Friday, December 31, 2010

Will the last individual please turn off the lights.

More than a decade ago, at the end of the nineties, waiting for the millennium bug to end civilization as we knew it, who knew everything about the noughties was going to be big.

More than a decade ago I was at Lorne to perform at the Falls Festival. New Years Eve a big storm blew in South Eastern Australia, and the Falls Festival, along with many other outdoor Millennium Eve events, was cancelled. I spent New Years Eve 1999 in a dark room lending an ear to wall shaking wind rather than earth shaking hip hop.

In between floods, fire consumed Melbourne's outer suburbs. That summer, temperatures previously unrecorded caused an early, eerie autumn when Melbourne's heat stressed trees simultaneously surrendered half their leaves to the pavement below.

This New Year's an area the size of France and Germany combined, around 1 1/2 times the size of Texas, is under meters of water up North, while here today in Southern Australia we are getting critical fire danger warnings on account of the heat. Australia kind of slopes downhill from North to South, so there is every chance that if we do catch fire water from the north will arrive in a few weeks or so to put it out.

Everything about the noughties was big, going on gigantic.

A googol, a very big imaginary number popularized by American mathematician Edward Kasner in his book Mathematics and the Imagination (1940) inspired the naming of Google, the gigantic corporation which indexes the world wide web and hosts this blog. Two hundred and fifty five million web servers responded to Netcraft's December 2010 automated world wide web census, hosting an unknown number of web pages thought to number in the billions.

The noughties was the decade that the googol became real.

There seems little room for individuals in a world consumed by bigness. Our new State Government seems set to abandon The Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, a simple but important state law that sets out individual freedoms, rights and responsibilities. "This formal recognition of our human rights protects people from injustice and allows everyone to participate in and contribute to society", the law begins. Foreshadowing its end, the new state government promised to build more prisons instead.

As bigness gets gigantic evidence is emerging that humans are hardwired for smallness.

Robin Dunbar, in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, argues that language may have developed as a substitute for social grooming, an activity of primates where individuals in a group clean or maintain each other's body or appearance. Primates that live in proximity use social grooming to bond, build social structures, family links, and relationships. Social grooming is observably a form of reconciliation and a means of conflict resolution in some species. Dunbar speculates that there is a theoretical limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships through social grooming, and that number is comparatively small.

Dunbar's number is between 100 and 230, but is usually assigned as 150.'s David Wong derisively calls it the monkeysphere. There is as much need for small numbers on a website that reaches millions as there is for a Charter of Human Rights on a law and order crackdown.

Of course the tension between bigness and individuals is nothing new. David Hume wrote about it, and so did Adam Smith in Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). But in an age where everything seems suddenly googol, revisiting makes a lot of sense.

Will the last individual please turn off the lights.

1 comment:

  1. I believe that 'stroking' has replaced social grooming. Stroking being a form of recognition that we all need in order to survive as individuals subsumed into consumerist society, which reduces us to mere code on our credit cards. Even negative stroking ~ unwanted and mean spirited criticism, is better than no stroking at all. Claude Steiner who coined the term 'stroking economy' advocated we should stroke ourselves regularly. And this has more to do with affirmation than masturbation.
    The million throng who gather tonight along the Yarra River ~ just mass ornamentation ~ an obscure carpet of color underneath the spectacle of pyrotechnics. Yes, let the last individual turn off the lights!