Monday, October 14, 2019

Reading The Human Swarm 4: Summer camp and beyond – another digression [F2F group & society]

I went camping with some friends over the weekend, and got thinking about summer camp, which is not quite the same thing as camping. By summer camp I mean children and teenagers going to some place, traditionally rural, where then sleep in relatively simple quarters and engage in various outdoor activities for a week, two weeks, or more at a time. According to the Google Ngram chart below, phrase “summer camp” started an upswing in the first decade of the 20th century and really shot up in the second decade.

I’ll take that as an index of when the practice took hold in America.

But what, you’re asking, does that have to do with The Human Swarm? A lot. For Moffett makes a crucial distinction between a face-to-face band or group and a society. Everyone knows everyone else in the band. But that’s not the case with a society, which typically includes several to many bands. Societies divide the world into those who are in the group and those who are not, insiders and outsiders. You don’t need to have a personal relationship with everyone in your society, indeed, you cannot, for the society is too large for that. All that’s necessary is that you have some way of recognizing that a person IS in your society.

So what’s that have to do with summer camp?

Simple, when a kid goes to summer camp they have to leave their everyday face-to-face group and (figure out how to) live with a bunch of strangers for the duration. Those strangers, of course, are members of the kid’s society. That’s what makes summer camp possible. But, and here’s the point, it’s all well and good that you share the same stories and symbols with others in your society, but that’s a little abstract. When you go to summer camp you have to interact with these fellow citizens in a way that’s different from living at home. At home your have your familiars, family and friend, but all those casual acquaintances and strangers you deal with, the owner of the candy store, the cop on the corner, and so forth. That’s all gone at camp.

At camp you have to reconstitute your life, at least for a couple of weeks, without benefit of your familiars. You’re on your own, kid. And you survive, have fun, and even thrive. In this way society takes on a deep lived and livable reality that those symbols do not have.

Let’s push further. I have had to uproot myself and reconstitute my life four times: First when I left home (in Johnstown, PA) and went to college (in Baltimore, MD), second when I went to graduate school (in Buffalo, NY), third when I took a faculty job at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (in Troy, NYO, and then fourth when I moved to Jersey City, NJ, to work in a start-up company (which failed, but I stayed in the area). This is a fairly common experience among my friends and family.

I would really like to know just how common it is in America in general. How many people are born, live, and die in the same place? How many have had to uproot themselves once, twice, and so forth? I don’t know, but I’d like to.

This article in The Atlantic in 2016 indicates that “the average person in the United States moves residences more than 11 times in his or her lifetime.” I’m nowhere near that. But I’m not sure just what “moves residences” means. I moved to Jersey City in 1999. I then moved to Hoboken in 2010, I believe, back to Jersey City in 2012, and then back to Hoboken in 2015. So I’ve switched residences three times since moving to this area (Hoboken and Jersey City are next to one another, across the Hudson River from Manhattan). As far as I’m concerned that’s all one area, one set of friends and so forth. But it might be counted as four separate residences by the Census Bureau, which is the source of the information in the article. Still, that doesn’t had up to 11.

But you get my point. We move around a lot, and that bears on the distinction Moffett makes between group and society. The mobility is made possible by society while the actual moving around gives weight and heft to being a member of the society.

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