The Outsourced Community

The police turned up at our place the other day.  They had received a complaint about three teenage boys walking around.  The first thing I thought was…wow, these guys are FAST!

We live in a quiet rural area and the boys, who were visiting with their parents, had wandered onto our neighbour’s uninhabited bush property without permission.  The only people who could have seen those boys, known that they were trespassing and called the police in that short amount of time were the folk across the road.

Now I have a good relationship with my neighbours so why, when they picked up the phone, didn’t they dial me instead of the police?  The police were lovely and those neighbours are old and it was no big deal but it made me think.

The convenience of outsourcing our community functions is a daily gift our culture has handed us.  A gift that, like all things, has a downside.  I knew that if I tumbled down one of the steep sets of stairs in our inner city apartment I could be lying at the bottom of it for two weeks while my children starved upstairs before my husband returned from one of his overseas trips.

I got to know the old Russian grandmother below us and the retired Korean couple on the other side of us but rather than commit to relationships that involved mutual obligation I outsourced the basic task of regular check-ins.  I paid a nanny to come by and help me with the kids for a few hours twice a week.  She had a key and I would only have to lie at the bottom of the stairs in a crumpled heap with my starving kids raiding the fridge for a maximum of four days.

Before that I lived in a very small community where we had property meetings every week.  It was as predictable as the sunrise that somebody would make a fuss about something I considered absurd – where the handle on a fire door should be located.  What colour the fence should be painted.  It isn’t only your privacy at risk when you take on the obligations of a close-knit community, it is time: small talk with five different people when you try to duck out and grab some milk without being caught in your slothing around the house clothes.  Attending events you would rather skip because people will notice if you’re not there.  And worst of all: tiresome, frustrating hours of negotiation.

The funny thing is if you take that annoying person out of the community, the one that rubs everyone up the wrong way, someone else will take their place.  If you keep taking opinionated people out of the group sooner or later the person with a dogged insistence on debating details will be you.  Finding the perfect community is not the answer because it doesn’t, and can’t, exist.

So there’s no getting around the increased obligations that come with real community engagement.  No getting around the fact that real human interactions necessarily mean conflict and negotiation, give and take.  One of the most attractive things about displacing our personal lives onto the internet is that we can take or leave the interactions, turn them off or move onto another forum where people are less abrasive.  We can show only the parts of ourselves we consider attractive and real.

Outsourcing is an attractive option in the physical world too – to councils, law enforcement officers, babysitters, teachers, counsellors, farmers, medical staff, the media… in fact most of our useful professions are a result of our love of outsourcing.

But outsourcing makes our communities much harder to organise or communicate with.  If I wanted to let everyone in my neighbourhood know about something I would have to go door-to-door because there is no other network I could count on to capture that entire audience.

And so for the daily convenience of having someone else make decisions on our behalf we lose the right, or the ability, to make decisions on our own behalf.

The outsourced community is one with very little voice.

Like any relationship – if you hand over responsibility for yourself and the other party accepts that responsibility then you just gave away control over your life.  And when you realise that you don’t like living under some of the new rules it can be tough to take charge again.

So as uncomfortable as it is, if you want to make new rules, you’re going to have to get involved.  And it is going to be tiresome and frustrating.  But you can only lose your patience, your carefully constructed self-image and your time.  And we’re all going to lose those things one day anyway.  So there’s your choice, in every moment.  Judge or engage.