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Small Worlds

When I was a child, and we drove through a city, there would always be a moment – usually when I first came into sight of a block of apartments – a moment I would feel a mixture of panic and vertigo – horror. So many windows, so many doors. Ten thousand people could live in there. More people than I could ever know in one lifetime or a dozen. More names, even, than I would ever know. Why should the world even include so many people? Were there even ten thousand kinds of people? How many were repeats? How many were redundant?

That was a horrible thought: that most of the human race has no individual reason to exist; that most of us exist only to fill out the numbers for the workings of a smaller world, a real world, extras in a movie we will never see.

The other thought was worse: ten thousand people and every one an end in themselves – every single one enough to justify the existence of the whole species – so that with just one brief look out the side of a van racing past, looking down from the overpass, I glimpsed a world absolutely worth knowing ten thousand times over and ten thousand times over impossible to know.

Thus, despite a love of the arts, my first ambitions were all scientific: I wanted, like Avicenna’s God, to compass the universe of particulars by knowing universals.

We have tricks to evade large numbers of things, but they fail us with people. Seven billion fish or flowers we know how to divide to conquer, cutting out bite sizes with the sharp 7±2 we’re born with. But we cannot use the same trick with people. True, we have a neurological constant for numbers of people, about 150, the famous Dunbar’s number. But Dunbar’s number is not recursive. Society is not structured by communities of 150 combining into meta-communities of 150 communities in an Apollonian gasket of social circles. People belong to different communities. One-sided relationships cut across all communities. Thousands of communities exist side by side. And outside communities, there are the new people. People are always being born, and having been born are always growing up, and having grown up are always demanding our attention.

How, then, do we stay sane in a world of seven billion people? But no one lives in that world. The evasion is not quantitative but qualitative. We make our own worlds, our own small, manageable worlds: family, friends, faces that dwarf crowds. In the foreground, your world contains people significant in your personal history or netted by your routine; in the background, those made familiar (note the etymon) by news or entertainment, by admiration or reputation.

Small worlds vary in two dimensions: whether they are closed or open, and whether they face inward or outward. In a closed world, role and person are identical; in an open world, the cast changes. (But note that the distinction of role and player is never absolute: there is always a tension.) In an outward-facing world, the population screen each other from society; in an inward-facing world, the population are the eyes of society on each other.

The closed and outward-facing world is the world of the village. The open and inward-facing world is the world of the social network, where direct ties are always weaker than abstract commitments. The closed and inward-facing world is the world of the cadre, the team, the colony. The open and outward-facing world is the world of the movement, the religion, the institution, and the corporation.

Of course, you can live in different worlds in sequence; but you can only live in one world at a time. I would say that you must choose, but the choice will probably be made for you. You were born into one kind of world; and you are unlikely to move from one to another except at some socially oiled articulation of the lifespan.

The world is beyond comprehension, beyond recognition, beyond reach. It always has been. We do not have the choice to know the world. We have three choices only: to hide from the world, filtering it through stereotype and prejudice; to dilute ourselves in the world, lost in the big picture; or to trust that the extremities of the particular and the universal touch – to trust that human nature is best read in a human being’s nature, that human diversity is mirrored in a human being’s variety, and that the beginning of human kindness is kindness to a human being.

To say that we should love our enemies assumes that it is easy to love our friends. The mind is full of passionate poisons, resentment and shortsightedness, which work to confuse us. How many keep a leashed civility with their enemies who love with snarls and teeth? How many who pity the unfortunate stranger are shamed by and despise the weakness of their own? How many choose the attractions of envy over the bond of blood? How many fear more to be thought by strangers to love too well or too openly – to be weak or soft or fond – than to be thought by loved ones to love less, or not to love?

All this sounds very bourgeois, very gemütlich. But small worlds are not just shelters; they are also the laboratories where the world of the future is being discovered. The inside jokes and private conversations of one generation become the mainstream of the next. Not every small world can reshape the great world; but nothing can reshape the great world until it has shaped a small world first.

What are you? Are you what you say you are? Or are you what others say you are? Of course you are both, and neither. They are the two ways of living in a world that, like a lens, curved one way, concentrates light onto you and, curved the other way, sheds your light. But the lens is required: a small world, answering the animal conditions of life, spares you the freedom, clothes you enough, to survive the great and human world.