When I wrote a few days ago about a pelican eating a pigeon in a London park, I thought I was picking up an insignificant, out-of the-way item that readers would almost certainly not have heard about otherwise. It seems that I was mistaken; a search on Google a moment ago turned up “about 339,000″ results, and the story has reverberated through the blogosphere as well. Think of that: a bird eats another bird somewhere in the world, and within a day hundreds of thousands of people, all around the globe, have published some comment on it, which means that the news itself — a bird ate a bird in a park in England — has probably reached tens of millions. This is such an abrupt discontinuity from the entire social history of the human race that I think it bears noticing.
Until just a few years ago, people lived, for the most part, as parts of tightly circumscribed communities. The circle of individuals with whom one interacted, and about whom one felt obligated to be concerned, was small — the members of one’s extended family, one’s neighbors; perhaps, in a general sense, one’s townsfolk. Their lives, closely entwined with one’s own, ran the usual gamut of happiness and suffering, and one pitched in when one could, knowing that when times were hard, the favor would be returned. Communities leaned inward to support themselves; news from outside was sketchy at best, and interesting in an abstract way, with the amount of news arriving at all in inverse proportion to geographical distance. One’s responsibilities were clear, and finite. This is the context, spanning millions of years, in which our genome — and the cultural framework that both shapes and is shaped by it — was forged.
But all of that has changed, and none too gradually. In the last five hundred years, the advent of printing and modern transportation have made possible communication between groups of people that previously had little or no intercourse; in the last hundred years, the media of radio, television, film, and the telephone have greatly expanded this web of connectivity, and in the past fifteen years the Internet has brought, essentially, every person on Earth into contact, at least potentially so, with every other.
Human nature, as always, impels us to respond to, to care for, to feel a moral obligation to those with whom we come into direct contact. Throughout the entire course of human history, for most people such contacts might number in the dozens or hundreds, and our moral apparatus, our sense of what we can manageably feel obligated to care about, has evolved to work at that scale. But now, the gradient of relevance imposed by geographical separation has all but vanished, and the entire, flattened world is brought right to our doorstep, every moment of every day, in real time. Rather than having a group of dozens with whom our lives are entangled, we are now presented with the suffering, the needs, the ideas, the opinions, the cultural influence — the breathing, pressing, encroaching presence — of over six billion people. We are simply not equipped for this, and the pace is only increasing. There is a new term — “compassion fatigue” — which comes from the overloading of our moral faculties by the sheer volume of suffering that we are witness to in this new world. It isn’t that there is any more of it than ever; it is just that now we all see all of it, all the time, and it is simply more than we can cope with.
Those with scientific training will be familiar with Boyle’s Law, which has to do with the behavior of gases in confined spaces, and which describes the realtionship between temperature, pressure, and volume. The key event, for a gas molecule, is a collision; the pressure of a gas has to do with the number of collisions with the walls of the container, and with other molecules. The temperature is a measure of the average velocity of the molecules. The law describes a simple relationship: if you increase the temperature while holding the volume constant, the pressure goes up, because the higher velocity means more frequent (and more energetic) collisions. What the radical interconnectivity brought about by the Internet is now doing is something similar; the number of collisions seems to be increasing exponentially, and the temperature and pressure seem to be on the rise. The metaphor is nicely extensible, I think; one could allude to the explosive nuclear phenomenon of “critical mass”, or to the way that chemists, when they want substances to react, must provide a solvent (transportation, the press, the media, and the Internet), or increase the concentration of reagents in solution (the increasing world population).
We are on the way to an inevitable, and perhaps very painful, change in the fundamental structure of society; the context is changing so rapidly that our ancient nature can’t keep up, and this dislocation is going to be increasingly awkward in the decades to come. We will adapt — we always do — but we are approaching a watershed, I think, in the history of life on Earth.