Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Value of Society

Take an average day in a first world city.

You go for a walk down to a coffee shop, or to the mall, or wherever your travels take you. In that time, you'll pass by hundreds of people. If you're like me, chances are that the vast majority of them are complete strangers - you don't know them, and you'll never see them again.

Think back to the people you passed today. How many of them can you remember? How many of them did you notice at the time, even fleetingly? Probably very few. Even the ones you interacted with, at the checkout line or in the lift, you probably did so without really thinking much about it.

Now imagine you're out on the savanna, or in some post-apocalyptic wilderness. You come across another person in the distance. What are you going to be thinking?

Probably some combination of: are they friendly? Are they going to try to rob me? Would I be able to defend myself in a fight if they try something? Is this a trap where they have other people ready to jump me?

I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that running into other people that you don't know would probably be pretty damn stressful. It wouldn't be the kind of thing you'd do lightly.

Small early societies got around this through tribalism. You knew the people in your clan, and repeated interactions with them ensured that people treated each other reasonably. But interactions with other tribes were likely to be somewhat fraught, especially tribes you didn't know. Then you were back to the mutual suspicion and fear.

Now think back to modern society. It's remarkable how well norms of behaviour are not only common and widely accepted, but known be everyone to be common and widely accepted. In a modern city, I can interact with literally millions of strangers and have strong expectations about how they're going to behave. The norms of trust and respect have become strong enough that we don't need repeated interactions at the individual level to maintain them. People internalise the trust of strangers, and as long as most people reciprocate, it's a mutually beneficial trend. I can now engage in commerce and trade with millions of people, instead of just the small number in my own village. This allows institutions to develop that rely on crazy levels of trust for strangers, such as valet parking.

In America, you can travel thousands of miles and interact with complete strangers in such an innocuous fashion that most people don't pause to reflect on how remarkable that would seem to somebody born a few thousand years ago.

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