...is that now I might have to scrap my plans to build one of those.
“But there was something inhuman about living inside a cocoon of tinted glass and stainless steel, air-conditioned, carpeted, stereophonic tape-decked, power optioned, isolated. It thwarted some deep human need to congregate , to be together, to see and be seen.”
—Micheal Crichton, The Terminal Man
This post ties into the same thought stream/brain dump from this one:
But not all big cities are alike in this respect. Personal anecdotal evidence can be cited in comparing Cairo and Dubai2. Both are huge urban centers. Both have an intractable traffic problem. Cairo is old, dusty and smelly, with lots of character. Dubai is new, shiny and (mostly) clean, yet very soulless.
Dubai reminded me of the car-centric areas in the US, especially Los Angeles. It reminded me of various cities in the Arabian Gulf that I have visited over the past few years, where life pivots on the automobile.
Here is another quote from The Terminal man:
Los Angeles had no sidewalk cafes, because no one walked; the sidewalk cafe, where you could stare at passing people, was not stationary but mobile. It changed with each traffic light where people stopped, stared briefly at each other, then drove on…Los Angeles was a town of recent immigrants and therefore strangers; cars kept them strangers…
You can substitute “Los Angeles” for “Dubai” in the above quote, and Crichton’s description will still be perfectly befitting of Dubai.
Cairo, on the other hand, has no shortage of sidewalk cafes. It is congested, dirty and polluted, but you can walk in downtown Cairo. You can sit in a sidewalk cafe, drink your tea, and watch the bustle of city life. You are never a stranger in a place like Cairo. The subtle importance of this characteristic is often overlooked and discounted. Maybe the human connections maintained by this under-appreciated quality is what keeps a city like Cairo from collapsing under the pressure of 16+ million people, a sea of motor vehicles, and inadequate infrastructure.
When people refer to large urban centers as “concrete jungles”, they are not only referring to the likeness of the density of large, mostly ugly structures that dominate the skyline of modern cities to that of the overgrown bush of tropical rain forests, but also – and particularly – to the vivid resemblance the behavior of the populace of such metropolises bears to that of the wild inhabitants of said forests.
I would not be exaggerating when I say that, as a truism of present times, big cities turn people into assholes.
The reasons as to why this happens are diverse, and we can try to rationalize it generically by saying it’s because of traffic, crowds, pollution, resource scarcity and competition, etc. but chances are you already know that. These might be some of the causes that create social tension large urban environments. But let’s dig a little deeper…
“...the brain is affected by the environment. The environment produced experiences that became memories, attitudes and habits- things that got translated into neural pathways among brain cells. And these pathways were fixed in some chemical or electrical fashion. Just as a common laborer’s body altered according to the work he did, so a person’s brain is altered according to past experience.”
I did not look into the scientifically documented roots of Crichton’s “incubated environment” enough to find research-based evidence for a neural function alteration in the brain as a result of factors in the surrounding environment, but – based on a distant memory of the PSYCH 201 course I took in my freshman year- this sounds like classical conditioning. Consider how people associate a set of general attitudes to people who inhabit a certain area, particularly in big cities; the basis of such stereotyping is most likely due to the incubated environment effect: people who inhabit areas with the same/similar environments display similar social conditioning.
To go on with the jungle analogy, let’s take the case of our closest primate: Bonobos (the Great Ape). In an article titled “Why bonobos make love, not war”, the behavior of bonobos is described as laid back and peaceful, and it is directly traced to their environment:
“Put bluntly, bonobos are nice because the environment they live in is nice.”2
But the urban environment is not uniform. Crichton goes on to say that…
“…the change, like the calluses on the worker’s body, persisted after the experience ended…That meant that cause and cure weren’t the same thing….A match will start a fire, but once the fire is burning, putting out the match won’t stop it. The problem is no longer the match. it’s the fire”
Therefore the problem is this: efforts to fix problems in urban environments mainly focus on attempting to change behaviors (this is where most public advocacy efforts are usually directed), on the premise that behavior modification will bring about the desired aggregate change. This assumption neglects the possibility that the issue has become behaviorally intractable.
“....A match will start a fire, but once the fire is burning, putting out the match won’t stop it. The problem is no longer the match. it’s the fire”
Sometimes it is easier to start by changing the conditioning factors that make up the incubated environment than attempt to directly change mindsets and behaviors.
- half-assed Googling did not turn up any references to this term elsewhere, but I am sure it can be traced to related theories in modern psychology and neuroscience. [↩]
- http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19225801.900-why-bonobos-make-love-not-war.html [↩]