We all live in stressful times. That’s an obvious truism. But, after some recent conversations, I have become even more aware of the nature of stress and have come to realize that, at least in the western democracies, we are living inside a huge social experiment—one without controls and with no end date.
Stress takes many forms. At the basic, biological level, stress involves any change in the immediate environment to which a species has became adapted. If the ambient temperature or humidity or other physical factor changes significantly; if the food supply markedly decreases, increases, or alters its nutritive content; if population density increases or decreases, or alters the expected ratio of available mates—the individual will be stressed. Physical stresses can result in lowering the immune system’s ability to fight disease; changing the sleep-wake cycle; changing metabolic rates, with increases in eating disorders and obesity; triggering auto-immune diseases like asthma and diabetes; and even contributing to various cancers.
Psychological stresses can arise as a secondary effect of physical stresses like sleep disorders and disease processes, but they can also occur as a direct result of environmental changes such as crowding, sensory overload, repeated exposure to physical risk, and excessive demands on our attention span and task orientation. Psychological stresses directly affect how we as individuals relate to other people, perform and cope with the tasks of daily living, and deal with marginal demands on our energy level.1
In the overall population, psychological stresses can increase the incidence of extreme individual acts such as violence and suicide as well as create subtler changes in the social dynamic. For example, some scientists are beginning to relate a population’s incidence of homosexuality and other non-reproductive practices—such as heterosexual couples preferring to delay or even forgo childbearing—to that population’s density. The closer we live together, the less we feel the need to bring more children into the mix. These could well be innate biological responses arising from social conditions and their accompanying psychological stresses.2
So what is this vast social experiment in which we’re engaged? I believe it takes two chief forms: urbanization and information density.
Other than Rome at the height of its empire, which is said to have reached a population of one million, cities in the ancient and medieval worlds simply didn’t grow very large.3 Rome managed it through a combination of superb engineering and government planning. They built a web of aqueducts that brought fresh water across the plains from distant hills. They build a web of public lavatories and sewers, ending in the Cloaca Maxima, to take their wastes down to the Tiber. They built multi-story tenement complexes, called “insulae” or “islands,” where unrelated individuals and families lived cheek-by-jowl in separate rooms and apartments. And they organized fleets of grain carriers to bring a seasonal corn ration from Africa and Egypt to feed the population—which then required them to organize a fleet of warships to fight off pirates. Rome grew big because technology permitted and encouraged it.
For the rest of the world, most people lived a rural, agrarian life. Unless you were a Roman legionary, a Persian Immortal, or a member of the Mongol horde, you were born, live, and died in a village or market town, seldom traveled more than thirty miles from home during your entire life, and had personal acquaintance of perhaps a couple of hundred people.4 And with notable exceptions like Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus, that was the scale and pulse of life for the average human from our hunter-gatherer ancestors right down to about the 1500s. Life was limited, dreary, predictable, quiet—and relatively unstressful. According to various estimates, the population of the entire planet was about 500 million.
Since then, of course, we’ve ballooned our population to about seven billion people—fourteen times as many as we numbered half a millennium ago. Cities with a population of a mere million people today are considered small. We didn’t do this because human birth rates suddenly shot up due to some unforeseen biological change. The number of humans grew for the same reason the City of Rome grew so large—superb engineering and government planning. We’ve learned the knack of providing clean water, relatively efficient waste disposal, dense urban housing, a highly organized economy, and plentiful food and entertainment to people in small geographic areas. And with the rise of technology, we’ve also added chemical and electrical energy to run our productive machinery, light our lives after dark, enable our communications, and distribute our entertainments. Our populations grew in numbers and density not because of any biological cause, but simply because they could.
Still, in a world of seven billion people, a human being with a brain, mind, and attention span evolved for a hunter-gatherer society can usefully know and relate to perhaps a couple of hundred other people. That’s your nuclear family, extended family, self-selected tribe of personal acquaintances and co-workers, and casual contacts with service providers like the mailman, store clerks, and cop on the beat.5
Those are the people you meet in the flesh and know by face and name—the people in your social circle from whom you might catch a cold or the next cycle of influenza. That’s been the social contact radius from the beginning of humanity down to about 1500 AD. But in the fifty years just before that date something happened that would change the game completely: Johannes Gutenberg adapted Chinese block printing with the addition of moveable type and invented the modern printing press.
