Sunday, September 16, 2012

Some thought on Identity, Roles, and Wealth - exploring Dunbar, McLuhan and Hidalgo

My recent reading have included a number of work by or about Marshall McLuhan, and Cesar Hidalgo. I have read a couple of articles related to the Dunbar number and have not read any of Dunbar's books and therefore I may lack the level of appreciation and nuance the Dunbar is due. That said - these are my thoughts.

I've posted before about Dunbar, but let's reiterate. Dunbar suggest that there is cognitive limit to the number people with who a person can maintain stable social relationships - that number is somewhere between 100 and 230 - commonly referred to as 150. Dunbar came to this significant realization based on observations and studies related to primate behaviour and surveys of village and tribe sizes that include the estimated size of a Neolithic farming village, Hutterite settlements; the upper bound on the number of academics in a discipline's sub-specialization; and the basic unit size of professional armies.

Dunbar argued that the 150 limit was a mean group size only for communities with a very high incentive to remain together. To remain cohesive such a would have to spend as much as 42% of the group's time would have to be devoted to 'social grooming'. This was because the relationships involved required that an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. The limit is dependent on long-term memory size. Once a group gets larger more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group are required. The basic size of the group - dependent on long-term memory means that it is the relative size of the neocortex that limits group size - imposed by neocortical processing capacity.

Thus far the reasoning seems sound - but (always a but...) what about the context- the ground, for this reasoning? The context is not simply individual survival - it is group survival where competition is less about between individual but about between groups. The intensity of necessary attention in a small group who's context is xenophobic competition between other groups truly requires a very intense investment in the grounds of trust within the group. In the constraints of this type of group - there is no 'individual identity', there is no need for last names - there is lineage, but not individuality. In the inter-personal vigilance of the hunter-gatherer group there is 'character', status related to pecking-order and allegiances related to pecking-order. Change in Character-temperament, status and allegiance do require a lot of cognitive investment to process in a way that maintains the necessary cohesion to successfully compete between groups.

Think of living in the small group and changing one's identity - the group won't have any of that - for it means everyone else in the group must change their identity too. So, identity in this Dunbar number results in an intense focus on character/temperament - and the need to maintain statuses and alert attentions to changes in status structures and relationships in a way that establishes the foundations of trust - in the context of potentially dangerous competition between groups.

In these sort of conditions, identity is more about maintaining 'character' as role and much less about identity. The 150 limit of the hunter-gatherer group doesn't support a great deal of 'divisions of labour' and bifurcations of specialization. The intense vigilance behind the cognitive demands Dunbar talks about is really not simply 'cohesion' in a conventional sense - but much more similar to the hyper cohesion of a military unit that must operate in potentially hostile context. The hunter-gatherer group needed to maintain 'good-enough' cohesion and egalitarian relations within a context of 'between-group' competition.

The hunter-gather group can afford a few specialist types of labor-division, e.g.  elder-adult-child, hunter, gatherer, healer/shaman but members have to be generalists with a few 'alphas'. As groups exceed the Dunbar number (150-250) group size not only enables, but requires new forms of 'divisions-of-labor'. As new types of expertise arise, these new divisions help form types of interdependence that augment the type of inter-personal vigilance that the small group required. This is the birth of a networked social group and thus a networked cohesion. As groups get larger, coordination challenges begin to favour hierarchic structures (which were efficient and relatively effective).

It could be that divisions-of-labor shape new forms of interdependence relieving the type of personal vigilance that was required for group cohesion. Group belonging and status  become determined on the importance and value that specialist types of 'occupations' can contribute to the group. The increases in divisions-of-labor (and correspondent interdependencies) also enabled a type of cognitive surplus that could be applied to the specialist pursuits of divided-labor. In these conditions, identity now has lineage, group, geography and 'occupation'. I would be John the baker son of John the baker, of Johnland, etc.

