One of the great books I return to again and again is Elias Canetti‘s “Crowds and Power”. He really covered all the bases when it comes to anything relating to masses, mobs, crowds, groups, and so on. Recently I’ve been curious about the relationship between crowds and personal stress. It’s been on my mind since coming to New Zealand, where there are fewer people on the entire South Island where I’m living than there are in the few square miles around where I work in Silicon Valley. The conditions here are strikingly different when it comes to sheer numbers of people. The most I’ve seen was yesterday in Akaroa when a mob descended from a Princess Cruise ship visiting from Australia. Otherwise, even in the heart of the larger cities here, there is relatively nobody. If I ever have to wait in line, in the grocery store or at an ATM, it’s almost always behind only one, or at most two, other customers. There is no traffic on the major roads except at specific and quite limited “rush hours”, and the culture in general is pretty relaxed, pretty easy-going, the people mainly friendly and gregarious. Not that people in San Jose are mean or bad or anything, but it’s definitely more anonymous and insulated there. Everyone’s got their own thing going on and can’t be bothered with stuff outside their personal set of blinders, myself included when I’m there.
Many studies have been done about urban density and aggressiveness, usually with a view towards crime and its prevention, and that’s all very interesting, but I haven’t found much yet that applies to the macro-cultural implications. It could be there is no direct correlation, but I can’t help but sense that there must be. One possible consequence would be a different slant on dystopias. With a vastly reduced population, one might suspect that there would be less tension, less anxiety, less aggressiveness, less violence than is the norm in almost all dystopian portrayals. Think of a post-nuclear Hawaii. Aloha!
Crowd stress is bad enough. Don’t get me started on crowd sourcing or the pseudo-scientific “wisdom” of crowds. Crowds are vicious, nasty beasts, always lowering the common denominator, always settling for less, always bringing about their own counter-revolutions. Anyone who’s waited in a long line knows they need to know about the so-called wisdom of crowds :}
On a side note: In New Zealand they round everything off to the dime. No nickels, no pennies, no quarters (they have twenty cent pieces instead). Very sensible – like a lot of things are here. Can you imagine this in America? What? You rounded up my six cents to ten? Well, yeah, and I rounded down the five to zero and it all works out in the end. No way. You’re ripping me off! You got to get it right, down to the penny in America. Otherwise you might be getting cheated and we can’t have that!