Do you remember the song, “Take me for a ride in the car car”? Here’s a link to one popular version. Peter, Paul, & Mary also sang it. Nice song. But you may have experienced it being repeated too often. At a certain age, some kids seem to discover that they can be really annoying simply by singing a song over and over and over and over.
When I was in my early teens, I took a car trip with my Uncle Paul and his wife and three kids out to see his brother Bob who headed up a psychiatric hospital in Pennsylvania. It was a long drive. At some point, to pass the time, we sang some songs. When the last song was over, Paul’s youngest son began to make up new verses for one of the songs. At first, it was rather cute to watch him try to build a story, rhyme, and keep in tune, none of which he actually succeeded in. But after about a quarter hour, he began to annoy people with his off-key, non-rhyming, senseless continuations of the song. After about a half hour he was annoying everyone. After an hour, we began to discuss leaving him by the side of the road and returning in another ten years to see whether he was still there.
On car trips, we used to play a number of games to pass the time; e.g., seeing how many different states license plates we found find. Later, I learned to play “The Alphabet Game.” There are several versions, but basically, you must find, in order, the letters of the alphabet from passing cars, signs, etc. Stuff inside your own car cannot be used. (You could easily find all the letters in a book or magazine). I’ve learned to know where to look for J, Q, and Z. I’ve been in cars where we played twenty questions, Botticelli, Buzz, and Ghost. When I was a kid, I also simply looked out the window to entertain myself. Sometimes, I would imagine that the dotted lines that divide the lanes were like tracer bullets shot from our car. Then, I would watch to see whether another car got “blown up” because they crossed our fire. I would also imagine myself “flying” alongside the car, having to bob and weave to avoid telephone poles, trees, signposts, etc.
Traveling in a car with a family or with a group of friends or your car pool is potentially a social opportunity as well as an opportunity to save money. Since you’re in the same car, you need to agree on destination. To some extent, you need to agree on temperature & what to do about the windows. As a kid, everyone also lived in the same “sonic space.” We would have to “agree” on a game or on a radio station. This is no longer the case. Now, often times, everyone in the family may have their own individual entertainment. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Even in the modern day, driving in a car with others is different from driving in a car on your own. If you’re by yourself, you can decide on the temperature and entertainment without having to take into account anyone else’s wishes. If others are in the car, some kind of negotiations have to take place.
At least, that’s what most people do. You could decide: “Hey! It’s my car so I’m going to drive and I get to determine everything about our common space — temperature, entertainment, windows, whether we stop, etc.” This is what is known in academic circles as the “A$$hole theory of cooperation”: Get everything you possibly can for yourself and to hell with everyone else. And after all, they’re doing the same exact thing.
Notice too that to some degree, the amount of accommodation you have to do depends on how much humanity is in the car besides yourself. It also depends on how “luxurious” your vehicle is. If you have a tour bus or a camper, six people might be relatively comfortable. If it’s a VW bug, you won’t be. You’ll not only be crowded; you’ll have to be careful every time you move not to accidentally elbow someone in the eye. Have you ever been in that crowded of a situation for hours at a time or even days at a time?
It isn’t just cars. In general, the more people occupy a given space, the more they are going to have to cooperate in order to survive and thrive. You can provide individuality support with technology, up to a point. In a way, clothing is like that. We can peacefully co-exist in a car without either of us compromising out comfort because I can wear a sweater and you can wear a thin shirt. You can provide everyone an iPhone and everyone can play their own game without having to agree on a common game. Of course, there’s a downside to that. First, we don’t have practice getting along with others. Second, we don’t share a common experience.
Even if the “typical” family of four interrupts their car trip and stops for lunch and agrees to talk, they are likely coming from very different places. Dad has been listening to Mozart and was in good mood until he suddenly remembered he was supposed to have sent out a memo to everyone in the department about last month’s sales figures. Damn. Maybe he can do it from the Motel but it will take longer than it would have at work. His son Sam, meanwhile, was trying to use sexting to convince his girlfriend to “take their relationship to the next level.” As a result, they just broke up. Dad doesn’t know a thing about that; nor does Sam know anything about why Dad suddenly seems put out. Mom meanwhile, was listening to Fox “News” where she “learned” that it’s Biden’s fault Putin “had to” attack the Ukraine because Biden was too tough on Russia and also too easy. Her daughter Sally, on the other hand, has spent the last 45 minutes on twitter learning about the Putin invasion. She is wondering whether atomic war might start.
