The future of distance: neighbourship

BOSS Blog 15: the future of distance

What will distance mean to our children? What does it mean across cultures? Here, I'll philosophize. The blog follows two others:

    • I had written a blog ahead of time that summarised my message on “Die Zukunft von Abstand”. It’s in German, the language of my lectures. It has some history and some poetry in it.
    • I also just wrote a blog about my bicycle trip from home to Stuttgart, that you might want to read first, since this text refers to some of my adventures on the way. Or perhaps you just want to look at the pictures.

Actually, I am now in a better position to provide a concise message, having had a week to let my thoughts roam around “distance”. I’ll do it in English, to reach more readers.

Distance as measurable

Knowing distances is essential for such things as international transport and collaboration. You cannot have reliable trains and airplanes if you do not know distances. Likewise, you cannot have international e-meetings if you do not know hours, minutes and time zones. Industry and technology require precision.

At the same time, I noticed that people who asked me how far I’d cycled, often did so to show their admiration, or to come up with an even more impressive achievement of their own. So they turned kilometres into relational currency (see my blog on status-power dynamics for more on this).


And, a thing that came as a bit of a surprise: as a long-distance cyclist, kilometres were of limited importance to me. I just needed to leave early, and then carry on. What mattered more was the sun, the wind, the slopes to climb, unexpected deviations, scenery, food and drink, and especially: encounters with others on the way.

Encounters gave meaning to time and distance. I met most people in the first days, fellow cyclists on the long, empty stretches of path along the dikes. For instance Antonio (60), an Italian who had emigrated to the Ruhrgebiet. He had been cycling to Rotterdam and was now on his way home to his German wife, on low budget. Still a true Italian, he praised the beauty of Dutch girls on bicycles, “Neunzig Prozent Beine”. Or Josef (72), an immigrant from Poland, who guided me beyond Düsseldorf, where a ferry was closed. He liked Germany, because you could bicycle in safety: “I never go beyond Ulm”. Or the young man who excused himself when I overtook him “I went faster at first, 25 km per hour”. He worked at the Deutsche Bahn in bulk transport, where they feel the transport problems caused by the low water levels on the Rhine. Or the elderly lady who asked for a cigarette. Or the lady in charge of Hotel Stiftswingert in Mainz, with whom I discussed world problems. Or the Volga-German family I shared a train compartment with on the way home, who loved to go for bicycling holidays in the Netherlands. And I could go on...

So the trip really made me realize that my trip was a succession of impressions and meetings, much more than a line on a map. Now, having come back, Germany, its language and its inhabitants feel much closer to me than they did before.

Time was also much more abundant during my trip than it is in my everyday life. I had time and attention to spare.

Which year is closer, 2000 or 2044?

Also, the future feels closer now. In my lectures I asked my audiences “Which year is closer to you, 2000 or 2044?” almost all said “2000”. My reply: “But that year is gone, and 2044 is coming”. Having seen the drought around the river, I expect that times will soon be very tough in our North-West European summers - as they already are in many places. We urgently need to come up with radically better water management. I knew this – but now, I feel it. The future is nearer than the past, in the most crucial sense.

Panta rhei

Before my trip, I philosophized about how close contact can also breed distance. I never had that feeling during my trip. As a passer-by, you don’t need to get worked up about how people treat you. Everything is on the move, panta rhei. It occurs to me that it would do many contemporary discussions and controversies good if we could take this perspective.

This brings me to Lukas, a young attendant to my lecture in Stuttgart. He worked at the Radcafé. After the lecture, during the meal, I asked him what else he was up to. “Ich versuche, erwachsen zu werden” (“I am trying to grow up”). When I asked him what that entailed, he said “Ich muss wissen, wo ich stehe” (I have to know where I stand”). I understand, and many young adults have similar doubts. But... stand? As long as you know where you want to go, you know what to do.  If you have a dream, you don’t need an identity so badly.

Distance across cultures

In my advance blog I also reflected on how culture shapes our perception of distance. I will briefly summarise these considerations here, taking the extremes. Of course, reality is always more nuanced. If you are not familiar with "dimensions of culture", you can find some basic information elsewhere on my website. The single most important thing to remember: culture is not about individuals, but about shared values and expectations in societies.

