Is our society’s current obsession with “individualism”, and defining ourselves through ownership and habits, a form of defence against being swamped in our well connected, overpopulated world?


I don’t know if defence is quite the right word. I would go with coping mechanism. But in essence, I think you’re onto something.

The Dunbar number is the notion that the human brain, when compared to other primates, is roughly scaled to cope with a peer group (read: tribe/community) of about 150 people (actual research points to between 100-230, but 150 is widely accepted shorthand). I was trying to think the other day about how many faces we probably see in a day or week of city life. The calculation is complicated, but yesterday I walked through the centre of Brighton several times. I reckon I could’ve easily seen a couple of thousand people yesterday. Probably more.

I’ve mentioned before that (ironically) this why it seems like such a small world.

Our brains are adapting to an environment that they weren’t developed in.

As I understand it, the leap to Sapiens was precisely about making this step. Brains getting fat enough to actually take on the world at it’s own games. Minds that were capable of working and changing our environment without a need to adapt our bodies to match the challenges.

And I include the brain in that body.

The brain isn’t wired for this world. It made it, but it isn’t made for it.

Technology increases at a rate that appears exponential (there may be limiting factors we have yet to see). Evolution makes a slower game of things.

But you’ve heard about the tortoise and the hare right?

It could be proposed that shopping is our substitute for the hunter/gatherer instincts that our brains evolved for. We’re wired to behave like that. To seek and destroy. Food became easy to track down, so we made other games, found other things to destroy.

I still don’t know if I buy that story, but it sounds compelling. I think our brains are more complicated than that though. They are learning machines, there aren’t fixed routines.

But there are limits, and I think the world we’ve created exists beyond those limits.

And a large part of it is this disparity between the number of people we can know well, and the number of people we come into contact with.

So we wear our identities on our sleeves, clearly constructed within the huge structures of what we understand our society to understand.

We create an us and them. (This is the most dangerous aspect of the coping mechanism, though there are more insidious problems).

The things we learn can be changed, but the structure society has built plays beautifully to the structures of our brains. We see protest against the system in terms of the same economic/socio-political structures we may be rejecting.

By buying or not buying stuff because we believe in it, we emphasise that that purchasing habit is a method of self expression.

And it feels good, doesn’t it.

Buying that thing. Owning that thing.

Like you’ve hunted the animal and put it’s heart on your sleeve.

We could be more.

Illustration by Lucy.


About Alex Ava

Joiner of Dots. Player of Games. Unreliable Narrator. Dancing Fool.
This entry was posted in Illustrations by Lucy, Questions by Max. Bookmark the permalink.

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