The conditions of identity construction, change with a change in the ground of social intensity and context.  By intensity I mean conditions of population density and connectedness. Increases in population density enable/require divisions-of-labor which in turn lead to a huge proliferation of 'roles' that form a component of identity. Thus in the urban centers arising with the advent of agriculture - came new ways of being - baker, wood-worker, potter, and on and on. However, the problems of coordination tended to be solved via hierarchy.

Since this is not a book on the history of civilization - I'll jump to the creation of the industrial labour force and the advent of 'jobs' (workers for an employer) and professions (e.g. lawyer, doctor, engineer, etc.). The industrial society was a phase transition marking the shift from a largely agricultural population to a predominantly urban population. With the advent the population density of the industrial and market-system urban society  (including vastly more social and physical mobility) can a historically new condition - comfort with the anonymous stranger and impersonal exchange. Commerce was no longer dependent on personalized networks and the protection of local 'Nobility' but dependent on a large social bases of cohesion - identity with a national state - that created common language, ensured common standard, etc.

I believe that real individuality - can only arise with a sense 'density' of encounter with unknown 'others'. Perhaps this is why our first 'models' of individuality (and still active as archetypes of individuality) are the heroes and royalty in our historical past and myth. The royal sovereign by necessity had to constantly encounter and deal with new people, situations (more so than the locally bound non-nobles) and unknowns. Through encounter with strangers we encounter moments where we have an opportunity to meet and respond to new behaviors and expectations - and this is the birth of individuality over simply character and role.

However, in the industrial model a specialist is considered a highly valued capability that may receive special privileges but only in order to keep a particular 'job' filled.

What Marshall McLuhan noted was that jobs were becoming displaced by what he called 'roles'. The specialist as a ‘container of knowledge’ – job – must give way to the person who is an applier of expertise – role(Federman & de Kerckhove, the following quotes p.140-142).

The industrial model was carried over from blue-collar workers to non-factory employees. Many, if not all, of the negative behaviours and symptoms exhibited by assembly-line workers were also manifest in white-collar, burned-out, job-oriented employees. Considering that jobs are extensions of our highly specialized hands, it seems that often relatively little involvement is needed beyond the literal ‘task at hand.’  

Conversely, roles mean generalization and flexibility. An individual in a role is required to use a variety of skills and experience, applying them to various situations. Being in role suggests drawing on attributes and characteristics, rather than merely demonstrating a specific skill. A role necessitates the ability to assume a character or persona appropriate to the situation, much like the actor does on stage. In doing so, the individual must consolidate a relatively large amount of information and respond in a manner more akin to pattern recognition than mechanistic ‘connecting the dots’. There is total and active involvement of multiple senses, as the person-in-role continuously monitors, adjusts and responds to a dynamic and often unpredictable, environment.

For McLuhan,

…If it is merely the depth of knowledge for which an individual is valued, then that individual serves only as a convenience, saving the relative layperson from the trouble of personally obtaining the information electronically.

For example we see this in the evolution in the patient-doctor relationship. A knowledgeable patient, armed with information from credible medical Web sites, engages their physician in active consultation about options in their course of treatment. For the physician who regarded themselves as the source of wisdom and knowledge, this has been a threatening, and in some cases, traumatizing, transition. However, for the physician used to assuming multiple roles of teacher, mentor, advisor as well as skilled practitioner, the knowledgeable patient is a godsend. Both doctor and patient are fully engaged; medical outcomes are improved and the patient has a greater sense of control over their destiny. 

With the advent of the digital environment a person with a considerable depth of knowledge placed in a variety of roles, as opposed to being kept tightly contained in the lab, the marketing department or some other job. Place that knowledgeable individual in areas as diverse as sales, strategy, or finance in the role of teacher, storyteller, visionary, leader or builder. That role-player can now offer tremendous value to the corporation by virtue of the changes they can effect. 

