The Plague of Modern, Mechanized, Multi-cultural Life

Plagues make people’s behaviour autistic, as do modern multi-cultural societies.

Posted Dec 26, 2014

Daniel Defoe, whose Robinson Crusoe featured in the previous post, is also justly famous for his Journal of the Plague Year, which describes the ravages of the bubonic plague in London during 1665 (left). 

Plagues have a social dimension that the last-person-on-the-planet/Robinson Crusoe fantasy discussed in the previous post lacks and as such raise an intriguing prospect. This is that not just individuals, but entire societies might become autistic, as I suggested in an earlier post. By way of their alienating, isolating, and depopulating effects, plagues transform whole towns and cities in ways that resemble autism in certain respects. One of the first manifestations of this mentioned by Defoe relates to the effects of the fear of infection, which is inevitably a central feature in plague situations. He observes with emphasis that “the best Physick against Plague is to run away from it,” and flight from contact with other people is a common feature of autistic behaviour—particularly in crowds or densely populated areas. The narrator of A Journal of the Plague Year reminisces that

 …some got Tents and set them up in Fields, carrying Beds, or Straw to lie on, and Provisions to eat, and so liv’d in them as Hermits in a Cell; for no Body would venture to come near them; and several Stories were told of such; some comical, some tragical, some who liv’d like wandering Pilgrims in the Deserts, and escaped by making themselves Exiles in such a Manner as is scarce to be credited…

Indeed, somewhat like the completely self-sufficient Robinson Crusoe, the narrator of the Journal, reports that

as I had a convenience both for Brewing and Baking, I went and bought two sacks of Meal, and for several Weeks, having an Oven, we baked all our own Bread; also I bought Malt, and brew’d as much Beer as all the Casks I had would hold, and what seem’d enough to serve the House for five or six weeks… 

The most successful novel of the twentieth-century French writer, Albert Camus, was La Peste (The Plague), and its epigraph quotes Defoe. The Plague was published in 1947 and describes an outbreak of bubonic plague in a fictional North African city. Camus makes the same point as Defoe somewhat more generally when he observes of the inhabitants that “From the moment the plague closed the gates of the town, they had started to live in a state of separation and been cut off from that human warmth that leads us to forget everything.”

Like the typical autistic, Camus remarks that “A few, often without knowing it, had suffered from being placed beyond the friendship of men and not being able to reach them by the usual means…” Indeed, as you might imagine that an autistic might react, Camus remarks in relation to one of his characters that “In short, the plague suits him. It has made an accomplice out of a solitary man who did not want to be solitary.” In other words, what a ship-wreck on a deserted island with no other survivors does in the Robinson Crusoe scenario, the fear of infection does in a plague: it isolates the individual from normal human contact and to that extent makes him autistic. Indeed, in a plague, an Asperger's case might begin to feel at home!

Although plagues may hopefully be things of the past, the large size of modern urban societies has something of the same effect because it tends to turn the vast majority of people you meet and with whom you interact into strangers. Like Camus, René Descartes has been suggested to have been an Asperger’s case. Perhaps significantly then, this pioneering philosopher of the mind preferred deserts to cities, but nevertheless found Amsterdam quite tolerable because

In this great city where I am now, there is no other man except me who is not engaged in commerce. And each is so concerned about his own profit that I can live here all my life without ever being seen by anyone. I walk every day among the confusion of a great people with as much liberty and repose as you enjoy in your country lanes, and I pay no more attention to the people I see than if they were the trees in your forests or the animals that dwell there.

Another, closely related factor that has tended to alienate people in modern societies from one another is what some might see as the plague of industrialization—and perhaps most importantly of all from this point of view, endemic mechanization.

Once, many kinds of work were carried out collectively in agriculture, manufacturing, and service. But today most work is carried out with machines of one kind or another that have replaced human beings to such an extent that workers tend to work more with them than with other people. Indeed, today entire factories can be found full of machines, but with hardly any workers, and certainly without the throngs of people who were traditionally employed in manufacturing in the past. On the land, most tasks are nowadays carried out by machines driven by a single person, and gangs of workers such as would have been common in the past are seldom if ever seen today. In offices, computers sit on every desk and even when employees interact on common tasks, they tend to do so predominantly via their computers or telephones (and even in the latter case, are often likely to text rather than to speak to colleagues).

In homes, dishwashers, washing machines, and robot vacuum and floor-cleaners now perform tasks that once only people could perform. Even in shops, self-service arrangements involving machines mean that you can carry out many transactions without interacting with another human being, and on the Internet, computers have entirely replaced people as intermediaries in business and commerce. Inevitably, this means less inter-personal contact, less need or opportunity to socialize, and much more isolation. Like it or not, people in a modern, industrial society have come to resemble many autistics in their commonly found preference for interacting with machines and computers rather than with people.

But other important factors are migration, multi-culturalism, and globalization. Outsiders to a group or society are always somewhat “autistic” in the sense that they inevitably have deficits in the local language skills and in understanding local conventions. Asperger’s cases often complain about their difficulties in understanding their peers’ conversations and the fact that, although they understand their language, can spot grammatical errors and make replies to questions, nevertheless they have “never understood their vernacular” (p. 129) in much the same way that a foreigner might not.

Like autistics, ethnic outsiders often have difficulties with reading the minds and intentions of the natives and appreciating the finer points of their culture. And like autistics, outsiders can all too easily offend the locals with some to-them-seemingly-innocuous remark, look, or behaviour. As one writer humorously puts it,

As humans, we intuitively grasp these social rules (for the most part), but imagine stepping off a bus in a foreign country. Should you make eye contact? Should that guy be standing so close? Did you just wave hello or insult someone’s mother? (p. 79)

But also like the typical autistic, the stranger in a foreign society can feel isolated, excluded, and anxious, and may even become the victim of bullying, discrimination, or stigmatization. All this is highly germane to modern, multi-cultural societies, where it is now common to encounter people from different ethnic and religious groups who either barely speak the local language, or do so only imperfectly. Indeed, even natives can begin to feel like aliens on occasions, and to the extent that modern laws forbid one person to treat another differently because of family, ethnic, or sexual identity, there is a tendency for modern societies to treat everyone as equally alien—and certainly to insist that actual aliens should not be treated any differently from anyone else.