Yet perhaps I can get in a last word before the conversation moves on. This city has long had an international image as an aloof locale. Traveling through Europe years ago, I heard Vancouver described several times as a “city without a soul.” On a recent trip out east, I witnessed a scene in a Montreal park that would look out of place here: strangers casually conversing with one another without glancing down uncomfortably at their watches or mobile devices.
That said, this isn’t a new conversation, limited to our damp corner of Pacific rainforest. Over a century ago, Friedrich Engels lamented Manchester’s experiment in eco-free density: “The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interests becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together,” he wrote in The Condition of the Working Class in England.
Today’s widespread sense of social isolation can’t be blamed solely on cramped living conditions. A 2006 report in The Washington Post observed that a “quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985.”
The Vancouver Foundation and Sentis Market Research recently surveyed nearly 4,000 people living in Metro Vancouver and determined that a third of them have difficulty making friends. One quarter spend more time alone than they would prefer. More than three-quarters of apartment dwellers have never helped a neighbour. A third mistrust their neighbours.
One local pundit diminished the findings, citing the online communities that have taken up the face-to-face slack. Yet with these surveys of widespread personal isolation, both civically and beyond, can we still talk about “society” in the accepted sense of the word? Social networks have their place, but I hope most of us would put one good friend up against 500 Facebook “friends.”
Social isolation extends into the ‘burbs and beyond. It isn’t bundled with economic misery, as in Engels’ time. Across all incomes, many people have come to think of themselves as consumers first and citizens second, a viewpoint that has empowered political and financial interests at the expense of non-virtual communities.
Fear—whether it’s of age, weight, status, strangers, terrorists or viruses (manmade and otherwise)—is the best friend of marketers and social engineers, who have ratcheted up social anxiety to previously unimaginable heights.
In contrast, I marvel how fearlessly my parents raised me. Like all the other kids in our neighbourhood, I was allowed to walk to school alone, and on weekends I ran free with friends until nightfall. I rode my bike without a helmet and hung upside down on monkey bars in unsafe playgrounds. I blew up fireworks in the driveway, all with my mom and dad’s approval. And wonder of wonders, they didn’t have to schedule any playtime for me; I just stepped out the door. On Halloween, I even actively solicited strangers for candy at their own properties, and I’m still alive to tell the tale. These days I’d probably be snatched by the Ministry for Human Resources and spun as a cautionary tale in The Province.
Raise a child with a community-sized hole in his or her soul, and you’ll likely end up with an adult who will run to the market to shovel things in, rather than ponder how they got so drafty in the first place. After decades of fear-fuelled helicopter parenting, perhaps we’re seeing the human fallout in our urban centres: wired-up narcissists so far up their own backsides they’d need proctologists in scuba gear to extract them for spontaneous interactions.
It’s no accident that half of the mobile devices in circulation are prefaced by an “i.” The self, that fortress of solitude, is our real place of worship—not the virtual community.
Awareness of what we’re all up against is the first step of getting out of this jam, not as victims of abstract, impersonal forces, but as partly conscious agents of our own discontent. As that old proctological ’60s expression put it, “Free your ass, and your mind will follow.”
Vancouver Courier October 18