A Letter to David Brooks

In this post I have copied and pasted an email I sent to David Brooks, with light editing, so that this will read better as a blog post.

I don’t know if I really kept this message as brief as possible, but I did try. I hope Brooks read it, but he hasn’t replied. Since this is a central idea of mine and there is a lot more to say on the topic, I may expand on it in future blog posts.

Hi Mr. Brooks,

I’m a subscriber to the New York Times, a liberal atheist who tends to disagree with most of your articles. However, I wholeheartedly approve of your Weave initiative. It was my theories on the causes of social isolation and tribal extremism that led me to find the speech you gave on March 1 at the Knight Media Forum, and hence to your email address. I do hope I’m not bothering you by sending this email from out of the blue, and that I correctly interpreted your giving your email address out in public as a solicitation of ideas from unexpected places.
Since you don’t know me, I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible: social isolation has been amplified in the past few decades not just by cultural factors like individualism, but by the increasing dominance of cars, suburban development patterns, and ever-better telecommunications technologies. In order to fix the problem of social isolation, you have to get people outdoors, and to get them outdoors, you have to get them within walking distance of the places they need to go.

I’ll give you an example of how cars drive us apart. I am a mother of two young kids. When we moved into our house, there was a family living right next door with two young kids of almost exactly the same ages and genders as mine. They liked playing together, but they could rarely find the time to do so. I stay home with the kids, and we were at home a lot at that time, but in the neighbors’ family, both parents worked. The kids were in daycare all day every day, except on the weekends, when they were almost always attending a birthday party or other event with people they knew who lived in other neighborhoods. They spent so much time rushing from one location to the next that they rarely had any time to form local relationships.

There are so many more examples I could use, and I’m sure you can think of many more from your own life. We are constantly at least a few miles away from most of the parts of our lives, a state which I call “dis-integration.” When people live in actual tribes, or in small agricultural settlements, all the parts of their lives are contained within a small area. You live with your family, who are also your co-workers and teachers. In that situation, you can hardly fail to develop intimate relationships with other people. This would be a state of integration.

But in a modern economy, people live in a home-box with home-people, work in a work-box with work people, go to the school-box with school people, shop at a big box store alongside other shoppers, etc., and in between they are in cars, where there are often no people at all, and you can’t casually run into a neighbor without ending up in court.

This socio… econo… geographical? state is very convenient for institutions that mass-produce standardized products and discourage their employees from dating one another, but feels deeply counter-intuitive and dystopian to a species that has been accustomed by millennia of evolution to living in smallish, intimate groups. In my view, this sense of dystopia drives a wide range of movements, including minimalist footwear, paleo dieting, anti-vaccination activism, homeschooling, natural childbirth, DIYing of all kinds, naturopathic medicine, reconstructed pagan faiths, and nationalism.

Cultural approaches like yours are critical to solving our social isolation problem, and I would hate for these efforts to be undermined by lack of attention to these other factors. Thank you for your time.



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