Now, they stop for lunch. That’s nice. And, maybe they’ll talk about something common; perhaps the weather, or the scenery or the food. But they might just revert to what they were doing before they got together at the restaurant. Even if they all have the willpower to put away their personal devices, they are still coming from very different places emotionally and experientially. Dad might make a comment about how he forgot to write an important e-mail and he’ll have to do it from the Motel. Sam just shakes his head and says, “Important e-mail? My life is ruined! What do you care?”
Dad might say, “What do you mean by saying that your life is ruined?”
Sam might even share, “Jackie broke up with me!”
Dad, meaning well, and wanting to offer a solution before he starts reminiscing about his own high school days, blurts out: “Oh, Sam, don’t worry about it! You’ll have another girlfriend in a week.”
That may well be empirically true. But to Sam? He feels he has just lost the love of his life. His father’s comment seems to him to be dismissive of his feelings to the point of cruelty.
Sally pipes up, “How can you be worried about such trivial things as e-mail and dates when we might be blown to smithereens at any moment? Do you ever pay any attention to the world outside yourself? Putin is a monster killing innocent civilians so he can slake the thirst of his pathetic ego!”
Mom is taken aback. The only news she doesn’t dismiss as “lies that are out to get Trump” has been Fox “News” for the last few years. She says, “Don’t be saying bad things about Putin! He’s a nice man who just wants his Ukraine back.”
Sally’s jaw drops. “Are you serious! He kills journalists who write the truth about him. He’s a corrupt crime lord. He played Trump like a fiddle … no … not that complicated … played him like a drum … no … still too complicated … played him like the triangle. You know. Bang it every once in awhile and it reverberates. Anyway, it isn’t “his” Ukraine. It belongs to the Ukrainian people!”
Some families are better at getting through all this than others. These four have not shared a common experience and are coming from very different places. If they have no practice playing a game according to a common set of rules, what chance to they have to settle deeper differences?
Maybe avoiding little conflicts by giving everyone their own personal entertainment device means that when much bigger and more difficult conflicts arise, no-one remembers how to resolve things. Why shouldn’t everything by how I want it? Let others do the same! Let the best man win!
Except, of course, it isn’t the best man or woman who actually wins in a land where no-one plays by the rules. It’s the most corrupt. And the net result of everyone spending so much time competing and so little, if any, time cooperating is that nothing much is actually accomplished. It doesn’t even work very well in a small group. In a large nation, a dictatorship is almost invariably associated with less for everyone except the dictator and the immediate surround. Dictatorships do sometimes manage to steal from neighbors who are productive because they are cooperative. If all countries were dictatorships, they would all perish, probably in atomic war, but possibly in ecological collapse or just mass suicide.
In 2018, I worked on a “Pattern Language” for collaboration and cooperation. Here’s a link to an index of the Patterns. One of them is called “Small Successes Early.” Should I be worried that we seem to be moving into a world where there are fewer and fewer opportunities for peacefully resolving small conflicts? Avoiding unnecessary conflict seems like a good thing. But … is the downside that people have no practice resolving conflicts? And, is the further downside, that people eventually end up with huge differences in their notions of reality when it really matters? It seems to be the very thing that Faux News has been counting on; that people would not only listen to them but not listen or dismiss any other views. As a result, people end up with very different models and explanations of the world. That is always a bad thing, but in a world where people are unpracticed at resolving conflicts, it’s even more problematic.
There is always a tradeoff between cooperating as a whole and letting each individual do as they wish. One thing seems crystal clear. As the number of people in your car increases, their individual freedom to do just as they please decreases. So, too, with the world. In my own lifetime, the population of the world has quadrupled. Of course, it’s not equally distributed. People are more concentrated in cities than ever before. Many of these cities are located on ocean coasts. What does the continuation of global warming mean to population migration and crowding?
I’m not sure how many people realize this, but we’re still in a pandemic. If people were very sparsely populated, we probably wouldn’t be. But as we continue to get more crowded, humanity will become more susceptible to pandemics. That in turn, means people will have to accommodate to each other’s needs. As a background rule, a person can choose to wear what they want. There are, of course, many exceptions to that. In many situations, you have to wear a shirt and shoes. In some situations, you have to wear a suit and tie or a uniform. If you might be spraying germs at other people, it seems totally reasonable to change your behavior or clothing to minimize that spread. But some people apparently think that they should be able to do exactly as they want regardless of the consequences to others.
As the earth becomes more crowded, we need to be more cooperative, not less. The presence of a large number of deadly weapons also makes it more important to cooperate. The race to ensure survival by having ever larger numbers of ever more deadly weapons is not a path toward that greater cooperation. Dictators, for instance, tilt toward war to consolidate their power.