Sunday, October 30, 2005

Inefficiency of Social Isolation

It's been called "Bowling Alone." Jerry Mander lamented it in "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television." It's the social isolation that seems to be a side-effect of the highly stratified and specialized modern economy. But the point of this post is to demonstrate that this social isolation is a hidden inefficiency of the modern economy.

What do I mean by social isolation? We (in the "West," and especially in America) tend to drive by ourselves to work. We drive home by ourselves. We cook dinner for ourselves and our immediate family, and then often settle down for a night of watching television--ignoring even the interaction with those few family members actually in the room for us. When compared to the degree of communalism and social interaction in pre-historic tribes, we are highly socially isolated. In fact, the correlation between level of economic advancement and level of social isolation is so great as to strongly suggest causation.

What is the cost of this isolation? As a case study, let's take a look at a staple of our cultural identity: how we eat. In America, and in much (though certainly not all) of "the West," the ritual of dinner look something like this: get home from work, pull out some frozen or canned foods, and cook a quick dinner for a very small number, maybe one person, maybe an entire nuclear family of 4 or 5. It's a lot of work for a relatively small return, so we often give in to temptation and just order takeout, or drive to a nearby restaurant. Many of us eat out several times a week--if not every meal.

Have you ever cooked a meal for 12 people? Most of us have, usually for a special holiday meal--something that is much more complex than our standard fare. But how much more difficult is it to cook pasta for 12 than it is for 2? In my opinion, there is very little extra effort involved--that makes it a little less than 6 times as efficient to cook for 12 than for 2. If you double you effort and cook a meal from scratch--something that is potentially far cheaper and far healthier--you're still 3 times as efficient. But our social isolation doesn't give us the option of taking advantage of these efficiencies.

Both India and Italy are excellent examples of cultures where less social isolation facilitates cooking for larger groups, resulting in dining rituals that are in virtually every way superior: healthier, tastier, etc.

Cooking from scratch--something that is far more practical when cooking for larger groups--also facilitates greater incorporation of local or homegrown ingredients. Basically, it is far easier to foster a localized economy, and localized self-sufficiency, when cooking for larger groups. And the food economy is the cornerstone of localization and self-sufficiency. It may seem like an impractical suggestion: get 3 neighbors together and rotate cooking dinner. But imaging the gains in efficiency: for less effort you could eat better and healthier. And who knows, you might even find that, aside from being economically inefficient, social isolation isn't nearly as enjoyable as community.

Our dinner rituals are just one example of the hidden efficiency of localization, of "tribal" community. The same concepts work with health care, child care, etc.


Jeff Vail said...

For more thoughts on this, see

James Kielland said...

A very interesting point on the nature of dining. At the start of your post, you mentioned television. Something that I find very interesting - but have read few comments on - is how even television is not quite as "communal" as it once used to be.

It was not all that long ago that even cable TV was relatively unusual, which left many people with just the local affiliates of the national commercial broadcasters, a PBS affiliate, and perhaps a local indepedent station. Considerably more programming was locally produced, especially children's programming. Adult or family programming tended to focus on more people/places/issues within the local community.

The net result of this was that it was quite common to talk to people the next day who had watched what you had watched. Or saw the same thing in the local newspaper. Now we can choose from seemingly unlimited channels, Blockbuster, NetFlix, streaming online solutions, and more. While I greatly enjoy the number of choices available these days, I'm often left with the feeling that it only further removes shared experiences.

In his book "The Pentagon's New Map", Thomas Barnett makes a huge point about "connectivity." His basic point seems to be that America's security and vitality can only really be guaranteed through forcefully connecting the rest of the world to our communications and commercial networks. And yet, while I agree with the importance of connectivity and the dangers of isolation (Howard Bloom and John Boyd already explained this much more powerfully) my fear is that Barnett hasn't really considered the importance of establishing increased connectivity in American society.

With all the fun of modern communications and the level of exchange they make possible, I'm left thinking of Martin van Creveld's thought about the declining relevance of the state. If there was anything driving this process, it would seem to be the proliferation of communications technology which increasingly renders place to be less important, or at least seemingly less important. As a result, when people form connections to collectives outside of their geographic proximinity we can also expect that their loyalties to their neighbors and their community may increasingly fray. Leaving us with neighbors that not only don't eat with us but don't in any way share our major concerns.

