The Abstract Society

by Terence MacNamee

How do you find your way in a society in which, all the time, you are dealing with people you don’t know personally? For example, you don’t know me. Yet I’m talking to you. Well, to be more precise, I’m writing to you. And the whole idea about writing is that it is usually read in the absence of the writer.

Writing makes it possible for two people to communicate with each other without actually being face to face. When the writing becomes reproducible on an industrial scale, as in the case of printed books and newspapers, the one who writes can have a relationship with a public, the members of which he will likely never get to know personally.

The American historian Benedict Anderson used this idea to define modern nations as “imagined communities”, which means groups of people who think of themselves as a community, but who never actually meet each other personally, because there are too many of them, scattered over too wide an area.

It has long since got to the stage where people are complaining about “mass society” and its anonymity, and hankering back to real groups like the neighbourhood and the extended family.

The philosopher Karl Popper wrote about modern society as being “The Open Society” and thought that this was a good thing. He did realize that such a society could not be organic in the sense of a tight-knit community. He even went so far as to say that modern society might become an “Abstract Society”. This would be a society in which people would interact, do business with each other and so on, but would never actually see each other in person. This, he reflected, was starting to happen, when organizations were large and widespread enough. However, he thought, people have social needs, and so there could never be a completely abstract society.

Popper was writing around 1950. He didn’t know about computers or the Internet. Today the Abstract Society is an all-pervasive reality. If one is a freelance, like a writer or translator, as I am, one deals with all kinds of people – editors, contributors, customers – that one never sees. Communication is by e-mail and attached files. I for one have had productive relations for years with people I have never met, and may never meet. And nobody seems to be worried.

People in Asia don’t seem to like the Abstract Society so much. According to the Swiss journalist Urs Schöttli, they solve the problem of Asia’s anonymous teeming populations by keeping business in the family. So you choose to work with your cousin – there may be better people out there, but at least you know him well!