July 15, 2010

On The Lonely Crowd

Learned people knew that the earth was round long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The ancient Greeks were able to make a good approximation of the earth's circumference. What everyone in the west thought for a long time was that the earth was at the center of the universe. In the Ptolemaic, geocentric model, the stars and the planets and the sun and the moon revolved around the earth. Broadly, this view was reinforced by the dogma of the church. You did not question it.

However, many intelligent men and women could look in the sky and notice that there was something wrong. Most of the stars did rotate as if they were attached to the inside of a giant globe, but others behaved strangely. They would slow down relative to the other stars and even go in reverse. To work with this, the astronomers had to change the model. Instead of sliding along a rail, these stars acted and rotated on a second orbit inside of the larger orbit, known as `epicycles'. The models built on these central tenants were highly powerful. They could use the models to predict the future position of stars, they could navigate with the stars, and they could please the church with the models.

The models, however, were wrong. We are not at the center of the universe, and we have had to refigure our astronomy based off a heliocentric solar system. At this point, I ask: What do we make of the old model? Do we mock it, or can we study it for the elegance it was able to show under the constraints given?

I ask these questions because they come in while studying _The Lonely Crowd_. We have less perspective on the changes tracked by Riesman and his collaborators. In many places they were right. A fundamental change in how people see the world and act and react it was going on. In many ways, the book is prescient, as it foreshadows the whole of the text of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. We are (have) shifting from a work-based definition of the self to a leisure-based definition. Power has in many ways moved from a strict hierarchy to nodes of influence, called by Riesman `veto groups.'

But they were wrong. I am sure much has been written about this, as the text is well known in the field, but they got the `why' wrong. The whole explanatory basis of the book is predicated on the idea that capitalism, especially the upper-middle class American version of the culture created by capitalism, was peaking the population. Impending improvements in the mode of production would make population less necessary. Thus, the framework is based on the idea of `incipient population decline.'

The problem here is that while they were prescient on the cultural changes going about, and that we are heirs of, they missed the reason it was happening. They saw much, but not the baby boom that was happening as they were writing. At this point, I ask: What do we make of their model? Do we mock it, or can we study it for the elegance it was able to show under the constraints given?

I still enjoyed reading the book, but with the causation so easily missed, I did not always follow through on the thread of the argument. Instead, I found myself at length reflecting on ideas presented without the context of the greater argument. Even if they were wrong, I can say at least, `This book makes you think.'