James Kielland said...

Also, you wrote:

" In fact, the correlation between level of economic advancement and level of social isolation is so great as to strongly suggest causation."

Yes, I believe this could be theoretically be demonstrated as follows: The power of a network is determined by the number of nodes and the number of connections between those nodes. Part of our expanding economic well-being is certainly a result of individuals (nodes) establishing more connections with other individuals, even across vast distances. People become enriched through trade or exchange. We can now exchange the efforts of our works more powerfully with more people, even if those connections are quite fleeting and do not have the constancy of continual interaction with those in our homes or our neighborhoods.

If there was a reason why globalization is so very destructive to traditional cultures, this would be it. How can one put energy into sustaining their traditional local culture if more and more of their time is spent in exchanges with people from other cultures? Local and regional shared references (or memes) atrophy at the expense transnational or global memes.

But, the first and most important economic concept to learn is the concept of opportunity costs. While people from around the world can now quickly and easily read my thoughts or your thoughts, and (hopefully) be enriched by the process of exchanging ideas, our ideas can only be consumed at the expense of people sharing ideas with their neighbors.

In the long-term, this will probably be "good." I'm sure that our global communications systems are and will continue to produce higher levels of discovery, error-correction, and so forth. Knowledge is more accessible and more susceptible to correction than ever before. Nevertheless, it's useful to consider that human beings are undoubtedly not quite evolved for this level of existence with its high levels of communal fragmentation and social isolation.

The 'net is increasingly display organic qualities of its own. Undoubtedly, it will outlive all of us. It is in some ways like a return to pyramid building, where populations would labor for generations to build something that would be remembered even if the architects and masons were left to complete obscurity. And here we are inputting to it, adding stones with each comment, both me as a person writing this entry and you (whoever and wherever you are) reading it. Each of us paying money to our ISP, buying new hardware, inputting more time, as the pyramid grows larger and our connection to those in the room our house next to us slowly fades.

Just wait until bandwidth increases 10 fold from today, 50" monitors become the norm, and everything you could need is delivered to your door by a friendly UPS man.

ilsott said...

I think what you miss in this post is how the inefficiency you explain (which I agree is real) is actually efficient to someone, namely the people who sell you products.

If everyone has a friend who does plumbing, there's no need to call a plumber. In that way a home/family is a economic social unit that buys goods and services because of this inherent inefficiency.

Social isolation is the grease that makes capital move.

Oh, the other problem I see is identifying and overstating Italy as a model. They are beset by the same problems with people eating frosen trash food. Granted, slowfood is more advanced there, but one reason is that they are (in a large part) buying and selling fastfood.

Anonymous said...

Intentional Communities have individual homes clustered around a communal kitchen where people can do exactly as you desribe: cook and eat together when it suits them.

Jeff Vail said...


Your point raises the question: what are we seeking: maximization of the economy or maximization of human happiness? If you pick the former, fine, your argument is valid--although I quake for the future. If you pick the latter--as I do--then the monetization of existing transactions is a sinking tide that carries all boats with it. Unlike "free trade" which in theory "raises all boats," the monetization of existing interaction at the expense of their efficiency--and at the cost of human happiness--brings us all down. We are fast meeting the limits of human ontogeny, the point at which we must begin to make difficult choices.

I realize that Italy isn't a perfect example--one of their fast food chains even uses "molto fast, very good" as their slogan. That said, having spent a good deal of time there, I think that they are an example to be held up to the American people of what we're missing--both in where they currently are, and where their commendable efforts are taking them. I was in Salina this last Summer during a "slow food" festival--but I didn't even go to the festival. "Slow Food" was all around, you couldn't miss it. The Italians, as much as any other culture that I am aware of, are defined by their food, their regional cuisines, their communal dining. Sure, they have the same problems that we have, especially among the young and in big cities, but if America could even catch up half the lead they already enjoy, we would be much better off for it. And they are also a significant example because, unlike my other example of India, it is difficult to argue that poverty forces the "slow food" concept upon them. "Slow Food," regional cuisine, family dining--these are all things enjoyed with particular gusto by the affluent in Italy, right alongside the poor. Perhaps they are also interesting in that they don't have the kind of haute cuisine that we associated with the French--the local peasant food is the food that is revered, even venerated in their finest restaurants (outside perhaps Piedmont and surrounds, mainly due to historical French influence).


