Monday, November 10, 2003

Thought of the Day: Does everyone keep to a comfort zone?
Does everyone live in a small world? I'm not talking about the Six Degrees of Separation principle, interesting as that is--which says that everyone is linked by informal and remote relationships (see link below). Nor am I talking about the "global village" supposedly introduced by the Internet. I'm wondering if most people, wherever they live and whatever they do, remain mostly confined to their comfort zone--a well-worn routine of home, work, and back (and maybe a leisure spot or two). We tend to traverse typically narrow paths that cover little ground. Or so I've been thinking, in my first year living in a big city. Even though it's a far larger and more dynamic place than my mid-sized city hometown, with more things to do and better means of getting around, my wife and I tend to inhabit but a slice of it. We can list a respectable number of things we've done in the city--from sporting events to the theater to other cultural events--but for the most part we keep to our familiar patterns and routes of home to her work, home to church, and in my case, just home. I was reminded of this as we flew back from Baltimore after a couple days spent in an unfamiliar locale. As our plane glided over the northern reaches of Chicago, we stared down at the grid outlined by the orange specks of streetlights, and I noted the contrast between this vast tableau and the small beaten path we were searching for in vain; the former unfamiliar (at least from above) and threatening, the latter familiar and comforting. I've been thinking lately that this applies to most city-dwellers; we have our home, our work, our commute, and that is the extent of what we regularly experience of this massive metropolis. It's part of the reason I started my Chicago 101 collection, a photo tour of some of the city's historical spots, including some non-tourist destinations many Chicagoans don't know are there. This is also why I chose to go into journalism--to regularly meet people and go places I ordinarily wouldn't. I think this narrow periphery is also true, figuratively, of travelers--I wrote earlier about how business travelers are numbed by the monotony of airplane cabins and airports, and the same may go for truckers and highways. They cover geographical ground but stay stuck in a groove. Funny how this is true of so many people in so many walks of life even after the last century's revolutions in transportation, information "industries" (replacing manufacturing), and communication technology.

As I mentioned, for me, as I work from home, the boundaries of my periphery are immediate: my four walls. I do have a high-rise view of the city and the horizon, and, by writing about places and ideas, I do mentally connect with a broader world than I might in other professions. But the majority of my living happens in a very small space. I wonder how natural and healthy our patterns of narrow periphery are, and how much they are not. I also wonder about what my friend earlier called the "interior universe." As I read, or listen to the radio, I imagine the place or person being conveyed. As broad as I suppose my horizons are metaphorically, this nonetheless means that most of my engagement with reality happens in my apartment and in my head. Time to re-read what Walter Lippmann said about Plato's cave shadows, and then watch the Matrix again, in order to better worry about this.

Earlier Thought: The examined life
Previous Thought: The purpose of ambivalence

• Here's more on the Six Degrees principle from the NYTimes. I also talked about it in my B&C blog here.

Socially, it may be a small world, but it's hard to get from here to there. In the current issue of the journal Science, researchers at Columbia University report the first large-scale experiment that supports the notion of "six degrees of separation," that a short chain of acquaintances can be found between almost any two people in the world. But the same study finds that trying to contact a distant stranger via acquaintances is likely to fail. ... In this global study, more than 60,000 people tried to get in touch with one of 18 people in 13 countries. The targets included a professor at Cornell University, a veterinarian in the Norwegian army and a police officer in Australia. Despite the ease of sending e-mail, the failure rate turned out much higher than what Dr. Milgram had found, possibly because many of the recipients ignored the messages as drips in a daily deluge of spam. Of the 24,613 e-mail chains that were started, a mere 384, or fewer than 2 percent, reached their targets. The successful chains arrived quickly, requiring only four steps to get there. The rest foundered when someone in the middle did not forward the e-mail. As in most social networks, it is not just a question of who knows whom, but who is willing to help.

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