Sunday, 30 October 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A few weeks ago I was behind the wheel, as I'm normally these days that I'm in charge of the school run, going about my business as usual. The speed at which I was driving oscillated between twenty and thirty miles per hour, the car window was rolled down whilst a cool morning breeze caressed my face. On the radio John Humphrys was grilling yet another politician. Then, all of a sudden, as I tried to overtake a bus that was stationary, I realised what I was doing and what I was about to do, too. Unwittingly, I'd fallen into a pattern, following the car in front of me without actually thinking of my actions. Had I overtaken the bus on my left, I would have collided with another car coming in the opposite direction. Luckily I managed to brake in time. But not before seriously telling myself off for being so stupid.

It was not the first time that I'd made the same mistake. I once trod on cow dung on a walk through the countryside when I was in uni doing my work experience despite the fact that every single person in front of me had already done it. And moaned about it! At the time I was the head of a brigade working on orange trees and we'd decided to skip work (as we often did) in order to explore the area. No matter that the dozen or so members of my unit sank their wellies and Russian boots in fresh bovine faeces. I was also following the herd, albeit of a different kind.

I sometimes wonder how "hardwired" we are, human beings, to copy other people's actions, the impact this trait has on us and the benefits (if any) they might bring to us.

A case in point is smoking. This is the same example I use when I try to demonstrate to people, like my children for instance, the perils of lighting up. If you smoke, or have smoked at some point in your life, try to go back to that moment when you first held that cigarette in your hand and took the first puff. How did it feel? Nauseating, I think. You probably coughed like mad as well. But you did carry on. Why? Didn't that initial "experiment" put you off? Well, of course not, because all around you your mates were doing the same. Regardless of the discomfort, the teary eyes and the raspiness in their throats, they kept puffing at their roll-ups. To me this is typical of the social networking enviroment in which human beings thrive, but also it illustrates how it can lead to failure. Twenty or thirty years from that first cigarette some of your friends will be paying a visit to their GP to find out about that "dark cloud" in their lungs. Maybe you'll join them.

We build networks through our lives. It's part of man's (generically speaking)gregarious nature. Some of these connections start in school and last well until our twilight years. Others are more ephemeral. But each leaves a mark, no matter how indelible it can be at times.

I've always been interested in human interaction and this was intensified last year when I joined Facebook. Until then I was one of those refuseniks who saw Mark Zuckerberg's creation as an attempt to shorten out attention span even more (as if that was humanly possible) through a combination of LOLs, smileys, emoticons and snaps taken by a shaky hand on a mobile phone. However, I was able to re-connect with old classmates from my uni years and form an online community in which we do a lot of reminiscing. At the centre of this virtual reunion are patterns that are embedded in our genes. It's the reason why one of the members of this online group posted a photo of his wedding the other day and despite the fact that I didn't know him that well, I had a lump in my throat nonetheless. It was the black-and-white-yellow-around-the-edges colour of the photo that did it for me.

These social networks we create when we are younger have upsides like the one described before. They also help us find love and employment. Since we seem to be connected ad infitum, our future partner should ideally be three persons away according to the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game whilst our dream job should just be around the corner. But that's not real life. We know better than to make these assumptions.

The negative impact of copycat behaviour brought about by close human connectedness can be, on the other hand, often fatal: alcoholism, the aforementioned smoking problems and drugs addiction. It usually starts innocently enough and in such a subtle way that before you know it you're in it up to your chest. A spliff is passed around. A drink is shared. A needle is produced. We, humans, are certainly interesting, and so are the networks we beget.

Companies cash in on these interactions, whether they be along the lines of the mistake to which I referred at the beginning of my post (following a pattern set by others), or the individual who stands out in a crowd and defies the "herd mentality" to which he or she is being subjected. Or if you like, it's the clash between T-mobile's carefully choreographed "flash mobs" (groups of people dancing in joyful mood in Liverpool Street Station, east London, for instance) or VO5 and its status quo-approved rebellious stance.

It's amazing that human relations can determine sometimes what we eat, how we vote and how we educate our children. Such a statement, said or written so coldly, would probably provoke a stern response from those of us who believe we have the mental and physical capacity to make decisions about our diet, our political choices and our offspring. But scratch the surface and look closer and you'll occasionally find a complicated microcosm of self-doubts and nagging self-interrogation. Influenced in no small measure by the "herd mentality". Which is one of the reasons why we're fallible and make mistakes. And why some of those gaffes end up on Facebook twenty years later. And yet, there's still a certain beauty in it.

