I’ve been out in the wider world, for one of my rare excursions to places that are not a remote island, a ten hour ferry trip from the nearest somewhat larger Island (Tasmania) which in turn is somewhat distant and relatively irrelevant to the mainland of Australia. It’s probably a good thing, getting my perspective of the human race and civilization back into reasonable focus.
You see in a small remote place it becomes very easy to believe that individuals matter. Hell’s teeth, I know most of the people or at least their families or relations, and those I don’t, my wife probably does. They’re people, not numbers.
The reality, in a big city, is most people don’t know each other. Good, bad or indifferent — your value judgement (something we all do, no matter who we are or what we claim to the contrary – it’s as natural and instinctive as breathing) of people we come across but do not know HAS to be on superficial traits that we can pick up easily. Speaking from knowing a lot of people who are not what appearance might suggest, this doesn’t work terribly well, because most people aren’t defined by their clothes or their skin color their sex (or preference for that matter) – other than people to whom this has become the dominant factor of their persona.
We all know the individual whose life is their clothes. If you’re looking for a relationship, at the extremes of this, a relationship with a clothes-horse may be deeper and more meaningful (to say nothing of cheaper) than this, unless you’re one too. They’re not much fun to be with (unless you want to spend your life similarly obsessed), or to write about. Or for that matter to read about… unless, for that matter, you’re equally obsessed.
To most humans, these mono-focus people are rather like an alien species. We evolved to be very successful by being generalists — and that’s not just in our foraging but also in interests and abilities. Yes, we all have our specialties and there are few people who are like that. Yes, sometimes that specialty colors or viewpoints and lives, but if it does so to the point that it covers every waking moment and influences everything you do… you probably are only pleasant or fun for another of the same type, and may need help. You may have one interesting book to be written about you – because it’s a glimpse into something that most people only know a fragment of. It’s rather like historical tours of Bedlam. Maybe some visitors wanted to better understand the insane, but most just came to gawk. And one trip was usually enough.
Coming into contact with the nameless crowds has brought their very existence back to me, along with the vast size and complexity of our civilization and its manufacturing and industrial side. It’s kind of easy to forget the enormous supply chains and the sheer volume of people in these cities and what could go wrong and stop all of this working. We’re primary producers – and one forgets (as much as the kids (and adults) who think beef comes in plastic packing and milking in cartons) that we need the products they produce too.
It’s also a bit too easy to see these nameless people as cogs, interchangeable and mono-purpose — which (as I ought to know) they’re not.
It has been a good reminder to me in my writing of just how big and complex civilizations and societies are – and yet, all of those myriad people are as much individuals as the islanders I know by name. Not just cogs – some better some worse, some with special traits, some with lousy personalities, some fallible and some smart and some changing. And very few whose lives are just determined by one superficial characteristic – a trend in current mainstream traditional publishing. Don’t do it. No one really wants to keep doing that trip to Bedlam. That’s one (of many) of the reasons the publishing industry is in trouble. People are individuals and complex. Not interchangeable widgets whose entire lives, character and interests are totally decided by superficial traits.
We are more than that.