I can’t believe it’s been nearly forty years since I first watched one of my all-time favourite films, Local Hero. if you haven’t watched it as yet, I envy you. You’re in for a treat. (If you don’t feel like watching the film, just listen to the soundtrack).
I’m not going to say anything about the plot just in case. The excerpt from the script is pretty innocuous as excerpts go. One line stands out for me. It consists of just three words.
It’s never locked.
Memory’s a strange thing. I could have sworn that the actual phrase used in the film was “We don’t lock doors here”. But this is from the official script so I’ll live with it.
I was born in what was then the family home in Lower Circular Road, Sealdah, Calcutta, over 64 years ago. When I was a little over two, we moved to Hindustan Park, and spent nearly a decade there. Shortly before my twelfth birthday, we moved to Moira Street, where I spent the rest of my life in Calcutta, until I left for the UK in November 1980.
I can still remember the names of at least of the immediate neighbouring families in Lower Circular Road. We visited that house many times in the years since we left there, it was in the family till the early 1980s.
I think I can still remember the names of all my neighbours in the apartment block in Hindustan Park, and have visited the building at least once since leaving India.
When it comes to Moira Street, that was a whole different ball game. Ten flats. One of them permanently rented by a business during the time we were there. The rest of the building? All families.
The centre of my universe for many years
In the four decades since I left there, I must have visited that building half a dozen times: a couple of times in the 80s, once in the 90s, three times this century. Pretty much every time I went to Calcutta.
Why am I telling you this? Not because I’ve decided to go on yet another nostalgia trip, something I’m quite happy to do regularly.
But because it was a place where we didn’t really lock doors. At least three families there grew up almost as one, with a few others almost-as-integrated. (You know who you are, and I remain forever grateful for the times we had together). We flitted from apartment to apartment at will, through open front doors, up the fire escape and through the back doors, occasionally climbing in through open balconies, and, very very rarely, using well-honed techniques to barge through doors that were apparently shut.
In the main, the doors weren’t shut. We had liberty withal, as large a charter as the wind, to blow on whom [we] [pleased].
Covenant relationships and mutualisation
Even in those days, Calcutta was a very crowded city, and there was physical and pragmatic security-through-transparency. Village-like, everyone knew everyone within their ????? (para) or neighbourhood. People looked out for each other, strangers were noticed straightaway, and usually challenged, in a typically blunt-curious way. The community looked after its own.
Neighbours, particularly children, growing up together, thick as thieves, fast friends forever. Until they grow up a little more. And flap their wings.
That’s the normal plot line.
But it’s not what happened here. The extended family I speak of is in at least four continents, and are still in touch with each other, fifty years after we came together. Social media does have its occasional uses, and has simplified access and connectivity.
The experiences we had (and continue to have) are good examples of covenant relationships, rather than the ersatz contract versions. In a contract relationship, when something goes wrong, when there’s a “breach”, the key question is “who pays?”, closely followed by the how much and the when. In a covenant relationship, the key question is fundamentally different. “How shall we fix it?”. And the critical word is “we”.
The society I grew up in was founded on those principles of mutualisation. The relationships we had were based on a bedrock of shared experiences and an immutable trust. It permeated my family, my friends, my schoolmates, my community-at-large.
The communities were relatively small, Dunbar-like in their compactness, a tight core of 20 or 30 in an extended network of around 150. We had address books, the telephone numbers were there as well, but we didn’t really have to use the address books or directories as a rule. We knew where everyone lived, and, where relevant, knew the phone numbers off by heart. Directories and address books were for “outstation” data.
Phone calls were for people who lived far away, not for people who lived in the same building. And if someone couldn’t be found, the wireless powerless megaphone would come into use: a yell from the balcony, which would then get relayed in some form or the other to wherever the child or children in question were playing, hiding, fighting, whatever. Audible smoke signals transmitted at speed without using up any scarce natural resources.
