Cities on the hill

This is a nice article in National Geographic about cohousing communities that seem to be working out for the residents. Reading it, though, it seems to me that their examples are often located a bit out from cities. They’re using fewer resources, but still dependent on, for instance, car travel, and I would assume jobs with typical modern commutes. That seems tricky to me.

So I’d love to add my own side note: don’t build a city on the hill somewhere in the woods away the hell from everything, but rather develop those cities in the midst of Rome and Babylon–develop them on top of the skeletons of still-breathing behemoths, and turn them toward fording the flooding river and carrying more people on their backs.

My parents went more or less off the grid. It didn’t work out. Many, many communes and “families” and “tribes” tried it in the 60s. Where are most of them now? They fell apart in scandals of sex, money, and/or ego. It’s happened at other times in history besides the 60s and in practice it works if and only if the members agree to strict rules, often including celibacy and minimal personal property. If not, they fall apart in primate conflicts. (Yes, I am a long-jaded hippie when it comes to bright-eyed talk of “family”.)

But cities, on the other hand, are stable population centers that exist due to more or less natural conditions (even if it’s the norm nowadays for them to damage nature substantially), accommodate more diversity of lifestyle and perspective, and which have a proven track record of surviving wars, natural disasters, and even empire collapse. They may change substantially over time, but the city continues to exist and afford its constituent humans support. That’s some robustness that you can’t just bootstrap with dreams.

I guess there’s something to be said for getting some like-minded people together and leaving Atlantis on a lifeboat, but what I question is the size such a lifeboat has to be in order to be viable as a long-term vessel.

Sound and fury

So this has bothered me for literally years and years.

In past centuries, learned scholars and (so I’ve been told) even normal people would share inspirational quotes. Life would happen, or they’d be chit-chatting, and they’d pull out a relevant line from Shakespeare, or Ovid, or the Bible, or even a famous song. The same thing would happen for other cultures besides mine–people would refer to stories of the Aesir, or Arjuna in the Gita, or something about Nasruddin. And it lent depth to the conversation. It still happens in some circles today. Hell, I do it.

A key aspect of that was that everyone in the conversation got the reference and understood its general context. They knew the poem, or the Bible verse, or whatever, and so the words weren’t just this atom of meaning.

Too often, facebook shares don’t have the context. Their ideas are from thinkers, authors, or characters whose perspectives are unclear and may, if you know the context of their lives, not actually turn out to be helpful advice to follow. They may be from someone who’s point of view isn’t, if you actually think it through, compatible with other points of view that you yourself hold. Divorced of that context, they are only words–sound and fury signifying nothing.

And most importantly, their primary purpose is often to signal or assert an identity, rather than actually to communicate. Identity is fun and important to celebrate, but not if it’s erecting a barrier rather than building a shared scaffold. To someone who thinks, strongly signalling an identity signals a lack of open-mindedness.