The rise of crowd culture

Until the 1970s it was normal for parents, even middle-class ones, to leave their children to make their own entertainment

London: Hell, as one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s characters said, is other people. Unless, that is, you happen to be British and born after about 1980, in which case hell is the opposite: being alone for more than about five minutes. As for the absolute pit, the eighth circle or however else you describe the geography of Beelzebub’s kingdom, that is being left alone without a 3G mobile phone signal.

Of all changes in British life over the past generation, nothing has been quite as stark as the strange death of individualism. When in 1995 the then transport secretary Steven Norris told the Commons transport committee that the reason why many people preferred to travel by car than by bus was that they saw an advantage in “not having to put up with dreadful human beings sitting next to you”, he was of course barked at by the Left for being a heartless Tory who cared nothing for the poor. But even his critics acknowledged that he was speaking for the misanthrope who lurks within us all.

Such a comment no longer makes any sense; not when you hear of 200,000 people eschewing their home sound systems to squash together at Glastonbury; not when you see every last pebble of Brighton beach covered with the backsides of day-trippers who could have gone to any beach in the South East which actually have some sand, and yet chose here, where they must have known they would be unable to move. You can see the yearning to be part of a crowd in the housing market, too. Until the mid-1990s everyone seemed to want to leave smoky, rotten London.

Yet there has been a snap-back, with people choosing to live piled on top of each other in overpriced broom cupboards, while rural property struggles to sell. It shows up in restaurants which used to be full of couples and small groups, but which if you walk into now, even midweek, you find the tables joined together for a vast girls’ night out. It shows, too, in literary festivals, attending which seems to have become a substitute for reading books.

But there is no greater symptom of Britain’s newfound herd instinct than in the popularity of big screens showing sporting events. A big screen is really just a huge telly. You don’t get to see a live sporting event. You just sit and watch a screen, as you could do in your own living room, but without your fridge close at hand — and in the company of a few hundred or thousand other human beings who each presumably have the same BO and irritating personal habits.

I started with a rather negative view of individualism because that is where the left would want me to start. For many, the death of individualism is to be celebrated. They would love to see the desire to share public spaces as an embrace of collectivist values. Yet here is the twist. The rise of the mass shared experience has not been accompanied by a revival of socialism, or anything approaching it. Quite the opposite. The generation of crowd-lovers shows little inclination to share its money. The divisions between the well-off and the less well-off grow sharper by the year, and the young seem intensely relaxed about it. The crowds of which we like to be part are largely socioeconomic monocultures made up of people rather like ourselves.

There has to be some other explanation for the rise in herd behaviour. Some interpret it as a reaction to more solitary working environments. Where once we worked close together in factories, goes the argument, now more of us work from home, and so we get to the end of the day gagging for human company. I see something quite different: that individualism sowed the seeds of its own demise, by denying its children the time and space to develop as individuals.

Until the 1970s it was normal for parents, even middle-class ones, to leave their children to make their own entertainment. That meant going out and forming mini-gangs. And quite often it meant spending time alone. Yet from around the early 1980s, laissez-faire parenting no longer seemed good enough for successful people who wanted to give their own children an advantage in life. For many, childhood became much more organised. Children became ferried around from one activity to another.

The result is a generation which has never spent time by itself and has no idea how to entertain itself without some external input. The positive side of the individualism we have lost was self-reliance and resilience. Being alone — or even just being cut off the greater mass of humanity — has become something to be feared.

Social media is the sheepdog of the new, crowd-loving Britain. It is the beast which manipulates minds and concentrates attention on a few favoured places, ideas, products and cultural works at the expense of others.

No one discovers anything any more; it is all discovered for us.

By arrangement with the spectator

( Source : dc )
Next Story