Thus the industrial mode of production operating in the digital environment will end up squandering the value [the Wealth] of their people if they are kept in jobs. They focus on the efficient consumption of their time disregarding the wealth of their real potential value. 

This brings me to a wonderful Edge Conversation with Cesar Hidalgo, about the difference between Wealth and Value. The thoughts that Hidalgo explores are co-joined with a broader discussion of Big Data (in fact, he provides the best definition of Big Data that I've read). For me the salient point is that his exploration is also an exploration of the phase transition into the digital environment - that is the consequence of 'intensities' - increases in population, communication and connectedness density that the digital environment enables/embodies. 

The key is the difference between value that can be generated versus the value that can be commercially appropriated. - These are vastly different. Hidalgo uses the example of Facebook - as an endeavour that in serving almost a billion people, is and has generated a tremendous amount of value for all it members. However, Facebook, despite its past and current efforts to monetize itself can only appropriate or 'harvest' a very tiny portion of this value. And this is probably inherent in the traditional 'business model' that Facebook is trying to embody as a private sector enterprise in the digital environment. A counter example could be Wikipedia which also generates huge value (one could well wonder where this value shows up in the GDP of any country?) but is not pressure to have to appropriate that value as a non-profit foundation. Facebook users might well be better served if Facebook could transform itself into developing some form of 'foundation' model.

Another example: Google is a similar example. Google also serves, for free, searches for billions of people on a daily basis. It's the number one site on the Web, and it's generating an enormous amount of value: giving access to information. But it's appropriating very little of that value.       

Hidalgo as what is value about? and how do we measure value? His answer is that we have generally have only been able to measure value by the amount of money we can appropriate from the value we generate. This has increasingly been a smaller portion of the value (e.g. human and social capital) that we generate.

The tension is increasing between the capacity to generate value through new business, technologies, networks and the old models of appropriation of the value generated.

He gives a great example of the value of what I would consider that a 'smart city' can generate: Shared cars can be used as another example of the difference that I see between the generation of value and the appropriation of value. If you go outside, you will see a large number of vehicles. Many of these are parked, and when a vehicle is parked it's not being used. If we wanted to increase GDP, well, we might want to increase the number of vehicles that get sold, and the number of people that own vehicles, and the number of vehicles per person. But if you think about it now, when there are technologies that are starting to ripen, such as the technology that allows us to have self-driving cars, you can think that actually you can reduce the number of cars needed by having self-driving cars as shared vehicles. You can have a transportation system that is much more shared. That is going to reduce the amount of money that flows through the car industry, simply because you're going to need fewer cars because their use is more efficient when this are shared.

When we begin to think about the movement away from 'job' to complex multi-dimension role based on expertise applied to a the 'costless' network of a digital environment we can find ourselves right back to Adam Smith's 'Wealth of Nations' - as the productive capacity of a people - the ability to generate value/wealth and perhaps a new focus on the 'social' appropriation of value. This requires us to re-thing our political-economy and the corresponding institutions.

This has been a long ramble - and I'd like to try to bring it back to 'identity'. The digital environment may require all of us to truly become 'individuals' defining ourselves less by our past narratives, our lineages, our cultures, our geographies, our 'jobs' or 'occupations' and much more by the trajectories of our passion/curiosities/questing-dispositions. An embrace to a paradoxical sense of self that demands a greater courage and responsibility for self-determination that is simultaneously more social and aware of fundamental interdependence of a networked world.

We not only don't have the corresponding institutions for this embrace of paradoxical social-and-self-determined self, but the institutions we do have (social, political, economic, etc.) remained mired in an industrial and sometime modern paradigm of a society that is simple an aggregate of isolated, atomistic 'characters'.

I believe we have entered an era that is determined through a new environment that fosters/demands a new form of identity - a paradoxically social-yet-hyper-individualistic-evolving-self. This self, is not dependent on a Dunbar number, it is an instantiation of a networked idividualism that is also mobile, transparent, and has an audience (see Networked: The New Social Operating System).