Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Autonomy, Individuality, and Identity: a Dive into Worldbuilding hangout summary with VIDEO

This was an interesting discussion, which we warmed to as we went. I explained that I wanted to look at all kinds of definitions for autonomy, so we started out by talking about group mind and hive mind concepts. I talked about the Tines, from Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the deep, a wolf pack species where each pack is a single individual, and if the pack is reduced to three or fewer members it becomes non-sentient. We spoke about this for a while because of all its intriguing implications, particularly for things like finding new members when one is killed, and how an enemy's stranded member can get adopted into the group to keep its sentience maintained.

Glenda drew a parallel with something she had read, where there was a hive mentality, and the larger the hive, the more intelligent it got. 20-30 members would be rudimentary, over 100 would be intelligent, and over 1000 would be super-intelligent.

Morgan mentioned In the Company of Mind, which dealt with the idea of multiple personality syndrome, one body containing multiple people. This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman is also a really interesting treatment of that and other mental states.

We also talked about cultural focus on individuals versus the group. The cultural tradition we generally call "Western" focuses on exceptional individuals, and glorifies things like vigilantism (through superheroes) and rule-breaking. This is not the case across the globe. Other group entities like clans, families, etc. can be much more important in different contexts. Those contexts offer interesting types of conflicts when people are torn between their own desires and the group's expectations.

What is the nature of a group's influence? We talk about peer pressure as though it's a bad thing, but when it comes to larger cultural trends, an enormous amount of pressure from the surrounding group can be considered normal. What are the needs of the many? How do they measure up against the needs of the one? (Yes, Star Trek was mentioned.)

It seems like in all kinds of stories, the world needs to be saved. Brian mentioned that he's very tired of the stakes always being absolutely enormous. In a way, it's hard to care about the world - that is a very nebulous sort of conflict. However, we can easily believe people wanting to save individuals. A story needs to set up stakes on the individual level as well as the larger level. Caring about particular individuals can also be a good motive for antagonists. Dropping all other concerns to protect one person can lead to evil acts, as can protecting someone from a perceived danger.

Ask the question: What motivates people to save the world?

In our society, we can feel like we have more individual choice than we actually have. Our choices have consequences in the social sphere, and many stories don't engage deeply with the question of those consequences. I mentioned the movie Emma which began with a spinning sphere, seemingly celestial, that turned out to have the names of the homes in the village written on it. In our world, especially in small communities whose members all know each other, acting out socially can lead to huge social problems. This includes schools! You don't necessarily get to escape family expectations either. The antagonist in Sailor Moon gets told, "You can't just do whatever you want." As babies, we start with very little sense of the requirements of groups, and all our own needs; we grow into a sense of the larger group as we get older and are taught.

Toward the latter part of the hangout we talked about boundaries and bodily autonomy. Different cultures have widely variable rules about touching, eye contact and personal space. Is there a culture of touching in your world? Do people hug strangers? Brian noted that in England, people don't hug even in private. In Eastern Europe, boys commonly hold hands - but in America, they don't. There is more hugging in the Western US and in California than in the rest of the country.

There are strict rules about touch in classrooms. Do you hug teachers? Does a teacher need autonomy? Does the teacher need to refrain from touch in order to stay free of suspicion? What happens in Kindergarten when you have kids with less self-control and lots of affection? We felt it was problematic to make a blanket prohibition on touching, because that actually avoids engaging with the complexity of issues of consent, etc.

Che mentioned how at some conventions you can wear buttons or signs to say how open you are to interaction.

Sometimes you need to be touched. Infants need hugging and touching or they fail to thrive. I had an experience myself when I moved to Japan where I hadn't been hugged or touched in a month and I started feeling very despondent.

In Japan, you typically stand at bowing distance rather than handshake distance when you are in a conversation with someone.

If two people disagree on the amount of personal space they need, a conversation can turn into a chase. The person backing up can feel very threatened.

Thanks to everyone for engaging with this challenging topic! Join us today at 3pm on Google+ to discuss Gestures!

Here's the video:



  1. I guess the British attitude is where the eastern Canadian one came from. I still suffer some awkwardness receiving hugs, and will almost never initiate them.

    Boys also hold hands in many African countries. Part of their assimilation when they come here is learning that it has a different meaning altogether.

    1. That is interesting. The social meanings attached to gestures vary pretty widely, which is what we talked about this week (report forthcoming). I come from a culture where hugs are very common, and I think it's a shame that boys are discouraged from holding hands.