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Small World

Yesterday I ran across the phrase: "One degree of separation" in a magazine, but I had no idea what it meant. I recalled that something like that expression has seemed to be rather common lately, I think there was even a movie title of Six Degrees of Separation not too long ago. Suddenly curious, I searched for the phrase on the Internet, first in dictionaries and other reference books, then in the search engine Google. One connection, out of the 33,900 that I made, was with a study being done by some researchers at Columbia University.

Called the Small World Research Project, the study is attempting to verify an idea that has become almost folk lore.

This is from their home page: "In 1967, the social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a seminal experiment to test the hypothesis that members of any large social network (in his case, the population of the United States) would be connected to each other through short chains of intermediate acquaintances. . . . In this project, we intend to perform the first large scale, global verification of the small world hypothesis . . ."

The phrase "six degrees of separation" referred to the average length of chains of acquaintance connecting any two people in the world. Itís an attractive idea, that somehow Iím related in some real way to everybody else, and that I could make a connection to anybody through such a short series of links. According to the Small World research group, "In the era of electronic mail and the Internet, many people, from social scientists, to mathematicians, to lay people, assume that the hypothesis has been demonstrated and that the world is, in this sense at least, "small."

Iíll state the hypothesis again in a little different way: If I were to find the shortest series of links between me and some otheróany otheróperson in the world, it would take only an average of six links. There are, in this sense, six degrees of separation between me and any other member of the human race. Notice that this is an average. It doesnít mean that Iím guaranteed a connection in exactly six links, only that if enough people tried to connect in this way, the average number of links would be six.

So I signed up to participate in the study. I was given the name and a bit of personal information about a man in Germany, and asked to send an email to someone I know whom I might consider "closer" to the target person, and asking that the search be continued in the same way. They promised to tell me the results of the study.

Most people, I suppose, have experienced the sometimes startling discovery that someone theyíve only just met knows someone else whom they know from a long time ago or far away. "Small world, isnít it?" is a delightful thing to be able to say. Somehow it affirms that we belong. Not long ago I read a piece that said that statistically, at least, we need go back only a few generations to trace our ancestry to any other family tree in humankind. We can legitimately claim to be related to Henry VIII or to Atilla the Hun or to Moses himself. Whether either of these things is true or not, they soften the lines we draw in our heads between "us" and "them." I canít think of a more important time in the history of the human race for that idea to take hold.

Recently Iíve begun to watch programs on the Discovery Ė Wings channel. Itís a cable channel devoted to flying and aircraft throughout history. Iím troubled though, sometimes, by the number of programs there that are devoted to warfare. Obviously, aviation has become a major technology of war, and many of the advances in aircraft design and performance over the past century of flight are because of military needs. Even our space program was begun in earnest when people thought the Russiansóthe enemyówas getting ahead of us.

What Iím finding, however, watching historical footage of the German Luftwaffe, is that the people fighting the war on the other side were motivated by the same fears and needs that our own fighters experienced. It was easy, in those days, to put the face of the devil on every enemy soldier. I was just too young to serve in the armed forces during the Second World War, but I remember vividly the fear and hatred that became a national obsession.

I was twelve when the war broke out. My family lived in an apartment owned by an old German woman. Even I could see at times her distress in being pulled between feelings for her native country and for her adopted country. She had not emigrated for political reasons, but to be closer to family members. This was not her war.

Them. The word refers to those on the other side of some kind of line Iíve drawn. To draw that line for the sake of understanding, for the sake of clarity, can be a neutral act. For me to draw it for the sake of animosity diminishes me. Us and them can distinguish between the people in this room and those who happen to be somewhere else. Us and them can distinguish those who are eligible to draw social security benefits from those not yet eligible. Us and them can distinguish between all kinds of groupings of people. But itís almost too easy to assume differences between groups that have been collected simply by category. There may even be some kind of biological, instinctual urging to notice differences, perhaps to help us recognize danger. The familiar is safe.

I donít think itís naÔve to believe that weíve carried the urge too far. Fifty years after that war, Iím still apt to wonder about a person in Hamburg, Germany: Is he friend or foe? Is he a threat to me, or could we perhaps have something in common?

This person, whom in theory at least, knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone else whom I know personally, would no doubt be surprised at our mutual connection. When I think of the citizens of Hamburg, Germany, I might think of the war factories that "our" airplanes had to destroy in order to protect our own people from destruction. Having watched a documentary film about the last days of the Luftwaffe, when young boysóthe same age as I was at the timeówere sent up to fly airplanes with practically no training, and no experience at all, to try to protect their city from destruction, I am moved. Had it been me, instead, I would gladly have gone up into that fire to protect my family, my home, my city. They had to know that the war was lost, and they had to know that they probably would be dead before the end of the day. How different were they from me?

Six degrees of separation between me and my enemy. There is more difference between me on my good days and me on my bad days. How do I know who I am? By whether my shoes fit me in the morning? At my age, thatís not such a reliable measure, either. The line I draw between me and you, between us and them, no longer holds still. Iím not sure what to make of it.

 

Donald Skiff, July 18, 2002

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