Many of us — at least our parents — used to fraternize with the folks living beside them, exposing themselves to a diversity of opinion. But today more of us live in silos built by the electronic devices that were designed to bring us together.
As Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker points out in The Village Effect, the rate of Americans living alone is rising: whereas one per cent of them lived solo in 1920, more than 10 per cent did in 2010. Canada's 2012 census shows a similar trend: more than 27 per cent of homes had one occupant versus 13 per cent in 1971.
But, in the upstairs of a Toronto restaurant, a few dozen strangers mingle and drink, laughing and leaning into conversations. They’re talking about everything from terrorism and education to robotics and marriage.
The room practically vibrates with their energy.
Heather Tay, one of the participants, says simply repeating the opinions of others without first giving them some serious thought is something that technology and design consultant wants to avoid.
"Most conversations are recycled," says the 45-year-old. "I've always been interested in good conversations. I remember when I was young, for phone calls, I scripted out what I had to say because I always wanted to have something interesting to talk about."
Tay has seen how her opinion can affect others. Because she's a black woman, she says she's used to being a minority.
She says in a conversation around the Charlie Hebdo attack, someone questioned why Catholics can be made fun of, but not Muslims. Tay said that it's easy to make fun of the majority, but when you're making fun of the minority, there are different implications. That elicited an "Oh, I never thought about that."
Sebastien Rahman, 36, a real estate agent, likes to broach testy topics like terrorism, religion, and even personal fears, like his math phobia.
"I like that we can talk about something a little uncomfortable," he says. "It's a real conversation."
But Rahman says it's not always fulfilling. "Some opinions sound really informed, but some not so much -- you can tell when someone only listens to the news."
Tay’s and Rahman’s group is organized by The Powerful Group, the brainchild of author and motivational entrepreneur Stuart Knight. He started it in October last year, frustrated by what he sees as a lack of informed opinions.
'We're living in this bubble where we aren't challenged' — Stuart Knight
"People go through a week and they don't think," he says. "We're living in this bubble where we aren't challenged."
Knight sees this alienation as a business opportunity. The 250 Toronto members of the group pay an annual membership fee of $200.
He says many of us go to the same job, frequent the same stores and circulate among the same people, tethered to the internet and social media.
"More than ever, technology has given us the opportunity to share our opinions, but they're not necessarily well-informed," says Knight.
So, for instance, a prominent reporter tweets about NBC’s Brian Williams and you retweet, agreeing the news anchor just has a faulty memory. That tweet could then influence many of your followers. But do you really know the whole story, and how much have you really thought about the opinion you’re sharing?
After joining The Powerful Group, you're emailed a list of questions the day before the meeting. Then, at the gathering, you discuss your answers with random people, moving along to someone new every 15 minutes.
Questions include: Are we winning the war on terror? How would discovering life on other planets affect the way humans see themselves? Which subject would you make mandatory for students? How has your ego got in the way of your ultimate happiness?
The group that began with 50 people now has 250 members, relocating to a more central venue, meeting a few times a month. It's culturally diverse, there are men and women, and they range in age from 30 to 60.
A sad commentary
It is perhaps a sad commentary on urban society that such a group exists. There are no doubt many people with wide and varied social networks, but a whole lot of us feel disconnected from our neighbours.
Bombarded with information from multiple sources on multiple devices, can we be forgiven for having soundbite-sized opinions?
"A lot of it comes down to the fact that thinking deeply about a subject, particularly at the conceptual level, means stepping back from the flow of information that comes to us," says Nicholas Carr, author of the new book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us and the Pulitzer finalist The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
Carr says information comes into the brain through a narrow aperture called working memory, which can fit only two to four pieces of new information at a time.
"One of the keys to thinking deeply is moving from working memory to long-term memory," he says. "It's that process - consolidation of memory - when associations happen. It's the connections that really matter when it comes to formulating your own understanding."
The problem is that we're so busy gathering information from different media and stuffing it into our working memory, we're short-circuiting that process.
Another problem is that learning is kind of addictive: research shows that seeking out and finding new information releases dopamine, which encourages you to repeat the activity.
Carr says that we're giving precedence to the gathering over the processing of information: "I fear that as a society we're saying that's not important anymore."
Stuart Knight says that thinking about bigger questions and sharing opinions is important.
He dreams of expanding The Powerful Group to other cities so that people will ultimately be able to join these conversations from any major urban centre.
"If 1,000 people met once a month and had six conversations - that's 6,000 conversations. What would that do for a city?”
Opine on that.