Friday, March 23, 2007

Six? Ten!

George Szirtes mentions that Frigyes Karinthy was the first proponent of the concept of six degrees of separation (as confirmed by Wikipedia).

I thought about this once. Let's imagine two farmers, each of whom lives far out in the country in two different very large countries that are on opposite sides of the world from each other. Now, we can't be sure that each of these farmers knows the mayor of a town near where the farmer lives, but it's safe to assume that each farmer knows somebody who knows such a mayor. So we've got farmer-somebody-mayor on each end.

Now, we can't be sure that the mayor of a small town in the country in a large country knows the president of that country, but we can be pretty sure that said mayor knows some politician who knows the president. So now we've got farmer-somebody-mayor-politician-president on each end.

And the two presidents may not know each other, but each president knows his or her ambassador to the other country. So even with these two completely rural farmers (who may never go further than a few miles from their farms, say), the longest chain from one to the other is farmer-somebody-mayor-politician-president-ambassador, and then back down: president-politician-mayor-somebody-farmer.

So, six degrees of separation, perhaps. But you don't need more than ten degrees of separation to get from yourself to anybody else on earth.


mrjumbo said...

Another of many modes of misunderstanding among people: Folks who live in a huge country mostly I think don't understand how different it feels to live in a small country, where there might be two or three degrees of separation instead of six or ten.

In the U.S., most of the 300 million people who live here are so many degrees of separation from me that I might as well not know or much care about them--except of course in the sense that you care about anyone as a human being.

But I remember being in a country of 4 million people where someone explained to me that when you read about something happening to someone in the paper, an ordinary citizen instead of a politician, the rule of thumb was that if you did not know the person yourself, you probably knew someone who knew that person. So they felt close--a friend of a friend.

All kinds of implications: Representatives in the national assembly stand for fewer citizens than the members of Congress in the U.S. (What percentage of people in the U.S. feel that they know someone who knows their Representative?) When a terrible accident occurs--a train crash, a factory explosion--you expect to know the victims, rather than assuming you probably won't ever hear that anyone you know was involved.

To some degree you see the same dynamic in U.S. regional politics. Big cities and little towns show the same difference; also large states and small states. I expect in Alaska or Hawaii more people have a sense that they know a lot of their fellow citizens than in Texas.

When you feel as if you're living among people who know you, your sense of responsibility to them is different. Your sense of your ability to make a change in the course of national politics is different. (More of politics really is "grass roots" instead of big political machinery.) I suspect you end up with a keener sense of your own country's limited resources.

And I imagine you'd make different assumptions about the behaviors of large nations.

Andrew Shields said...

"What percentage of people in the U.S. feel that they know someone who knows their Representative?"

It's the word "feel" that is important here. I bet the percentage of people who know someone who knows their Representative is quite high, but that people don't think it's the case.

Miles went to a theater group for children last year (twice), and the first time he went, one of the other boys was the son of a woman who had recently become a "Regierungsrat" in Basel. City of ca. 200,000; these kinds of things happen, as you point out. Different than in Berlin, where one would be more surprised.