Friday, November 7, 2014

Small world problem

Earlier this week, I was talking with a classmate (Institute for Environmental Communications) about our class, and we started discussing architecture. 

"My parents both have architectural backgrounds," she said.  "Mom is an architectural historian, and tells me all the time that the old houses were not meant to have AC.  They were built to emit heat, and take in cold air.  My dad's basement - he lives in South Carolina..."

"Where in South Carolina?"

"It is a little town on the coast named Beaufort..."

"Beautiful Beaufort, by the sea; twenty..."

"-six miles from Yemassee!  How do you KNOW that?"

The railroad tracks in Yemassee that would wake me up
as we were getting close to Nana's house.
Turns out that her dad is a couple of years older than my mom, and both come from the same town.  We shared stories of Lady's Island, of Land's End Lights, of bluffs and hurricane insurance, Pat Conroy, summers in Hunting Island...

We reduced the size of the world by common origins.

Would YOU expect to see someone you know here?
Two weeks ago, I was standing in line, waiting for the bus to take me back to Cuzco, Peru, from the four-day hike to Machu Picchu.  Suddenly, and I see a friend of mine from New Orleans (she left the Corps of Engineers to go live in Colorado about two years ago).  It was an insane moment, completely unexpected.  In fact, when I went over to speak to her, she didn't recognize me, because it was so unanticipated. My proferred hand just hung in space, unshook.

Finally, the man standing next to her nudged her, and she looked up.  "CROREY! What are you doing here?!"  She introduced me to her dad, we talked about the different hikes, and marveled that we would run into each other a half a world away.

The world, reduced, as a result of a common work environment.  And maybe a common bucket list item.

Friends who know friends, people related to friends who live abroad, co-workers and acquaintances, we face fewer degrees of separation at every turn.  Part of the reason my world keeps shrinking is because my circles keep expanding.  As people I did archaeological survey get hired at universities around the country (and the globe) and as friends from work move away and take jobs elsewhere, my connections all over the place become dendritic.

Two generations ago, the norm was to stay in the community where you grew up.  Moving was a pretty traumatic experience, as you were torn from your friends and out of your social network.  The Eisenhower Highway system shrunk the world considerably, and we have become more peripatetic than before.  The internet has made it possible to stay in touch with those who have moved away, and so those connections can continue to be fostered at a distance.

This is the 'small world problem', introduced by Milgram, following up on concepts by Gurevich and Marconi.  The essence of what they wrote is that there are remarkably few social connections needed to connect one person to any other.  (There were Monte Carlo simulations involved, and horrific displays of statistics.)  But the end result was that people are more interconnected than they realized.

Whether you tap into the small world problem by using the Kevin Bacon application through google (Type "bacon number" (no quotes) into Google's search bar, followed by the name of an actor or actress... oh, I don't know... say, Caroline Lawton), or whether you connect to an archaeology project in Namibia through a mutual friend, the reality is that the world has gotten smaller.

Here's the kicker.  The small community is known for its normalizing mechanisms.  You tend to behave, because Aunt Millie is always watching.  You tend to do the right thing, not because your inner compass is working harder in the small community, but because the people in your community know you.  Know your family.  And report back to your family. 

Now that our world is tiny, and Aunt Millie is watching 24/7 from every cell phone and crime camera, getting away from the small community is impossible.

Even in Machu Picchu.

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