Networks VS Bubbles

The sounds of trains punctuated my early life. As a child we lived near the train that brought logs to Thilmany Paper Mill. During the 1960s my sister and I took the train from Appleton to the Chicago suburbs to spend time with our Aunt and Uncle. When I moved to Green Bay to go to school I lived near the train tracks. When I moved back to Kaukauna I lived near the train tracks. I loved the promise and adventure of the train.

The freedom train is coming

Can't you hear that whistle blowing?

It's time to get your ticket y'all and get on board

It's time for all the people to take this freedom ride

Got to together and work for freedom side by side—James Carr

Trains to me meant new experiences, new people, reaching out across boundaries. The building of the railroads across the United States was narrated as the significant achievement of the nineteenth century. The New York Times as recently as April 2020 called the Pacific Railway Act an example of the United States emerging stronger and more resilient. Yet, yet, yet we didn’t talk about how many Chinese people died (at least 600) building the damn thing, or that it was built across stolen land. We accepted the story of expansion of horizons and conquering of distance as the story of the American birthright, a story of connection even while ignoring those sacrificed to get there. 

In the late 1950s the railroads as a form of passenger transportation were replaced by the interstate highway system. We no longer travel in rail cars where we might strike up a conversation with a stranger but in single passenger automobiles. Travel is no longer an adventure, but a tool. We replaced the network with a bubble whose name became individualism. 

In biological sciences systems change by expanding networks and adapting into new niches, what scientists call “emergence”. These networks build connections at the nodes through feedback loops. New networks emerge that take advantage of small changes in the old systems. None of these things happen without context. Systems that do not grow and change run the risk of atrophy and death. Connectivity and context matter. This is the case in human systems as well as other biological systems. The great American individual atrophies without the support of the community he despises. The Marlboro Man has nowhere to go.

Currently the best models for creating adaptive systems come from the marginalized, the communities of color that rose in response to the very systems that tried to destroy them through genocide and slavery. 

The economic 1%, the Republican extremists (is that all of them yet? I lose track) rely on the view from their bubbles to grant them ideological righteousness. If the people who aren’t counted don’t exist, if the railroads travel across vacant land, if vibrant neighborhoods of black and brown and other working class families were not destroyed in building the highway system, can the bubbles be all that are left?

This is the only way to understand the limited and violent buy-in to the right-wing led “return to work” movement. If you are not risking your own life or the lives of those you care about, if you are only risking meat packers (mostly Mexican) and prison inmates and the sick and elderly already doomed to die in nursing homes far away from your day-to-day, the risk is minimal. The other risk, the risk of losing your livelihood is much more present. The view from the bubble says that these are the only two choices. But, what if there is another choice, a choice of community over the individual, the network over the bubble? What if society were to choose to shut down until we are safe, and use the resources of America to shore up the marginalized, the poor, the small business owner and carry the country through to safety? We know how to do this. We’ve done it before in times of national crisis. Other countries are doing it now.

Look to the margins that are creating emergent systems. Those most deeply impacted are most likely to develop the systems that will survive. There were May Day strikes against Amazon, Instacart and others that have thrived during safer at home orders without protecting their employees. These large corporations responded, not adequately, but—feedback networks. Prison reform workers are demanding people be released from prisons to prevent COVID spikes. Housing non-profs are demanding rent and mortgage moratoriums. Part of the work that needs to be done is to spread the narrative and strengthen the feedback loops. We can choose to all be in this together or we can choose death.

Listen to the jingle and the rumble and the roar,

She's rollin' through New England to the West Pacific shore.

It's a long time we've been waitin', now she's been whistlin' 'round the bend,

Ride on on into Congress on that Farmer-Labor train.

There's folks of every color and they're ridin' side by side

Through the swamps of Louisiana and across the Great Divide,

From the wheat fields and the orchards and the lowing cattle range,

And they're rolling onto victory on this Farmer-Labor train.—Woody Guthrie


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