The context is the message

Feb 26, 2023

The moment we are born, we are placed in a context that we had absolutely no control over. We do not get to choose our parents, where we were born, the belief systems held by the people around us etc. The contexts that we come from and the environments that we spend our time in inevitably dictate who we are and who we become. How has our environment / context shaped us and the ways in which we relate to one another? How can we use these insights to inform the world we create next?

I grew up as an only child in the rural suburbs of New Jersey. Everything and everyone was fairly dispersed, and it almost always required a car to venture out of the home. This paired with having been raised by a single working mom meant that I had a lot of alone time. The low population density meant that the pool of people that I had the opportunity to socialize with was restricted almost entirely to my classmates in school. This pool of people didn't change much - I graduated high school with the same set of people that I started elementary school with. The size of the available community and the distance that we had between us outside of school heavily influenced the dynamics of our relationships with one another. I had a relatively small group of friends, and we were all very close to one another. I lived in a forrest and frequently spent time outdoors looking for new ways to spend my time.

I have been living and working in New York City for almost four years now, and I have been reflecting on just how different this context is from where I grew up. Beyond the thin walls of my apartment building are a number of other apartments, each with completely different worlds inside of them. My desk overlooks a street where I see a constant stream of people walking by, and on the other side of the street lie a series of buildings where I can clearly see around 20 alternate apartment windows. Each apartment reveals glimpses of movement, alternate levels of fluorescent lights and houseplants. There is a man playing online chess, a child picking his nose, and the old lady who spends hours every day watching the street with her dog, and so on. There are so many people out there, and they all have lives that are just as intricate as my own. Given that there is an infinite pool of people in this environment to choose from, I originally expected it to be easier to meet people and figured that it would feel like a generally more connected environment than living in rural New Jersey. I have found however, that it is much more nuanced. Due to the unfortunate scarcity of time, we are forced to be very intentional about how and with whom we choose to spend our time. The increase in available options for social interaction has created a general feeling of distance and mistrust towards others. If someone in the park randomly starts talking to you, are they doing it because they want something from you? Are they only talking to you because they want money or are ‘interested’ in you? Anecdotally, the friendships that I have in the city do not necessarily overlap with one another as well - I have a number of alternate groups + one on one relationships. On top of this, I have found that a lot of my friendships frequently have monthly or bi-monthly cadences.

The contexts that we spend time in all have alternate sets of pros and cons. In urban environments, we are exposed to more culture, art, and we have a much wider range of people to interact with. Our relationships however are on average less deeply engrained, and frequently fade away. In rural / suburban environments, there is a deeper sense of connection to nature and the people within your community and the friendships tend to last much longer. Being a child in a rural area can however also be very lonely and isolating.

The increase in options available to us for social interaction have increased dramatically with the proliferation of the internet. Dating apps and social media products have expanded the pool of people to interact with and have shifted the ways in which we connect with them even further. Interestingly, the same forces that created the division between the suburbs and cities seem to be happening on the internet as well. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter all started out as social networks centered on connecting with your friends. As the networks grew and ad-based monetization strategies were put into effect, the feeds on these apps shifted the emphasis away from content that your friends posted and moved increasingly towards an emphasis on entertainment. In other words, our social networks started off as suburbs and over time became a bit closer to a city.

The differences between these environments are not necessarily better or worse than one another, they just position you to have different sets of influences. We can attempt to sculpt our environment as much as we can, but ultimately reality is chaotic and it’s unclear how any of these alternate environments will influence us. That being said, I’m very grateful for having been able to experience many alternate environments so that I have the opportunity to be inspired by the unique elements of them all. Maybe the best way to cultivate our environments is to keep this in mind - traveling to different places with their own unique constructs to navigate. Trusting that whatever negative and positive sensations we experience along the way are merely pushing us to more deeply understand how our environments shape us so that we can more intentionally manifest new and better realities. Now that the Instagrams of the internet have become cities, a select few must venture off to create new communities from scratch, taking the learnings from our past experiences with us.