Humans are wired for living in small groups of like-minded people. Most species have hard limits on the size of their social groups, but humans seem to have developed a few tricks for getting past this. Our craving of novelty means we’re particularly adept at finding new and interesting ways of expressing ourselves, and ever more specific sources of our identity. As such, we manage to live in groups far larger than we can personally identify with by mostly interacting with niches of people we feel some sort of closer affinity to within one or more subcultures.
The larger the human settlement gets, the greater the diversity of niches is needed for this to be possible. The alienation of living with far more people than we can possibly have an affinity to, means we try to find or create bubbles of people just like us and shield ourselves from those other people of various stripes who do things differently. This might be based on political or religious outlook, but equally could be done in more mundane ways such as choice of entertainment and style of dress. While these more mundane examples run less deep, they have the advantage of being more visible, and so are a good shorthand for understanding the process. This can be seen fairly easily in how a mid-sized town will have far fewer choices of entertainment than a large city, but not necessarily a higher percentage of its residents twiddling their thumbs for something to do on a Saturday night. With less options available to them, the residents of the town opt to be less picky rather than stay home bored.
The fragmentation of our culture into myriad subcultures means that our difference to those around us is amplified and we spend our time surrounded by people who aren’t much like us at all, which can be incredibly draining. We quite naturally seek out people we share common cause with in some way or other. But living in a tiny niche also means losing the ability to make community with people who aren’t like you. And of course, they’ve lost this ability too from within their own niches. As such, the process can be self-reinforcing.
Massive human settlements will only take this so far however. There are two other crucial factors to this sprawling cultural complexity: access to transport, allowing people to travel greater distances, and mass communication, allowing people to create communities not limited by geography. Both of these are tied up in our material standard of living, and as such, a reduction in that means an inevitable reduction in the variety of subcultures available.
Lots of people will likely accept this change – when they can’t drive to their church or their dance class, they’ll find one closer, even if it isn’t quite what they were looking for, and even if they find the culture strange at first. But some people might well fight it. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a growing trend of mass migrations of close-knit and inward focused but geographically diverse groups of people to one place to try to build some sort of life based on their ideals. Whether that’s a good or bad thing probably depends on your opinion of the groups of people doing it.
But the point I’m getting at is: Its wonderful to mostly spend time with people who are similar to ourselves in many ways, mainly because its so much easier. This is why some of us have friends all over the world but don’t know our neighbours. And why our neighbours don’t want to know us either. Its easy to tell people that they should get to know their neighbours – and its a commonly suggested solution to all sorts of problems, from across the length and breadth of the political spectrum. But without this reality check, its not particularly useful advice.
Intentional community (forming community with like minded people) is easy. Unintentional community (forming community with who ever is available) is far harder in comparison. But it is the latter that we are going to need far more than the former. As globalisation goes into reverse, as mass communication becomes less reliable, and as high speed transportation becomes only affordable to the very rich, many of the comfortable niches that we are used to inhabiting will atrophy, and we’ll have to make do with the communities we can still access.