I was sitting the other day in an underground train in London, surrounded by strangers.
Books and films often turn underground trains into symbols of urban alienation and loneliness, as in the Eurythmics song ‘This city never sleeps.’ And, if I think about it at all, that’s how I tend to see them: machines hurtling through dark tunnels, people who don’t know each other avoiding eye contact or interaction of any kind.
But it struck me on this occasion that there was entirely different way to see it. How amazing that so many people can coexist so peacefully in such close proximity, feeling so unthreatened that they can peacefully read, listen to music, play with their smartphones, until the point where the path of their individual lives diverges from the route of the train, when they join other peaceful streams of people, on moving stairways, streets, buses, and continue on their way. Why call this alienation, why not call it a remarkable ability to respect each other’s space? I suddenly found the scene incredibly reassuring and benign. Cram this many chimpanzees into a space this size and they’d go crazy with aggression and fear.
Why go for the gloomier image, the darker story, when there is more than one alternative? David Brin raises a related question here, when he wonders why books and films routinely portay society and its institutions as stupid, dangerous and malign when, after all, they are also what delivers the food to our plates, the power to our plugs, the roads we travel on, the ambulances that pick us up when we fall…
I think we rather like the fantasy of being surrounded by darkness and danger. It allows us to imagine we aren’t the tame and domesticated creatures that most of us really are.