Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Fate of the Dunbar Number

I've been meaning to rant a bit about the Dunbar Number. I think this is a case where correlations have been attributed to misleading causes.

Here's what the Wikipedia article has to say:

"Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar's number. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150. Dunbar's number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.
Dunbar's number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who theorized that "this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size ... the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained." On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues such as high school friends with whom a person would want to reacquaint oneself if they met again."

Here are two images that I found useful on a Google Image search:


Manuel DeLanda in a wonderful discussion speaks about intensive dimensions of reality and the corresponding nature of change related to intensivities. Intensive dimensions are the measurable domains such as temperature, pressure, density or connectivity. Intensive dimensions are important in that they are subject to a certain type of change referred to as phase transitions. A phase transition is a very dramatic type of change within a very narrow band of measurement. For example, if we track the change of temperature in a body of water from 99 degrees Celsius to 1 degree Celsius we have a significant range of temperature with very little change in the water itself. However, in the next two degrees – from 1 degree to -1 degree we see something remarkable – water becomes solid. Two completely different ‘substances’ exist on each side of 0 degrees. This type of change is very difficult to anticipate unless we have already experienced it. It also represents a profound change in the conditions of change. And the digital environment represents a profound change in the conditions of change.

How can phase transitions occur in a social context? A simple example, as human populations reach certain levels of density we see phase transitions in the possibilities for increasing divisions of labour and variety of possible exchanges. For example, when humans were hunter-gatherers local groups generally never exceeded a population of 150-250 – a density that can only sustain very rudimentary divisions of labour (e.g. elder, adult, child, male-female, hunter-gatherer, shaman-healer). As humans become agricultural societies – local groups were able to increase population densities (by exponential amounts in some cases). This enabled a phase transition where many more permanent divisions of labour, and whole new occupations arose, each occupation becoming also a domain of specialized knowledge, and for the human a new way being in society. New institutions arose as well. The agricultural society is more than large gathering of hunter-gatherers who can farm, it required many more institutions, conventions and become profoundly more dependent on exchange. A similar phase transition occurred in the course of the emergence of the industrial society – exponential rise in population density, more levels of specialization, more exchange – whole new institutions (e.g. enablers for the governance of market and democratic political economies, public education, impartial justice, etc.). 

The argument I want to make is that although there are cognitive limitations - the essence of the Dunbar number is about 'bifurcation points' or phase transitions that become both possible and necessary. It much less about how we can only be 'close' with a certain size circle of friends. I can have a circle of 150 close ties in different contexts - for example if I've been involved in  sports league - I come to know not only my team members - but the characteristics of the members of all the other teams. I could have a different circle of close ties that are based on my neighbourhood, and maybe another circle at work. The key limitation is really time not my capacity to remember people's idiosyncrasies, but the time available to interact.

The increase in group size make evident both the inefficiencies of have everyone do everything and makes possible the sustainment of specialist functions. Thus in a firm getting larger than the Dunbar number it becomes possible, effective and efficient to have certain specialist take on certain functions - for example HR, Finance, etc. This is not only efficient but it enables an acceleration of knowledge because with specialization comes skills and ability. In a group the increase in specialist function makes possible new ways of being along occupational types of activity.

The concept of phase transition arising from related changes in population, connectiveness and communication ‘densities’ provides us with a useful overarching theory, and helps us to understand the potential of the emerging ubiquitous digital environment. The associated collapse of traditional transaction costs represents a change in the conditions of change, and the emergence of new modes of production which enable fundamentally new possibilities for the design of how work is accomplished. Ever since Adam Smith’s elaboration of the ‘pin factory’ we have known that economic prosperity and productivity gains are founded on the division of work into ever smaller units. Correspondingly the increase in population density of urban life has enabled the sustainment of ever more specialized work and workers. In essence, this theory proposes that the digital environment establishes the conditions that not only enable but induce hyper-connectivity which in turn enable/induce a hyper-division-of-labour/specialization. The paradox of increasing specialization is a corresponding dependence on exchange – and in the digital environment this means hyper-exchange. The result is an acceleration of knowledge flow – a hyper-knowledge-metabolism. Thus the phase transition inaugurated by the digital environment will require new design principles for harnessing human capital, new institutions, new social structures and a new political-economic philosophy. Whenever technology enables a significant reduction of transaction costs opportunities arise for institutional surplus. For example, middle-layers of management may become redundant through automated processes, monitoring systems or increased human/social capital. This surplus should be invested in developing the complex capabilities that match the external operational environment.

Lee Raimi and Barry Wellman in their new book Networked discuss network individualism as the new social operating system. To me this is like networked responsible autonomy (individuality that is both responsible for itself and to others - a connected social autonomy). For me the extent and variety of your network is what determines the depth of one's 'individuality'. This is what drives me crazy about the misreading of the Dunbar Number. It is not that our brains are not large enough to handle more than 150 close ties. Constraints of close tie are less about brain size than they are about time to interact.

What happens at the 150 point is a phase transition based on group density. The size of the group both enables and demands new types of group structures. For example a work place / firm that becomes larger than 150 need specialist functions to begin to emerge - for example an HR specialist dedicated to dealing with personnel issues because such issues become a 'full-time job'. The same goes for finance, and other functions. In fact, population density is like what happens at bifurcation points in multi-cellular organism - specialist functions become enabled and necessary.

All of this to say, that when we were living in groups smaller than 150 as hunter-gatherers, the idea of being a true individual did not exist. It is only with the birth of population densities where anonymity becomes inevitable and we become comfortable with it - that real individuality becomes possible.

So back to Raimi and Wellman - they posit that the digital environment is now enabling a new level of connectedness - beyond the Warholian idea of 15 minutes of fame - we now have something beyond a larger network of loose ties - we have audience. This is the very beginning of the arising visibility of the data of our digital trails. Google Glasses will be a turning point by creating a new domain of 'wantables'. Just as Steve Jobs did not do a customer survey on their needs - he knew they did not know what was 'wantable' until they experienced the iPod, iPhone, iPad. With Google Glasses the domain of 'wantables' of data visualizations - of the possibilities of augmented/mixed reality. Data visualizations will make visible new structures of social consciousness. This is turn will create new conditions of being - a change in the conditions of change. New way to experience oneself. As well as new possibilities of divisions of labour as Malone as discussed - Hyper-Specialization.

And this is where I think we must consider as necessary a broader approach to mind-training - a meditative discipline to see the paradox of the emptiness of our individuality as founded on every extending webs of exchange and inter-dependency. 

The new narratives will probably have to be emergent meta-narratives paradoxes of co-evolving self-creation mash-ups within social commons - the absolute anti-thesis from the idea of intellectual property ownership. As Kevin Kelly put it - there is only one gene-pool and it is our common-wealth. Or as Manuel DeLanda put it the only real individual (the true Genotype) is the gene-pool - all other entities are simply instantiated phenotypes of a limited range of possibilities of environment-gene-pool interaction. And that is , what I believe will be the emergent archetypal frame for new narrative structures - and the hosts of selves that we will experience.


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