Friday, November 17, 2006

So many people, so little space

By Nancy Jane Moore

Recently I found myself on a Virginia-bound subway car at the height of rush hour, packed like a sardine in the aisle, and taking deep breaths to avoid screaming at all the people around me.

"Why are they running short trains at rush hour?" I grumbled to the guy next to me. He said, "Metro likes it crowded like this -- they want every train to be this full." And I shuddered -- if the subway I usually take to work was that crowded every day, I'd end up driving instead. I hate being crammed into too little space with too many people.

Turns out that I'm not just a cranky old curmudgeon: Most people feel this way. There's even an academic field that studies the amount of space people need: Proxemics.

As Stephanie Rosenbloom writes in a New York Times article entitled "In Certain Circles, Two Is a Crowd":
Chances are that in the last week someone has irritated you by standing too close, talking too loud or making eye contact for too long. They have offended you with the high-pitched shrill emanating from the earphones of their iPod or by spreading their legs unnecessarily wide on a packed subway car.
Oh, yeah. Though it's not the high-pitched squeal from the iPod but the thundering bass line that drives me nuts. Not to mention the people who have their belongings strewn all over two seats when people are standing.

As the world becomes more and more overpopulated, we run into more of these overcrowded, stress-producing situations. As a result, the study of proxemics has taken on new importance and a lot of scientists are looking into it.

Among the things they've discovered: People don't just like their space in the real world; they want it in virtual worlds too. A recent study (PDF) by Stanford University grad student Nick Yee and others from his department shows that avatars in Second Life exhibit the same kind of behavior in staking out personal space that people do on the subway or in the office.

Rosenbloom goes on to say in her article:
But whether people have become more protective of their personal space is difficult to say. Studies show people tend to adapt, even in cities, which are likely to grow ever more crowded based on population projections.
Personally, I don't find myself adapting. And Rosenbloom does note that lack of space is the major complaint of airline passengers. As someone who does everything in her power to get an aisle seat, I second that.

Rosenbloom's article is light-hearted, and overcrowding may not seem like a major problem when contrasted with war, famine, and the various idiocies emanating from the White House. But it's another symptom of overpopulation. And while some cultures don't need as much space as others, there's a limit for almost everyone, especially when the people they're standing next to are complete strangers.

The truth is, this is a bigger problem than it used to be because there are so many more people than there used to be. The world population has doubled in the past 40 years and the US population tripled over the course of the Twentieth Century.

Maybe future generations will more or less adjust to overcrowding, but I'm willing to bet that they'll have more examples of road rage and other sudden violent outbursts. Me, I don't plan to adjust to overcrowding at all. I intend to continue complaining about it every chance I get and to do everything in my power to avoid it.

For starters, I will never take the subway to Virginia at rush hour again. And if I ever get on Second Life, you can bet my avatar will keep her distance, too.


Julia Lupton said...

Pleased that we both connected to this topic! It is indeed both a politics and a design issue.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Glad to have you visit. I really enjoy reading Design Your Life. It's fascinating how design affects other parts of life.

Jamie Lynk, Sarasota, FL said...

Nancy --
Needing to have a 2-foot circle around ourselves which we term
"our space" is normal for many Northern European cultures; but, is especially peculiar to the USA. Many other cultures live in close proximity to each other and don't require that distance. They expect to live and some need to live that close to each other. In fact, in some of these cultures, when people are discussing issues they want to be close enough to feel each other's breath. Just an aside on your comments.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

It's true that the idea of the right amount of personal space varies from culture to culture, but I suspect that in all countries being crammed up against strangers can be difficult. I've noticed that in some very crowded societies they've started running women-only subways so that women aren't crammed in with the men -- of course, this is partly because some men take advantage of the crowding to cop a feel.
Attitudes about distance and touching can change: After years of Aikido, I am much more likely to gently touch my friends if I want to get past them. As I frequently explain to students, Aikido is a very friendly martial art and you have to be willing to touch bodies with your partner. But I don't want to be that close to someone I don't know and, since I get stiff easily, I always want room to shift my position without bothering someone else.
I just suspect everyone would find it easier to maintain a comfortable distance if we had about half as many people in the world!