Individualism – Collectivism

    • Individualism: In principle, all people are equidistant, moving about freely as atoms in a gas, and subject to the same moral rules. Note that ad hoc groups are often formed, sometimes with very strong ties – but people might still move between them, or have several group affiliations.
    • Collectivism: in principle, moral rights and duties only hold for one’s in-group. They are close and will always stay close, as atoms in a crystal; others are far away and expected to mind their own business.

Power Distance

    • Large Power Distance: in principle, social classes are far away from one another, with no moral commitments unless there is a hierarchical relationship.
    • Small Power Distance: in principle, all people have mutual moral obligations.

Masculinity – Femininity

    • Masculine culture: there is a large emotional difference between the sexes. Men are from Mars, women from Venus.
    • Feminine culture: all people are emotionally similar, whatever their gender, and could be emotionally close.

Uncertainty Avoidance

    • Strong Uncertainty Avoidance: unknown and unfamiliar things are perceived as dangerous and far away, while familiar things are cherished.
    • Weak Uncertainty Avoidance: unknown and unfamiliar things are perceived as close by and worth investigating.

Short-term – Long-term Orientation

    • Short-term orientation: the past is felt to be near, and very important for the present. This makes identity issues salient.
    • Long-term Orientation: the future is felt to be near, and very important for the present. This makes processes salient.

Indulgence – Restraint

    • Indulgence: the organism is felt to be near, and worth pleasing. Its urges are often honoured, whatever they be.
    • Restraint: the organism is felt to be far away, and requiring control. Its urges are often repressed, whatever they be.

Passer-by role

The image of a passer-by fits an individualistic, uncertainty tolerant culture. In other cultures, society gives its members fixed places to occupy. You do have to know where you stand. You may have to be careful about broadcasting your dreams. Movement is likely to be more collective, often more governed from above.

Neighbours facing a common future

Given that distance, and movement, are so culture dependent, how can we live together harmoniously in our globalized world, with its worldwide sweeping changes in climate, and its massive waves of migration?

It is easy to become pessimistic in the face of our collective inertia. We have not heeded the signs, nor the prophets. Our numbers have grown staggeringly. On the other hand, history has shown that changes in our collective actions can sometimes be very fast. It is up to all of us to participate in the climate transition. A path opens where many walk in the same direction.

How can we avoid staying trapped in parochialism and neo-tribal fighting? By the way, I say “neo-“ to indicate that our current nations tend to be recent and often rather haphazard constructions. Yet, many die for them.


The best thing I can come up with is that we should become better at neighbourship. Neighbourship is what I experienced a lot during my bicycle trip. When I was thirsty, someone gave me a drink. When I was lost, someone showed me the way. When I needed nothing, nobody got in my way.

Neighbourship is informal and self-evident. The only time I was asked to identify myself was upon arrival in the huge hotel in Stuttgart where the receptionists had just come from hotel school, and were under instructions. Everywhere else, people I met were satisfied with my obvious existence.

Neighbourship involves enough commitment to find out whether someone needs your interference, and enough good judgment to leave them alone when they don’t. It involves applying Kant’s golden rule at arms’ length. Sometimes, it involves letting your neighbour do things that you find abhorrent. They can be a pest, but they are still your neighbours. In Grieth, Catharina’s neighbours had come out when she was making coffee, a Romanian couple arguing noisily, both of them trying to make me take their side. They calmed down considerably when I was polite to them.

Neighbourship and culture

Neighbours are not family, nor bosses, nor subordinates, but they are not strangers either. It is a concept that adapts to culture, though practices such as hospitality or tolerance. We need to become better at neighbourship, between individuals, households, and countries. It is a matter of collectively growing up, of living up to the responsibility that our technological power brings. We cannot emigrate from our world. Our neighbours’ grandchildren will share our planet with ours. And a flood, a pandemic, or a drought affects all of them alike.

Neighbours living in the street of our common future – that’s who we should be. We can all start today. Panta rhei,  everything flows – but perhaps the Rhine will stop flowing, like other rivers before it, if we carry on bickering.