December 24th, 2007


Frozen world of the familiar stranger

At Kunst-Werke, here in Berlin, there's currently an excellent Reenactment by the artist Rod Dickinson of psychologist Stanley Milgam's famous experiment into authoritarian obedience -- the one where he got experimental subjects to administer increasingly severe electric shocks to a man with a heart condition. It was a sham -- no shocks were given -- but a frighteningly large number of people went all the way to 450 volts, even when the "victim" in the other room stopped responding altogether. They "killed" the victim in order not to disobey orders.

Conducted in the early 60s, "the Milgram experiment" (as it's come to be known) was basically concerned with the recent past: how Nazi Germany could have happened. It's likely (though not certain) that people today would question the white-coated psychologist's authority more readily and stop the torture more quickly. But Milgram did some other famous experiments which are more relevant to our times, experiments into social relatedness that delight today's researchers into network theory, social networking sites and bluetooth phone technology. In the 70s, Milgram came up with two big ideas, the "six degrees of separation" idea and the "familiar stranger" idea.

Familiar Strangers are people who aren't totally unknown to us, but aren't acquaintances either. We might see them every day on our commute to work. We have a sort of unspoken pact with our Familiar Strangers, a pact not to communicate, even though we may recognize each other. This isn't an unfriendly pact, we simply agree to maintain anonymity. It's a pact basic to city life -- in the interestts of sanity, streamlining, simplicity we agree to stay "visual but not verbal" with most people, even though we might know them by sight, and even have invested quite a lot of energy in imagining their lives. Milgram's study was based on two projects he conducted in 1971, one at CUNY and the other at a train station. He published the results in two papers, "The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity", 1972 and "Frozen World of the Familiar Stranger", 1974.

There was an element of perplexity in Milgram's attitude to the Familiar Stranger, something that links it to his electric shocks experiment. How, he wondered, could people be so cold and indifferent to their fellow human beings? "Fellow commuters, he decided, are like trees, posts, and billboards -- regarded as scenery, not as people with whom to talk and exchange greetings. Milgram called these people familiar strangers, for they encountered each other daily but never introduced themselves. Instead, they stood in clusters, back to back, staring straight ahead. "I found a particular tension in this situation,'' he confessed."

Increasingly, though, we've seen this kind of relationship as something desireable. For instance, designers of social networking software like MySpace and Facebook seek ways to increase the user's encounter with Familiar Strangers. How do you "see that girl about" on their sites? How do you make an intermediate level between friends and non-friends? It's also a subject of great interest to researchers adding capabilities to bluetooth-equipped phones, which can recognize other bluetooth phones they come frequently into proximity with, even if the phones' owners have no direct contact with each other.

The Familiar Stranger idea is one that interests me. I'm not one of those people who reads about this and resolves to talk to his Familiar Strangers in future; I'm quite happy to see the agreement not to communicate as essentially a harmonious one, part of the smooth running of the large modern city. I don't particularly like to clutter up my day with chatter, and I don't think urban alienation is particularly a "problem". In fact, Milgram's experiments come from a time when alienation was a fashionable theme for sociologists and psychologists, perhaps because it was fashionable in humanist literature. Books like David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1953) described a large subsection of Americans in almost Existentialist terms: they were a "lonely crowd" of other-directed individuals equipped with a sort of internal radar which made them "capable of a rapid if sometimes superficial intimacy with and response to everyone". In Riesman's terms, I'm more of an "inner-directed" -- having to do this "rapid, superficial intimacy" thing is a bit of a torture to me. I prefer to daydream about people than chat with them.

When Hisae and I were in Venice last month, we had a Familiar Strangers experience. On our first night there we went to a bar on the Campo Santa Margherita. A couple sat nearby who were quite like us -- she was Japanese, he was a bit older, looked like an artist of some sort, and seemed kind of sleazy (in other words, you knew he had to be charming or famous to overcome the natural disadvantage of looking a bit like a homeless person). We didn't speak to this couple, but for the next couple of days they popped up everywhere we were -- at the Biennale, at a Vivaldi exhibition in a church, at some of the palazzi, in restaurants. Rather than talk to them, I started taking sneaky photographs of them. Hisae and I made up stories about who they were, what was going on in their relationship.

This sort of speculation is one of the pleasures of Familiar Strangerdom. If you make it public, though, you run the risk of being confronted by your Stranger. When I wrote something earlier this year about sitting next to an avant-garde artist called Shelley Hirsch at a concert in Ausland, I somehow didn't think that Shelley herself might read and be hurt by the piece, which details a Familiar Stranger encounter with her. But when I saw the Milgram Reenactment at Kunst-Werke recently Shelley was there too. She recognized me and introduced herself. "Remind me where we met?" I said, failing to recognize her. "We didn't, but you wrote something about me that was very hurtful," said Shelley. We patched things up somewhat, but not before Shelley had accused me of being "arrogant" for eavesdropping at Ausland rather than introducing myself directly. But that's not my style; I'd much rather eavesdrop. I'd rather preserve Strangeness than get too Familiar. Half of that account, though, is about me familiarizing myself with Shelley's work when I got home -- and liking and recommending it. And that's my ideal way to relate to people, through their work. Sure, it only works with artists, but it's something that's expanding as we all become more media-active, as we self-mediate on the web. It's possible to follow non-artists now in the way we once might have followed artists -- through their media trails.

I particularly like art which is about the Familiar Stranger effect. I'd cite Sophie Calle's work -- she's done a lot of pieces about following strangers on the street, for instance. Or David Crawford's Stop Motion Studies. Or the work of Cosmic Wonder designer Yukinori Maeda, who once made a piece in which he dressed my friends Toog and Flo (amongst other models) in scraps of clothes seen in 1970s photos of anonymous strangers he'd collected from fleamarkets. I wrote about it under the title We didn't quite meet. Quoting my song "The Shoesize of the Angel", I said then that "the people you've just missed meeting and the places you've never quite been are often the most intriguing ones". They're intriguing, I suppose, because imagination is often better than reality.

Don't get too familiar, stranger!