Small town feedback loops, big city solidarity

I was riding the subway in New York last week. The family next to me was chattering in French. They didn’t know I could mostly understand them, although my Mountain Equipment Co-op backpack may have betrayed that I was Canadian. A couple of teenagers across the aisle were kissing in public and hands-y enough to attract disapproving glances, all under the cover of anonymity. Later, a passenger started yelling, incomprehensibly but for a handful of insults. Looking around, I caught eyes of people who shook their head slightly at me as if to say, “Can you believe this guy?”

As I discovered years before in Toronto, there is no better time to ponder life's questions than on public transit or park benches surrounded by other introspective, glassy eyed people. So while I visited New York City for the first time last week (it surpassed every expectation), these are some of the thoughts that flitted through my head. Forgive me for stating what to many of you will be painfully obvious.

On the surface, it might seem more difficult to deal with co-existence in a big city where you are constantly in close quarters with people you do not know and may not want to know.

But not knowing is so easy. You can walk out the door every morning in a big city and be whoever you want to be. It makes no difference. If you discover something that works - an attitude, practice, or fashion that gets you the results you want - you can just do it.

On the contrary, it’s community that’s hard. As soon as you reach a small enough scale where people recognize each other and your reputation precedes you, that’s when co-existence gets difficult. When there’s a chance you’ll interact with people more than once, you need to be on best behaviour and you need to be consistent.

There are times when I really miss the big city. I’m not tempted by the cloak of anonymity or the freedom to redefine myself. What I miss is the ability to be fully surrounded by other people without the work of community. In big cities, I feel solidarity with people in a sense that we’re all there, doing our own thing. Everyone is on their way to something, living a life to which you have no window. All you know is that they are there in the fray with you, trying to make a go of it despite the rent, despite the train being late, despite the reminders all around that those who slip have a long way to fall. Your shared experience connects you to other people but you don’t have to put in any work. It’s kind of like cheering for a sports team. You may not share anything in common with your fellow fans other than your Blue Jays hat, but it feels good to know that in some way you’re on the same team. It's easy to like each other.

People making it work in San Francisco.

People making it work in San Francisco.

Smaller places aren’t like that. In smaller places, people know just enough about each other to form opinions that they enjoy sharing. You need to put in the work if you expect those opinions to become and remain favourable. On one hand, there’s an incentive to be a better person. It's a negative feedback loop - if you act in an anti-social way, the community finds ways of discouraging more of that behaviour. On the other hand, it also creates layers of veneer where people may be wholly at odds without the freedom to declare it.

There’s an entire genre on “the seedy underbelly” of idyllic little places because of this veneer. Without veneer you cannot have underbelly. We don’t talk about the underbelly of big cities because the dark and dangerous are on display as much as the splendid.

In a smaller place, you are forced to get along and work together despite knowing how much you disagree. Almost certainly, things will get mired in Small Town Politics for extended lengths of time. In a bigger place, you have the freedom to do your own thing and rarely (sometimes never) need to find out how much you disagree with the people around you.

Both are terrible and beautiful.

Small Town Politics

Another feedback loop to contend with is Small Town Politics. This is by no means limited to small towns - you find it wherever there are long-standing fiefdoms but in larger democracies there tend to be more checks and balances. This is the mechanism by which stable, long-time residents exert control over the direction of a community. In fact, most people I collaborate with face some form of Small Town Politics, which I’d roughly define as:

When decisions of public importance are made based on the self-interest or fears of influential people, sometimes at the expense of the community as a whole. And influence is conferred based on who you know or seniority rather than qualifications.

I think Small Town Politics can serve a valuable function. Embedded in that system is the wisdom that comes from years of maintaining a good reputation and being loyal to a place. If you rock the boat too much without building up the slow currency of trust, you get slapped back down to the bottom of the pecking order no matter how many degrees or accomplishments you have. I can see how this might be valuable in stable times. However, in times of rapid change it's not very adaptable.

The question becomes, how do you work in those circumstances? Do you try to win over influential people? Often your proposals are truly not in the self-interest of the current influencers so that’s not a reliable strategy. Do you try to work around the system with those people that support you and eventually pull the others along kicking and screaming? Do you hold your breath until you can get someone on the inside to be your advocate and ambassador? Do you try to gain influence yourself? Do you pick up and move elsewhere so that your efforts might be better spent?

Then there are the moral questions. If people don’t want change (or say they want change... but let's be real, it’s clear they don’t want change), is it right to try and tug them in a different direction? Even if the status quo direction leads to terminal decline or has a negative impact on other people, who has the license to shake it up?

How long do you need to live in a place, how many people do you need to know, how much property do you need to own? How many boxes do you need to check before you've got the authority to exert your own influence on a place?

Fredericton has elements of big city and small town. I'm just as confused. In many ways I'm trying to live a big city life despite the realities of being in a smaller place. I try to be courteous, respectful, and kind to the people around me. I'm a team player with my friends and colleagues who are working on the fringes, outside the Small Town Politics. But I still want to do my own thing, preferably without needing to manage the vagaries and agendas of other people. Maybe it's my age and temperament, or maybe it's universal. Maybe no one wants to deal with the hard stuff of building nuanced and reciprocal relationships with people who can arbitrarily exert a lot of power over your opportunities. Maybe Small Town Politics are the chokehold that's preventing so many places from adapting to a changing world. Maybe the very difficulty of dealing with people, the relationships you're forced to build when things get complicated, are what makes places strong. Probably both. This stuff is hard.

That's what I've been thinking about.