Monday, November 09, 2009

The Social Atom

As I might have mentioned earlier, I rarely lift and post substantial amounts of texts from books I'm reading. This post, with a focus on an excerpt from Mark Buchanan's The Social Atom, is an exception. I have posted what follows as a pretext for discussion in my classes. (now over!) This was done in the context of a review of the communication/life skills that my students had learned about/practiced this term. The discussions that followed were interesting, but unfortunately, none of them made it into direct responses to this post. The students generally had had enough of the assignments I'd given them, including the blogging/commenting.

While I was tempted to delete this post, I've decided to keep it up for next term.

Here are a few of Buchanan's (not very original, really) ideas:

"...rule number one for the social atom: We're highly skilled at recognizing patterns and adapting to a changing world. We interact with the world and learn from it. But we also learn, or try to learn, from others. We live our lives within families and networks of friends, with colleagues and neighbors, and amid a cacophony of voices and opinions blasted out from television, newspaper, and the Web. Far from being isolated, like atoms in a perfect vacuum, we are fully interdependent and embedded in a thick social tapestry of others, like atoms in a dense liquid, where we can barely move without jostling against others. Our social 'embeddedness' influences what we wear and eat, the work we do, our social opinions and thoughts. We do not think entirely on our own---what we believe and why depends strongly on our interactions with others.

"...Next to our ability to adapt, perhaps nothing is so pronounced in human behavior as our capacity for imitation. Infants learn within a few minutes to imitate their parents' facial expressions. The Romans, well aware of our imitating tendencies, hired professional mourners to kick off the wailing at important funerals. We have hardwired instincts for imitation yet often we also imitate consciously, as imitation offers a strategy, often our only strategy, for taking advantage of things that others may have learned. Of course, imitation can lead to weird and costly distortions, because those others don't always know very much. But ultimately, the surprising influence of imitation needn't be mysterious or puzzling --- scientists are finding that it often leads to patterns as regular as clockwork."

Mark Buchanan,  The Social Atom