The spreading process of social atomization

Why are humans becoming incapable to cooperate as social communities? This article analyses the most evident symptoms of the ongoing collapse of our collective dimension. 

Nowadays, we realize more and more how isolated our existence can be.

A feeling of social isolation has tacitly infiltrated our minds. Why is collaboration among human communities and their members tremendously fading?

A first reason should be sought in the contemporary way of approaching reality. Together with the advent of modern science, western civilization began to progressively lose contact with reality “as a whole”. In ancient Greece, philosophy arose to question the Entirety of Things: ancient thinkers were looking for the absolute origin, the ultimate indemonstrable principle from which everything comes and to which everything goes*1. This approach used to imply reality as an integer and solid dimension (Figure 1A).

Nowadays, we have lost a comprehensive vision. The growing complexity of our civilization has demanded our attention to be dedicated daily to sectorial aspects of reality, such as politics, theology, economy, science or technology. Given the currently high specialization of these disciplines, they relate to each other with extreme difficulty (Fig. 1B). This cultural fragmentation is mainly explained by two observations. First of all, supporters of distinct disciplines are persuaded that their discipline will solve global questions. As one of the reasons for this behaviour, we could point to the unjustified and extreme trust placed in science after the Scientific Revolution of the 16thcentury. Secondly, distinct disciplines are now fighting against each other for the detention of truth: the famous dispute between evolutionists (scientists) and creationists (mainly theologians) on the origin of species is a clear example.

Figure 1
Figure 1. A comprehensive approach to knowledge facilitates an interconnection between different aspects of reality (A), while a fragmentation of knowledge limits it (B).

Perhaps, at this point we can already identify a first critical issue: the ongoing fragmentation of knowledge cannot easily recapitulate the original desire for universal comprehension.
And doubtless – as concrete bearers of such fragmentation process – we are mainly becoming highly competent officials of distinct apparatuses.

We should now clarify what we mean by “competent officials of distinct apparatuses”.
As an example, we will now have a deep look into how contemporary science is approached.
Every young scientist, regardless of the academic formation, becomes quickly specialized into a fixed field of competences. This sphere of notions is so specific that makes a conscious contact between broader scientific realities almost impossible. Thus, the original philosophical intention to capture a wide vision of the world is completely ignored.
In fact, while individual carriers of precise but tiny knowledge cannot consider themselves as interconnected parts of an integrated scientific community, this illusion of solidity results from random association of isolated pieces of knowledge on digital platforms. The actual interaction between distinct fields mainly arises from users’ queries of keywords in online search engines, where all these detailed pieces of knowledge are stored in the form of published articles.
Following this logic, we clearly meet a paradox: although the overall scientific machinery appears solid and integrated, it is undeniable that individual scientists from different disciplines cannot easily understand each other, impeding the broadening of their horizons of knowledge.
The scientific progress is therefore expanding, but we feel dispersed into a structural solitude.

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pexels-photo-842339
Social atomization. Photo @ Mike Chai.

Now, in addition to this cultural issue, there are other aspects that we should take into account.
First of all, the highly competitive system in which we are raised. This system is fundamentally based on two parameters: productivity and efficiency. These two forces not only govern the economic system, but also feed the foundations of our education.
Productivity measures the quantitative value of human actions: it should be visualized as the tangible amount of products or data that a human being can generate. At the same time, efficiency requires the highest productivity in the smallest window of time.
The situation we are referring to can be easily exemplified: at school, the modern need to study and gain knowledge has become a simple means to obtaining an excellent grade. In basic terms, students spend the smallest amount of their time (efficiency) to provide their best intellectual products, in the form of grades (productivity). However, the issue arises when we realize that every single grade is indeed an outcome of isolated performances. When the performance is over, the value of its content is lost. Thus, in the perspective of obtaining a new grade, the meaning of the antecedent collected knowledge becomes completely useless (Read the article “Further reform of scientific teaching is necessary for a better society” to understand how teaching strategies might be improved).

This procedure not only favours the dispersion and obsolescence of any cultural meaning, but also strongly affects the social interplay between students. In fact, scholars are forced to compete both with themselves and with their colleagues to achieve excellent grades. Competition is the easiest way to pursue productivity and efficiency, but with the evident drawback of fragmenting communities into isolated individuals.

Perhaps, at this point of the discussion, we should ask ourselves why this general fragmentation process is taking place.
Civilization is the outcome of the interaction of humans with reality. Therefore, the structure of our civilization has to reflect the way our intimacy is shaped.
Given that civilization is the product of collaborating individuals, then is individual identity also fragmented?

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The typical individual trait required by modern society is dynamism. We are asked to be highly adaptable, multi-tasking and always traceable. As a direct effect, we are – constantly and anywhere – “partially dislocated”. We are asked to be “a bit here” and also “a bit anywhere else”, with the outcome of being nowhere at all. This constant request of simultaneous activities fragments our identity: we cannot be entirely present to ourselves in any moment of the day.
The effects of such dynamism not only affect our actions, but also our values. In fact, public customs reflect a society that “devours itself”: the rapid succession of fashions, the spreading of plastic surgery, the artefact and volatile narratives of talk shows are all invitations to keep looking for new values and principles that will be quickly removed and substituted by others. Given a picture of a society that does not last, how can individuals establish a solid intimacy?
In line with Zygmunt Bauman‘s vision, we should now picture modern individuals as people unable to put down roots to step on, always seeking for the novelty they never find, always doubting that what they find is what they are looking for, but with the certainty that anything they may find will never stop them from searching further.*2

As we have seen, the fragmentation of knowledge, the loss of a comprehensive vision of our culture and the rapid obsolescence of public customs are just few symptoms of the alarming process of social atomization.

If we wish to keep ourselves together, we must reinvent our way to approach the world.

As first steps in the near future, it is extremely urgent to rediscover a comprehensive vision of our wonderful world and to pose new solid values to build upon.

*1More information on the matter can be found in any manual of ancient philosophy [As an example, see (1)]

 *2 More information on the topic can be found in (2)

 

Simone Redaelli

 

References:

1) Severino, E. “La filosofia dai greci al nostro tempo – La filosofia antica e medievale (Italian, not available in English), 1996.

2) Bauman, Z. “In search of politics”, 1999.

Received: 07.01.19, Ready: 01.02.19, Editors: FG, RG.

3 thoughts on “The spreading process of social atomization

  1. Eerily, this echoes thoughts shared in a phone interview I was just conducting with a brilliant professor who has a vision she calls CC4ES – Coalition Center for Environmental Sustainability. Her emphasizes the use of social capital to bridge environmental consciousness with economic sectors of Policy Making, Business and Academia. Planet People Profit. She sees social interaction as the intersection of true sustainability, and she identifies a need to build a bridge between higher academia and.the public by translating scientific research into plain language, and a need to translate theoretical thinking into practical thinking. Consider the farmer who works the land and the agricultural professor, and consider how an apprenticeship on a farm enhances social interaction.

  2. Dear Wendy,

    Thanks for reaching out.
    Some of the ideas you mentioned are actually founding principles of Culturico. As a blog, we aim to build a mosaic of human pictures, in which the combination of individual contents could recapitulate the complexity of our culture. To achieve this goal we are indeed trying to translate academic knowledge into loyal but understandable discourses. Doubtless, our intention is also educational. Furthermore, this approach really helps to bring abstract thinking into action. With our ideas, we seek to change readers’ practical life and to enlighten creative aspects of our daily existence.
    The project you reported looks promising and has some core values to build upon.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on the matter.

    Simone Redaelli

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