During my time there, the “building” saw the usual coming-of-age and rites of passage: births, marriages, deaths, “sacred thread” ceremonies, everything. The community came together as one, an integrated family in action. My father died while we still lived there, just over 40 years ago, and I saw that community-in-action “up close and personal”, covering my family in covenant protection in ways I can never forget, ways I will never forget.
Covenant relationships in an environment of mutual trust and respect.
Satisficers and maximisers
Ever since Herbert Simon coined the term “to satisfice”, there’s been a lot of good work done by great people on satisficers, and I’m not even going to try to summarise any of it here. Suffice it to say that a satisficer looks for “good enough” while a maximiser or even an optimiser looks for “the best”. (In doing that, I can be accused of choosing a “good enough” definition rather than “the best” one. So be it).
Years later, in the early 2000s, I was reading a book by Barry Schwartz, called The Paradox of Choice. One of the most interesting hypotheses put up in that book was the suggestion that satisficers were somehow happier than maximisers or optimisers. Over the years, I’ve also seen research and arguments that suggest there is a genetic predisposition to be one or the other, but I’m not yet convinced of that argument. I do like the “happier” suggestion though.
I’ve also come across papers that put forward an intriguing argument that looks at the “transaction costs” of satisficing and maximising and avers that satisficers are happy because they trade some cognitive workload in making their choices. And that gives me a feel for “happier because….” More to think about.
I like that idea. A part of me really likes that idea, because it gives me the chance to link to Janis Joplin singing Me and Bobby McGee. Amazing singer, amazing song.
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
While reading Schwartz’s book, I couldn’t help having the Kristofferson-penned words ear worming their way though my head. Except they were ever-so-slightly malformed in the process. What I keep hearing was “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to choose”, a real Marmite statement. Everyone wants to have choice. Until they don’t. And only in places they don’t. In the wrong context, choice can be a tyranny.
When I came to the UK, I had never seen a supermarket, much less been in one. I had no idea what to do when presented with such immense choice for a commodity. (My first visit to a supermarket, I needed toothpaste and came back with some sort of denture cream, grabbing the first thing I saw, dashing for the till and then hurrying out. I wasn’t comfortable there).
In Calcutta, if we ran out of toothpaste in one of the bathrooms at home, one of us would go round the corner to S Stores (which I’m delighted to see is still there, exactly where it was in November 1969). We’d go there and ask for toothpaste. And be given toothpaste. Not a snake. Nor a stone. Toothpaste.
Levels of sophistication did emerge, sometimes one of us would want the “new” go-faster stripes Signal. Or maybe a tip towards the swadeshi, Vajradanti. Most of the time, we stayed uncomplicated. Toothpaste. Thanks.
The conversation was quick and simple, across a single counter, with someone you knew and who knew you. A relationship of trust, a relationship built over time, a covenant relationship. If there were qualifying questions to be had, they would get asked simply and unthreateningly. The shopkeeper was avuncular, and the uncle-ness was part of the relationship. Advice and counsel was part of the deal, and there was no question of being ripped off.
The customers who shopped there were proper customers: they gave the shop their custom. As part of a relationship founded on trust and enriched over time.
Yes, I’ve been a satisficer all my life. I like giving people my custom rather than continually shopping around; maybe I’m trading some cognitive workload in the process, maybe I’m genetically predisposed to do so. I don’t know. What I do know is that I feel good about it.
There is something about the Cheers mentality that I like:
sometimes you want to go
where everybody knows your name
and they’re always glad you came
As the saying goes, people buy from people, people sell to people. It’s all about people and relationships in relatively small communities. Global villages are good, but let’s remember the village part and not just the global part.
A few days ago, a neighbour noticed something untoward in his garden, told me about it, and helped me answer something that had been bugging me. Why had a particular garden chair been moved from its usual place?
