at the general population and more at disaffected evangelicals, an interesting group to address, who can’t come to grips about their beliefs about hell rather. Taking a broader view, the book and the debate around it illustrates several interesting sociological issues: subcultures and drawing symbolic boundaries about who is in and out as well as the how theology and culture influence each other. As a follow-up, I ran into these two videos: MSNBC’s Martin Bashir asks Bell some tough questions (considering the issue of media types asking people about religion, Bashir’s Wikipedia profile includes a quote saying he is a “committed Christian”) in contrast to a fluffier interview with George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America.

3. Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler. This text could serve as a general audience introduction to the study of social networks. Many of the examples in the book are physiological as these researchers are known for their work on how things like obesity, emotions, and diseases are spread throughout social networks. The takeaway of the book: three degrees of separation is what connects us (those are your friends of friends of friends) and the actions and emotions of those people trickle down to us. I like the emphasis on how people seemingly beyond our immediate control have an influence on us.

4. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. This book provides a look at Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s through the eyes of American ambassador William Dodd and his daughter Martha. The story of Germany is of course fascinating: Hitler consolidates power while hardly anyone inside or outside the country challenges him. However, Dodd and his daughter figure it out but they are marginalized, Dodd because he won’t live the opulent lifestyle most US ambassadors were accustomed to and Martha because of her romantic forays and developing ties to the USSR. Even though you know the outcome of the larger story, the story is still interesting as an American academic tries to sound the alarm about the rising tide of Nazism.

5. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg. I’ve been meaning to read this for some time as it concerns the 500+ deaths that occurred as the result of a heat wave in Chicago in 1995. Klinenberg performs a “social autopsy,” looking at the various factors and institution involved in the situation. The elderly who were alone were susceptible, particularly in neighborhoods without much street life, the morgues were unprepared, the media was behind in covering the story, and the City of Chicago and Mayor Daley tried to pass the blame. A lot went wrong in this situation, leading to one of the most deadly natural disasters in American history. (Perhaps this book was ahead of its time in looking at the sociology of disasters.)

6. Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck. I like Steinbeck and regard The Winter of Our Discontent and East of Eden as two of the best books I have read. However, this travelogue seems the opposite of his best novels: Steinbeck rambles around the country and offers some disconnected commentary. It seemed like he was trying to not do what he does in his novel: offer sweeping stories with big points about American life and culture. The only part that really grabbed my attention: Steinbeck passed through New Orleans during protests against the integration of New Orleans’ schools in 1960 (immortalized in a Norman Rockwell painting President Obama recent selected to hang in the Oval Office) and talked with some of the residents.

The age of “neophilia”

A new book cites a sociologist who says we are in a world of “neophilia”:

We are addicted to new products, say Botsman and Rogers. They cite Colin Campbell, a professor of sociology at the University of York, for the diagnosis – that we suffer from ‘neophilia,’ where novelty seeking is the new phenomenon. “Pre-modern societies tend to be suspicious of the novel. It is a feature of modernity that we are addicted to novelty.”

As a stark example of how obsolescence was built into our minds, the book traces the tale of how GM’s Alfred Sloan launched Chevrolet by convincing his team ‘to restyle the body covering of what was essentially a nine-year-old piece of technology under the banner of product innovation.’ The Chevrolet was a remarkable success and the idea of ‘perceived obsolescence’ and ‘change for change’s sake’ was born, the authors note.

“GM went so far as to define its strategy as choreographed cosmetic ‘upgrades’ to ‘Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.’ In 1929, Charles Kettering, director of research for Sloan, wrote an article declaring, ‘The key to economic prosperity is the organised creation of dissatisfaction…’”

Of course, this obsolescence means more products are sold. It would be intriguing to be privy to some of the conversations corporations must have about particular products: “do we make it a little cheaper so the consumer has to buy a similar product sooner or do we aim for a higher reliability rating in Consumer Reports“? (Do the reliability rankings in Consumer Reports necessarily correspond with the longevity of products or how long consumers hold on to them?)

The contrast between the pre-modern and modern world is interesting: we moderns are skeptical of tradition and conservatism. Does this mean “neophilia” is a product of the Enlightenment?

Just how much did Facebook and Twitter contribute to changes in Egypt?

With the resignation of Hosni Mubarek, there is more talk about how the Internet, specifically social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, helped bring down a dictator in Egypt:

Dictators are toppled by people, not by media platforms. But Egyptian activists, especially the young, clearly harnessed the power and potential of social media, leading to the mass mobilizations in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt. The Mubarak regime recognized early on that social media could loosen its grip on power. The government began disrupting Facebook and Twitter as protesters hit the streets on Jan. 25 before shutting down the Internet two days later.

In addition to organizing, Egyptian activists used Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to share information and videos. Many of these digital offerings made the rounds online but were later amplified by Al Jazeera and news outlets around the world. “This revolution started online,” Ghonim told Blitzer. “This revolution started on Facebook.”

Egypt’s uprising followed on the heels of Tunisia’s. In each case, protestors employed social media to help oust an authoritarian government–a role some Western commentators expected Twitter to play in Iran during the election protests of 2009.

This article, and others, seem to want it both ways. On one hand, it seems like social media played a role. But when considering whether they were the main factor, the articles back away. Here is how this same article concludes:

It’s true that tweeting alone–especially from safe environs in the West–will not cause a revolution in the Middle East. But as Egypt and Tunisia have proven, social media tools can play a significant role as as activists battle authoritarian regimes, particularly given the tight control dictators typically wield over the official media. Tomorrow’s revolution, as Ghonim would likely attest, may be taking shape on Facebook today.

Or it may not. Ultimately, we need more data. For example, we could match Facebook or Twitter activity regarding Egypt with the level of protests on specific days – did more online traffic or activity lead to bigger protests? This would at least establish a correlation. Why can’t we match GPS information from people using Facebook or Twitter while they were protesting on the streets? This would require more private data, primarily from cell phone companies, but it would be fascinating to look for patterns in this data. And how exactly do these cases from Egypt and Tunisia help us understand what didn’t happen in Iran?

These questions about the role of social media need some answers and perhaps some innovative insights into data collection. And a thought from another commentator are helpful to keep in mind:

Evgeny Morozov writes in his new book, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” that only a small minority of Iranians were actually Twitter users. Presumably, many tweeting about revolution were doing so far from the streets of Tehran.

“Iran’s Twitter Revolution revealed the intense Western longing for a world where information technology is the liberator rather than the oppressor,” Morozov wrote, according to a recent Slate review. In his book, Morozov writes how authoritarian regimes can use the Internet and social media to oppress people rather than such platforms only working the other way around.

Perhaps we only want it to be true that social media use can lead to revolution. If there are enough articles written suggesting that social media helped in Egypt and Tunisia, does it make it likely that in the future social media will play a pivotal and even decisive role in social movements? Morozov seems to suggest this is a Western idea, probably rooted in Enlightenment ideals where information can (and should?) disrupt tradition and authoritarianism.