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Into the madding crowd

We’re told that we’re living in a world of lonely individuals. Community and community spirit is dying. So are the mass employers of old. Increasingly, we live in our own digital cocoon, isolated by technology from human contact.

Maybe so. But my bet is that the future really lives, like the rest of us, in crowds.

This thought arose a couple of weeks ago when Chicago hosted a three-day sports extravaganza devoted to the National Football League draft. This was a surreal exercise in athletic hype, a football fest centered on the selection of a small number of large young men to go hurt each other for a year or two. There wasn’t much to see. The draft itself took place indoors. The players appeared briefly, if at all. There was food and drink for sale and a museum featuring Super Bowl rings. Not exactly a weekend for the ages.

Yet the city estimated that some 200,000 persons jammed the Grant Park site. Hotel rooms and restaurants in the neighbourhood reportedly did big business. Buses and parking garages were jammed and, presumably, a good time was had by all.

To repeat, this was a non-event. There was little to do and less to see — certainly nothing that couldn’t be viewed on TV. Yet the crowds poured in. Why?

I can only conclude that they came because they came. In other words, they wanted — needed? — to be part of the crowd. There was a lot of people because there was a lot of people.

That’s not supposed to be happening. We’ve been reading that we are atomising as a society. Distant communications — smart phones and tweets and emails — are said to take precedent over our companions at the dinner table. The exurban dream is a McMansion on an ever-bigger lot, ever farther from the nearest neighbors. Cars are bigger and hold fewer people. Automation destroys the mass-employment workplaces of old and replaces them with the lone entrepreneur, working her laptop from her bedroom. We live farther from family. We vote. We focus on Me, not on Us. Robert Putnam, the Harvard sociologist, tells us that we are “bowling alone.”

And yet... it’s not working out that way. People — like the hordes that descended on Grant Park for the NFL draft — want to be together, to meet, to be part of the crowd.

This is the key to global cities. With the advent of the internet, we assumed that cities would empty out as business people and traders took their computers to a nice lake or mountain villa, where they would be in touch with all the information they needed. Instead, they have jammed into the center of global cities because the kind of latest, up-to-to-date information they need can only be got face-to-face. So much for digital isolation. It turns out that global citizens just want to have lunch.

People still go to sporting events, more than ever, although they could see the game much better from the couch at home. Netflix is the latest invention that should have doomed movie theaters: it isn’t happening. The 21st-century music-lover can hear anything she wants on Spotify or Pandora, but she still joins a sell-out crowd at a live concert on the weekend. Trendy restaurants are actually designed to maximise noise: it doesn’t matter that diners can’t hear each other, so long as they hear the crowd.

Old Americans take cruises on ships that hold 6,000 people or more. Young Americans go to Burning Man, with 65,000 other young Americans. Religious Americans increasingly attend mega-churches with 25,000 or more in the congregation, every Sunday. Once a year, the richest and most powerful Americans fly to Davos to be with 2,500 other rich and powerful people. Why? What do they learn? Who cares? They’re part of the crowd.

More than 1.5 million Chicagoans jam Grant Park every summer for a five-day calorie festival called Taste. In Milwaukee and Des Moines, they draw 1 million-plus over the 11 days both for Summerfest, Milwaukee’s big summer festival, and for Iowa’s State Fair.

For decades, digital prophets have predicted a new era of tele-commuting. Maybe so. It seems to be up to three million Americans now. That’s two per cent of the total workforce. If this is the wave of the future, it’s a ripple, not a tsunami.

Meanwhile, a huge chunk of the other 98 per cent are actually commuting, often long distances, for a couple of hours per day. Why in the world would they do it? Perhaps because they really want to. They want to get to the store or the office, to be with other people — with the crowd.

Cities everywhere are growing and becoming more dense. Already, half of all humanity lives in cities: in the US, it’s 80 per cent, and growing. Whatever for? We’re told that digital technology — yes, that ubiquitous empowerer of the individual — makes it possible to access the economy, to innovate and invent, to start businesses, and raise money from strangers and, in general, to thrive, all from some nice uncomplicated rural village.

Again, it’s not happening. Much of America’s high tech industry and the money that fuels it is jammed into a Valley called Silicon. People there may work from their bedrooms but they want to live close to the action — one reason for the sky-high property prices in the area.

In Chicago, there are two major centres for digital start-ups: one in the Merchandise Mart Building called 1871, and the other in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago. Go in at any hour of the day and night and you’ll see the same thing — a large room filled with bare tables, occupied by nerds of all ages, beavering away at their laptops behind small signs proclaiming the names of their start-up companies. They could work in isolation at home. But they prefer to work surrounded by other people, with the ideas and stimulation that fly freely in that kind of atmosphere.

My guess is that the most important parts of these incubators are the coffee shops, where the real benefit of being in a crowd takes place.

Perhaps the digital age, eventually, will turn us all into cloistered Trappists. For now, though, most people seem addicted to crowds because — well, because that’s where the people are.


This post was originally published at The Midwesterner