Today, as I walked back from the newsagent with my Sunday paper, I bumped into three different neighbours, and had the chance to speak with each of them. Yes, of course we exchanged pleasantries, wished each other top of the morning and the season and the year (as you do), and then did what everyone in the UK does nowadays. Instead of talking about the weather, we spoke of Covid-19 and masks and boosters. Social objects by another name, I guess.
We knew each other. We knew where everyone lived. We’ve covered for each other, taking parcels in, joining neighbourhood protests, noticing when alarms go off, seeing how we could help if the other(s) needed help. A loose, gentle relationship, but a relationship all the same, more covenant than contract. In no way transactional.
The Calcuttan in me was used to knowing my neighbours. When I left India and migrated to England, I lived in a part of Liverpool for a while. And everyone knew everyone there. And said hello. And smiled. And asked after each other. Civil. Polite. Helpful.
Then I came to London. A very big place, and I have no wish to generalise. But the part of London I was in, everyone was in a hurry, all the time. Disappearing from home while it’s still dark, returning only when it’s dark again. Surfacing occasionally at weekends. And in between, never meeting eyes, never speaking, never engaging. Heaven forfend.
I moved around until I found somewhere in London that still felt like a village, where people did speak to each other, where it wasn’t a crime to be on first-name terms with neighbours. Where everyone wasn’t always on a Danny Kaye schedule.
Phenomena like Nextdoor intrigue me, though I still don’t actually use it. I’m still wrestling with centralised-versus-decentralised, and, in general, tend to find that people conflate distributed with decentralised, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing. I love the neighbour-to-neighbour connect, I love many of the functions Nextdoor appears to have, but I still hum and haw about connections to businesses beyond the neighbourhood; I need to know more before I can truly engage.
Startups like Tredish fascinate me, enough for me to invest in them and to get involved in whatever way I can.
The neighbourhood is a unit of community that makes a lot of sense to me; and while I can see immense value in the ability to discover and share patterns between neighbourhoods, I still think of each neighbourhood as unique and vibrant and alive and deserving of its uniqueness.
So where is all this leading?
If you’ve visited here before you know what to expect.
I’m largely retired now, and have the privilege and luxury of time to observe life around. Time to reflect on what I observe. Time to research whatever I find interesting or at least intriguing.
One of those things is growth, particularly unfettered growth. I believe less and less in the constant need for growth. I spend some of my time learning about what the right minima and maxima should be for a given measure in a given context. Wherever possible, I look to nature as a teacher in this quest, looking particularly at complex adaptive systems.
One of those things is trust. I find the term “trustless” odd, odd enough to discomfort me. So I pull a thread here, remove a scab there, gnaw away at it, trying to understand why such a term should exist.
I have this hunch that these two intriguing things, the quest for unfettered growth and the development of “trustless” systems, that these two are related. So I pull and tear, gnaw and chew. Until I learn more. And then start all over again, refining my start position.
I’m increasingly drawn to a world where the “conquest” of distance and time means less to me than it did when I first heard it. I’m similarly keener on worlds where people know their neighbours and operate in a climate of mutual trust and respect, where communities are compact and coherent. I think ideas of continuous growth and scale need to be re-examined constantly, particularly as we learn to price social and environmental costs in ways we haven’t been able to do before. In much of this, technology can and will play a role; but there are bound to be missteps on the way.
The missteps that intrigue, nay concern, me the most are those where communal trust is weakened. I think the neighbourhood is a fascinating level of aggregation to look at; maybe I should look further into Geoffrey West‘s work on cities and try and tease out the neighbourhood implications, going wherever that leads me.
I want to live in a world where it’s not necessary to lock doors. I want to live in a world where we learn how to do this — again —in a way that we can preserve the valuable bits of technological advancement while filtering out the dross, the detritus. Keeping baby. Throwing out bath water.
I write to elicit and excite conversations about these things. Not with thousands of people. Not even hundreds. Just enough to help me learn that little bit more.