Our Culture Is Evolving Us

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Woe be to this phrase: “We need to catch up soon!”

Found in a beautiful, if tragic, essay in the Atlantic from last fall. It talks about how adult friendships are hard!

It struck a personal note to me, on a few levels: the first, because my wife and I are entering that phase of life where we’re trying to decide if we’re going to end up in a suburb or in a city, or something else. As the debate goes, we both strongly agree we don’t need much space, but we want community, proximity to family, convenient amenities, and safe spaces for our future children. (And, crucially, racial and socioeconomic diversity.) Even now, comfortably ensconced in a Manhattan high-rise, we think about this question constantly. Homeownership is moving further and further away for those in our generation, and even if we are ever so lucky as to own, if that doesn’t change soon, in what kind of community will we raise our family?

Second, adulthood is lonely, man! I am fortunate to have very close friends from college, high school, even primary school, who I’ve kept in very close touch with over the years. We plan regular trips, communicate over the phone, plot ways to intertwine our lives. But it’s not like late-night hallways of the dormitory, or outside the dining hall before meals. Indeed, as this great Vox article posited, as I have heard in other forms before, that “The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact”

And then there is, of course, my digital community, which I have grown to love in its strange deformities and varying states of ‘pseudofamiliarity’. I can always trust *someone* to be viewing my snaps, favoriting tweets, or snarking in my comments section. (Never change, y’all.) I am rarely alone on the internet. And I suspect this simple fact drives more social media behavior than any other. Of course, this has dark downsides, and sometimes I feel like my digital friendships are a drug – at best, an elixir, at worst a narcotic – rather than a nutrient. Dulling the pain rather than feeding the soul. “Do it for the likes” is funny, but also kind of awful, right? My left thumb is deforming under the tyranny of the endless scroll.

So what to do?

For one, I want to see more people in person, more regularly. Pheromones and mutual laughs and shared meals are the stuff of life. When my wife and I do double dates, we have such a blast with them. On the rare occasions that we host, our home fills with warmth. Get-togethers that are transactional, ‘networky’ and professional are interesting, but not in this way. I want more real. One way I do strongly believe it can happen is through the change afoot in our physical footprints. AirBnB’s success has outpaced my very optimistic expectations, and I think that company is still *very early*. To think that we can stay in strangers’ homes all over the world at scale gives me hope that mobile technology, internet culture, and the information age can indeed revive our sense of community, can push trust back into our society. This does not come without its bumps, like any progress. But it feels like progress nonetheless. But can we bring back the dorm? Or, call me crazy, can we bring back the campfires of our ancestors? 

There are companies launching across the world experimenting with co-living: our recent investment in Roam Co-Living reflects a point of view about the future that we believe can resolve some of these issues, which I believe many of us commonly face. Roam is an international co-living subscription, where with one lease, you can live in cities all over the world. Today you can stay in Bali, Miami, and Madrid, with Buenos Aires and London soon to follow. We want community more than we think we do. The fact that new social networks relentlessly launch and find ever more creative ways to connect us is only evidence of this. And for the critical phase post-school and pre-children (and likely even for parents, though I can’t speak for them) without the church, union hall, and increasingly even water-cooler at work, we simply need people. When I reach retirement age and begin contemplating the last decades of my life, I believe these feelings will have changed in tone but not direction, which will likely be all the more intense, and with worse consequences

We are the first species which has used “culture” to affect our evolution. This has been the case for generations, and on the eve of artificial intelligence we may be reaching another inflection point. But it should serve as a reminder that our living patterns are fully of our own making; they are products of our development of agriculture, the dominance of city-states, and the persistent effects of racism. In the process, we have evolved into becoming more sedentary, socially isolated from each other, and tied to one physical location. Perhaps a series of new innovations in real estate (both how living quarters look and what they’re used for) can do something to undo the destructive aspects of this trend. Perhaps our culture can reformat our physical spaces once again, but this time for a world more reflective of our inherent ubuntu. 

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