I wonder if the people of ancient Egypt believed that they were building the pyramids for themselves, much as plebians today thing that the "network" serves them?

ilsott said...

"the monetization of existing interaction at the expense of their efficiency--and at the cost of human happiness--brings us all down."

Well said. I agree wholeheartedly. My point was that this distructive system depends on the kind of social isolation you describe. Better to search out something better, as you say.

[on italy]
"the local peasant food is the food that is revered, even venerated in their finest restaurants"

Quality pizza as a fine dining experience!

"And they are also a significant example because, unlike my other example of India, it is difficult to argue that poverty forces the "slow food" concept upon them. "

You could argue that historically they have been very poor, and even if they are a g8 country, a lot of people still live on the margins. "Cara vita" means that basic necessities like groceries are more difficult to come by. Slowfood in Italy is really just bringing back the good-ole mediterranian diet, which is very old and from a tradition closer to poverty than their current richness.


Jason Godesky said...

I wonder if the people of ancient Egypt believed that they were building the pyramids for themselves, much as plebians today thing that the "network" serves them?

They most certainly did. The Egyptians had no concept of personal salvation; rather, it was generational. If your pharoah made it successfully to the underworld, you would live forever in paradise with him. If he didn't make it, you would only know oblivion. But it was succeed or fail, as a country. So, building the pyramids was how you could help assure your own afterlife, by helping assure your pharoah's.

Jeff Vail said...

What a strange religion. I'm certainly glad that in the modern world we've moved beyond such irrational concepts!

Dan tdaxp said...

If Egyptian culture had no hope of personality salvation, how does it follow they believed in generational salvation?

Jeff, very moving post. Thank you.

Dan tdaxp

Disillusioned kid said...

I assume the irony of a blog posy on social isolation is not lost on anybody? (This isn't meant to detract from the points you make. In fact it only serves to emphasise the extent of our isolation.)

James Kielland said...

I'm not sure what you mean. After my first comment I ordered a pizza and had a pleasant if brief exchange with the delivery man.

Anonymous said...

As you touched on, there is a cascade of beneficial effects of cooking (and thus, eating) in community. Eating together fosters sharing, common experience, and empathy - in addition to caloric efficiency of gathering and preparing meals. Eating is elemental. Soon, you begin to reinforce that cooking/eating is something that is done with others, not in isolation (as we do now) - minimizing between meal snacks, binging, hording, and poor choices. It becomes more difficult to mask or hide eating disorders - making it easier to help someone before they spiral out of control in positive feedback loops.

Over time, eating together will reinforce a feeling of safety and security, of mutual support, egalitarianism, of knowing where your meals come from, and that everyone will equitably share in times of feast and famine. The community and enjoyment and safety of shared meals may very well counter some of the root causes of poor eating choices and disorders in the first place...


Anonymous said...

From a business perspective, consumer-side efficiency is not really an economic concern, so long as it doesn't negatively affect consumption. Actually it makes more economic sense to have INefficient consumers. Television (aka advertising) is beneficial to industry in that it isolates viewers, which is relevant not only with respect to our decreased efficiency but also to our increased susceptibility. (sad, lonely people buy more, etc...)

What I'm trying to say is: what's good for industry and the economy is good for everyone, so please quit trying to enjoy life (or think) and start watching more TV.

(I haven't read Mander's book but David Foster Wallace has a pretty good essay on TV in this this one.)

James Kielland said...


Are you serious?

It makes more sense of have inefficient consumers?

Lope said...

One answer is cooperative cooking. Ten individuals making ten seperate meals is much less efficient than one person making one meal for ten people, both in terms of energy consumed and labour. In cooperative cooking households band together and buy food in bulk so they get better prices. They either take turns cooking or one person becomes the designated cook. Housholds volunteer their home on different nights as the gathering point. There are probably many ways to do it, but I bet it would work.