Increasingly we gather in cities. All around the globe the movement is toward the urban areas, and here in the west, just outside the principal urban areas, into the suburbs. The glitz and excitement of the city is not experienced nearly as much as the movement would make you think, however. Instead, especially as North American cities become more fear mongering, we are confined to smaller and smaller spaces. We haven’t exactly retreated into the drawers of the Tokyo hotels, where for want of space and money people spend in the night in tiny rectangles, but we have retreated into rooms and tiny apartments. It’s worth remembering that the people in Tokyo staying in such small coffins have the entire quite safe city to explore, while in the west our fear of the urban landscape means we hide from the outside—in the case of inner city apartments—or are confined to the cell of our house and backyard—in the case of suburban living.
I was struck recently, by watching YouTube video representations of people’s lives, by the many thousands of videos of the antics of cats, them jumping into their pool, pranking their friends and family, and making crafts of hand, that we have increasingly moved inside. Few of the videos of society’s most active people—the teenagers who should be outside and exploring the world—show them enjoying the natural world. Instead, they are lounging on couches, lying in the backyard, singing in their bedroom, and teasing their pets. We have increasingly accepted the boxes we fled to in order to hide from the world we are told is frightening.
There are implications to that movement, of course. Over deep time we will likely evolve for this new environment, if the environment itself has any longevity. We will become unable to face the sun—witness the ubiquitous use of sunglasses—and increasingly indolent in our movements, given the confines of our narrow walls. Those were are so disposed as to not be satisfied with this narrow existence will become unhappy and commit suicide, or perhaps break free and become outriders in the system, organic farmers and homeless hippies. Either way, they will likely not contribute their genes to the huge pool of those who are content on a couch, for whom virtual reality is as meaningful as the nightly news, and who ultimately lose touch with what their life could be like.
In the short term, we have children whose soft bodies are undeveloped, whose social circles endlessly recycle electronic friends, whose adventures are limited to shopping trips to preapproved stores or investigative forays into the backyard.
We’ve heard these laments before, that this generation is too digital and not physical enough, too online social and yet unable to address a stranger. Those plaints have merit, but I am more concerned that even our
notion of fun has moved inside. The smack cam videos on YouTube largely take place inside, singing is a bedroom and living room enterprise, and animal videos are almost entirely either those of domestic animals in a home
—working out their boredom by attacking unrealistic enemies or acting goofy—or in a zoo—desperate animals railing against their confinement.
The natural world, which people are increasingly shut away from, is limited to exploration into the nearby park at night, movie-themed for maximum excitement, or stills by those photographers who still venture into the world that most of us in the cities only hear by report. We exclaim over the beauty of the pictures, but refuse to do them one better by traveling outside the endless sprawl that is our cities and see for ourselves what we have chosen to deny.
In Winnipeg, this is also true, perhaps even more so because of the interminable winter. Children play on the school playground at lunchtime for some of the season, are confined inside when the weather turns, and once they are home they have a few rooms for their expansive imaginations. If they are enrolled in clubs, they may have the good fortune to play in larger rooms, but the broader city, the scintillating draw for so many people around the globe, is not for them, their parents tell them. It is too dangerous, too much chance of a child going missing, of being run over, being hurt, talking to someone they shouldn’t, learning about socialization outside the church group, becoming a citizen of the modern urban world. Given that case, they move from one box to another and thus ensure for future generations that such monopoly board movements become the new normal.
Where people rebel, the results are perhaps telling. In Australia, the series from YouTube called Primitive Technology—which features a young man silently going about the business of using what resources exist in his surroundings to show how to modify his environment and thus improve a human life, how to kick-start human technological progress—is wildly popular. His videos, with their deadpan competence, lack of voiceover, splendid and informative editing, complete with bird noises in the background, excite thousands of comments.
Through most of the commentary we can find two general trends. Amazement and enthusiasm that he is engaging in such projects, a kind of nostalgic brooding over what the viewer would like to do, and terrifying ignorance about his true circumstances and mastery over what they would deem obscure technology.
The former group of comments are perhaps the more poignant, for the suburban child—which we may extend in age to at least their thirties—sees in his videos what they have been missing. The barefoot man cracking rocks to make sharp edges and then applying that to trees that fall with such a satisfying crack and crash, awakens our deep need to apply our skills to the world. The viewers find themselves on the outside looking in, far more so than they ever felt when playing Warcraft. They sense their useless hands by their sides and long for mud and sticks and leaves and grasses and rock. Caught by the screen in their hands, they can do little more than dream, however, for their parental and societal obsession with protection has meant they are confined to narrow rooms and a still narrower background, and the hunter gatherer in them must be put away like children’s toys while they get on with the mature business of making a living—pushing paper from one side of the desk to another—and preparing with the bank for retirement before they have ever lived.
Their nostalgia is understandable, given their circumstances, and forgivable, but in the suburban sprawl they have nothing they can exercise their soft hands on if even they retained the ambition and drive. The roads are sealed, like their driveways, with tarmac, the lawns are more industrial artifact than a living thing, the trees are planted by the city and illegal to touch, and the only stones are those imported for decorative purposes. In the house, with its gypsum walls and bland paints, they can bend pieces of plastic and leftover building supplies, but in the interest of sterility, those materials are typically sent to the landfill. In case that mound of raw materials interests anyone, it is made illegal to procure goods from the piles of trash, although they are ostensibly of use to no one, and the dump hires guards to ensure that the crushing machines can work uninterrupted.
Given their circumstances, their ignorance of what the man in the video is doing is perhaps understandable. Many think he lives in the clay houses he builds, or eats what he finds in the forest. They neglect the fact that he must be editing and uploading videos from some location that resembles theirs, or that he has expressly stated on more than one occasion that he is merely testing ideas that he has researched. Their ignorance of his circumstance notwithstanding, many also leave comments that show not only their lack of understanding of the natural world, but also their unwillingness to inform themselves such as he has done. When he purifies tiny pieces of bog iron from the iron producing bacteria, they merely want to know what was the orange stuff he put in the roll of clay and charcoal. When he fires the clay tiles to make a roof, they wonder why he doesn’t merely dry them instead. He maintains an extensive blog, which should be unnecessary for the careful viewer with a basic educational background since his videos are so meticulous in showing the various steps to his project, but they do not avail themselves of it. Caught physically in the confines of their narrow houses, they also do not venture educationally beyond the walls of their self-imposed ignorance.
Their lack of understanding of the natural world can be seen in the fail videos, in which children jump bicycles in their backyards, make rockets from soda bottles, swing pendulums into themselves, and in other ways show they know little about the natural world. The physics lessons they should have learned by hanging from a tree or from tying a piece of string to a rock and spinning it, have been lost on them. Since they gain their information from heavily manipulated movies, where stunt doubles make the hero look invulnerable, they are unprepared for the broken bones and punctured eyes of reality. If their play would have involved rocks and sticks and weeds and hills and rivers, they would know how to avoid being hurt, instead of walking blithely into the oncoming disaster they should be able to see coming.
This cultural blindness that we inculcate in our children is not an inevitable result of cities, however. The city landscape, concretized as it is, provides many opportunities for its denizens to explore and learn. there are other people, with their plethora of skills, raw materials lying in dumpsters and in the street, buildings against which to test our own Pythagorean theorems and our muscles, and a myriad other ways in which to make our new environment work for us. Unfortunately, we have branded the city dangerous, and are nonetheless drawn to it as a moth to a candle, only there to close our cell with an ominous clang.