© 2011

Next Post: “The Ground Beneath Her Feet (Review)”, to be published on Wednesday 2nd November at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Hi Cuban. I couldn't agree more with your thoughts here. I too have joined FB and recently been stunned by the number of connections I find between people who intersect my life from different places. People whom I'd assumed did not know one another and not just through the blogosphere where such unusual connections are easy to make but in my so-called real life too.

    The downside of all this connectedness is that in time we make too many connections and cannot keep up, which is one of the reasons I don't visit your blog as often as I'd like.

    I rely on serendipity often. I opened my blog page and there was your latest post by chance otherwise I'd have missed it.

    I simply can't keep up with all my new connections, but I do my best and I'm always grateful when I can.

    Thanks for a terrific post.

  2. Brother,
    i've been away too long.

    but, i'm so glad i decided to stop by, and on a Sunday! Sunday Mornings are my favorite posts. (and music, yay!)

    again, synchronicity: i was thinking along the same lines how folk fall into whatever religion and/or political persuasion their parents were into (for the most part).

    how difficult its been for me to run an election campaign(personal union stuff)because of people set in their clannish/cliquish ways has been on mind of late when i tune in to Cuban and there you are writing about "the herd".

    very interesting my friend,
    and scary.

    and . . . thanks for including one of the most famous (and imitated) baselines in rock and roll history.
    Jack Bruce! i never gave it a thought before, he DOES have a welcome voice.

    thanks again, Cubano, pa'lante.



  3. The connections nourish us. FB is for connection and keeping in touch with "old" friends. I enjoy being at the blog with me "new" friends more. But yes, we cannot isolate ourselves, we are islands in the stream.

  4. That bass and guitar hook have always been in a league of their own.

    Serendipity is a marvellous free0flow moment that has a tendency of recurring in my life.

    "Islands in the stream". That could be a line for a poem about the blogosphere.

    Thanks to you all for popping by.

    Greetings from London.

  5. Ah, yes! Yes! We follow; we feel good in company. We feel great among peers who share our history, our language, our tribal signs.
    Great reverie, Cubano.

  6. Love this post and the Cream song afterward. I found the intertwining of the herd mentality thoughts with social networking fascinating, and the way you described the beauty of the latter, perfect.

    Speaking of perfect, I have something perfect for you:

  7. Another very gratifying read, Cuban. (If you read my latest post, it is you I refer to in the second paragraph - and I'm not being unkind there!)
    It took me quite a while to get over the discomfort I felt about Facebook, but when I'd finally figured out what I really wanted it for, or who I wanted it for, then my ambivalence stopped niggling.
    I have never had networks, and have no one that I particularly want to reconnect with from the past. That sounds pretty anti-social, but it stems from being a very shy youngster. But Facebook is wonderful for my situation, far from my family for months at a time, and finding it invaluable for being able to keep a casual eye on what they're doing, interested in and talking about. It's like a virtual kitchen table, where they come and go, bring friends, talk around me and over me but with full knowledge that I hear everything they say. It's irreplaceable for that.
    The positive aspects of human community are, by their very postiveness, unremarked-upon much of the time. The negative bothers us, and so we look for reasons and responsibilities for its propagation. And we talk about it, and dissect and discuss it.
    There was a fascinating program on French TV last year which explored the reactions of people who were pressured to inflict what they thought was real pain on others, at the urging of an authority figure. Before I watched that, I would have said that I would not be one to follow the herd or to give into pressure to do something I knew to be wrong/stupid/cruel. But after seeing the film, I was shaken. I honestly don't know if I would have been any better at resisting the pressure and standing alone with my ethics than the 'participants' were. It was an extraordinary lesson that I hope my pysche has taken permanent note of.

  8. I love this introspective post. I have never linked my resistance to smoking or taking drugs to my reluctance to join Facebook. I don't usually like best seller books either. I'm the unconnected dot on your chart.

    As for you, from what appears on your blog I'd call you more of an original thinker than a follower. You are your own worst critic.

    Sorry to be so late to visit. We survived the blizzard but it was lots of work getting ready for it so early.

  9. Thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.



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