Suddenly, you were in psychological and informational contact with many more people than just those with whom you could physically meet or exchange a letter—presuming you could write in the first place. Suddenly, that little-known practice of monks and clerics, not even well understood by your betters in the aristocracy—that is, reading and writing—became as essential a human skill as digging a latrine or riding a horse. Where before your life was bounded by symbols in stained glass, occasional pictorial signs above a tavern, and rules laid down by tradition and the spoken words of a king relayed by a herald or the local sheriff, now your life was guided by texts, road signs, proclamations, and legislation. Suddenly your circle of hidden acquaintance—the minds, thoughts, and thinking processes you might come into contact with but not actually recognize as another person—widened dramatically. This was the effect of information density on social organization.
In 500 years, our civilization has widened the exercise of reading from absorbing an occasional new law about a tax or the price of bread, to absorbing monthly, weekly, or even daily chunks of unrelated news and information from far outside your home and village, and then to actually reading for pleasure and immersing yourself in the lives, concerns, and activities of fictional people who never lived in the first place.
In the last 100 years with the advent of radio, and the last 50 years with the advent of television, we’ve multiplied that stream of news and information and fictional acquaintance a hundred- or a thousandfold.
In the last ten years with the expansion of the internet, and now in the last five years with the advent of social networking, we’ve multiplied once again the amount of information and non-personal concern that a person is expected to absorb. Today, the sphere of personal knowledge can encompass virtually every thought, fact, image, and opinion in existence on the planet. We’ve widened our acquaintance by the number of people we either know by proxy or simply by face and name, along with whatever else, true or false, they might choose to share through social media.
Before, a person was asked to care about and work on whatever might affect the village’s affairs by way of political decree or economic shift, and accept threats from what could come over the horizon in the way of storm, invasion, drought, and famine. Now, people are made aware of and concerned for wars happening half a planet away and environmental or economic threats a decade or a century into the future.
Before, a person of some prominence had to worry about his or her reputation in the town or the county, among a social circle that was bounded by the human voice and the limited scale of personal acquaintance. Now, a person fears to be censured—but also, in some cases, hopes to become known and praised—at a provincial, national, or even global level. People you don’t know, never heard of, and never will meet in the flesh are now weighing judgment on your deportment, your lifestyle, your reputation, your work, your art, and even your continued existence.
Where once you were aware of perhaps three hundred people out of 500 million on the planet, now you can plausibly be concerned with the thoughts and opinions of all seven billion—or at least the subset of those who are electronically connected to the world by a smart phone and a computer.
In our modern, urbanized societies, interconnected by streams of paper and floods of electrons, we live closer to more people and know more people on the periphery of our social contacts by perhaps an order of magnitude. And we are aware of more people beyond those whom we can touch, hear, or see by several orders of magnitude. We are asked to be sensitive and socially aware on a local, national, and global level, and take responsibility for challenges and problems that extend far outside our own lives, those of our family, and even our generation.
Does that add to our psychological stressors? How can it not? The experiment has been running at various intensities for 500 years, 50 years, and 5 years now. And no one can say what new level of complexity or social involvement might be added in the future with some new technological advancement that will extend the experiment by even greater orders of magnitude.
So I would cut the average human being some slack if he or she occasionally snaps in despair, commits random acts of violence, self-medicates, or retreats into the fetal position. The party will go on until the last celebrant standing drops dead on the dance floor.
1. Here I’m using “marginal” in the economic sense of a specified limit beyond which existing rewards, returns, or results can be predicted to change. The “last straw” could be defined as the “marginal” straw.
2. No, this is not a slam at homosexuality, nor an attempt to portray it as a chosen lifestyle. I understand that homosexuality is in most cases an innate condition, present in some form within the psyche at birth. But that is not to say it cannot also be a response to hormonal triggers and social pressures. The tendency may be there in the genes but, as with many other aspects of human life, it may also need psychological and biological help to come into full flower.
3. According to various estimates, the most populous cities from ancient times up to about 1500 AD might have accommodated between 100,000 and 600,000 people. Dense, but nothing like today’s crowding.
4. The other exception to the travel radius was nomadic herders, who might go a few hundred or a thousand miles from season to season. But since they took their family and tribe along with them, their circle of acquaintance was probably even smaller than those with a fixed address.
5. Sure, you work in a multinational corporation with an employee base of 100,000 people—but with how many of them do you actually do business? Perhaps twenty inside your own department. Maybe fifty more outside. Maybe two hundred more—and at a lower level of intensity and frequency—among your paying customers. … Add them to the members of your family, church group, and bowling or softball league, and you’re not dealing with many more people day to day than a serf attached to a feudal farming community.