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.