The fragmentation of Australian communities was the focus of social researcher Hugh Mackay’s talk at the Roslyn Packer Theatre yesterday. In conversation with former NSW politician Peter Collins, Mr Mackay argued that new technologies are harming the way communities function by encouraging antisocial behaviours.
“It seems to me it has become almost a cliche of suburban life to hear people say ‘I don’t know my neighbours’,” Mr Mackay said. “New technologies that seem to bring us together, in fact are making it easier for us to stay apart.”
Hugh Mackay is the author of 16 books, a regular media contributor and renowned social researcher. He is a fellow of the Australian Psychological Society and holds honorary doctorates with several Australian Universities. In his latest book, The Art of Belonging (2014), he looks at the way we live now, and whether Australians can learn to nurture communities once again. He creates a fictional town of Southwood, where characters learn to balance their desire to belong with their own personal needs.
“As social creatures, it is our natural role to cooperate rather than to compete,” he said. “The idea of personal identity makes no sense without the social context. It’s about who we are collectively as a society.”
Drawing on his lifelong work as a social researcher, Mr Mackay said changes in Australian society meant that neighbourhoods are not functioning as well as they once did. Alongside the information technology revolution, the continuing rise in one-person households has been a significant factor.
“When we’re talking about social change, one of the biggest changes has been the growth of the single-bedroom household,” he said. “Factors like this have put pressure on communities and today they are more likely to become fragmented.”
The Australian Bureau of Statistics states that one-person households are projected to increase to 3.1million, or 28 per cent, of all households in 2031. This represents the fastest projected increase of all household types since 2006.
The Art of Belonging shows how communities and individuals rely on each other for fulfillment and survival. The author argues that as social creatures, people can only reach their full potential when they engage in the communities of their local neighbourhood: “Communities are who we are and we rely on them to nurture, support and protect us. People feel physically safer and more emotionally secure when they feel they belong where they live.”
A 2013 study from University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross, which sampled 82 participants over a two-week period, found the more time people spent online the less face-to-face interaction they engaged in. Meanwhile, the role of communities to sustain, protect and nurture is disintegrating among society’s growing addiction to communicative technologies. “The time we’re spending in front of screens is coming from the time we were previously spending face-to-face,” Mr Mackay said. “What disturbs me is that this is making us less emotionally vulnerable with each other.”
The Art of Belonging illustrates how strong communities can develop an individual’s moral sense and build their emotional security. In it the author encourages people to take responsibility for the places they live by engaging and volunteering in their communities. “We need to form the relationships that make communities,” he said. “This could be as simple as saying hello as you cross the street, or starting a conversation with a stranger on the bus.”