Frequently in this column, I have talked about a dichotomy between traditional societies and modern societies. Traditional societies is a grab-bag term, an all-encompassing term which I use to describe everything from preliterate tribes to more complex pre-industrial towns, cities, states and civilizations. All of these groupings, compared to what happened after the industrial revolution, live in environments that involve some direct contact with nature or significant stylistic imitation of nature in the creation of most habitations, most artifacts and most clothing (obviously not the case with pyramids and some other monumental structures). The history of processes in these places has been mostly organic evolutionary accretions, periods of flowing blendable continual stimuli, punctuated by the periodic disruptive defined discrete stimuli of revolutionary activities and wars. Sort of like the disruptive climactic events that occur in nature. The incipient just-forming figures that try to break away from the undifferentiating grounding that surrounds people in nature.
In modern technological society, the norm is ongoing frictionless mediated revolution, because of what modern machines, computers and robots can do. Because the sharp angular changes of reality from modern revolutionary actions are so common, it is almost as if they are no longer revolutions anymore. They are so common, that they are predictably patterned, even though they can still be disruptive. Frictionless or relatively frictionless in execution, although disruptive and even stressful in effect.
This all serves strangely enough as a backdrop for a situation I presently am involved in. I am in a group of entrepreneurs that had met once a week for many, many years in an office and that has been meeting once a week on zoom for a few months since Covid 19 came around. Like most of the groups that I know or have heard of, my group now meets exclusively on Zoom due to the Corona virus. It is a group of business entrepreneurs that started out meeting as a stream of casual encounters between a very successful car dealership owner and his friends. Gradually, over time, the grouping involved into an informal group that had meetings once a week. Now the dealership owner is dead but the group continues to exist. The centerpiece of the meetings is either a startup business owner asking for advice on business problems or else a free-wheeling discussion about general business ideas. Before Covid 19, there was time to network both before and after the talk or the discussion. Now that has been replaced by chat in the Zoom room. Not the same as live networking, but it is something that is occurring now as a necessity.
A change like that doesn’t bother me so much, because I know that it’s the only way of creating connections in such a group for now. What bothers me is that there are formal sub-committees to make formal changes to the format of the group, changes that will invite larger numbers of people to come to specific meetings, up from the 30 to 40 people we get now on average for different sessions. One can be sure that many of these special invitees to Zoom meetings will want to join the group, thus making it bigger and more impersonal.
There are other changes to the intimate social traditions that have held this informal organic throwback group together and made it relatively unique in modern technological society. It used to be people were called out by the moderator of the meetings for making private conversations and thus disturbing the principal speaker or the main conversation. Now people are making Zoom chat conversations left and right and thus, if not directly disturbing the people who are speaking, at least distracting listeners who would otherwise focus better on the speakers.
A proposed change within the group is to have certain Saturdays in the month (for example, the first and the third) for one kind of program and other Saturdays for another. The problem with this is that it will convert the group into certain specialized segments of audience, thus leading to the fragmentation of the group. The whole point of the group is to bring different occupations, different interests, and different viewpoints together to have lively exchanges in discussions. And to learn about different subjects and strategies that are not a part of one’s normal everyday life. If subject slotting starts to occur, the larger group will break up into smaller groups of like-minded attendees. Slotted programs could lead to the breakup of the informal organic group as we know it.
Another proposed change is to have speakers come from outside the group, not with problems that they want the group to solve, but with neat packaged subject matter that they want to present to the group. But there are plenty of other groups that do this kind of thing. The unique aspect of this group is the process of the interaction of the members. It is not meant to be a passive group of simply avid learners. It’s meant to be a group of active helpers of both one another and of entrepreneurs from outside who have problems they want advice on.
The group is a throwback to more traditional flowing blendable continual organic groups and is not meant to be an efficient neatly organized defined discrete specialized machine-like group like so many other modern groups are. This group is not meant to be built on ongoing frictionless mediated mini-revolutions. It is meant to evolve, yes, but constantly keeping its organic grounding. The group is a throwback to more traditional times before television and radio, when an evening of entertainment consisted of informal gatherings in a bar or on a person’s back porch. Yes I know this group has a little more structure than that, but not much. Yet the desire to mechanize is ever present in modern society as a whole and in my group in particular. A more spontaneous organic flowing blendable continual group like this one is totally vulnerable to the cravings of people who just can’t tolerate the presence of a group like this that has so much natural life in it.
(c) 2020 Laurence Mesirow