Grooming 150 friends
Everyone has lots of ‘friends’ on social media. Some people you’ve never heard of have millions of followers on Twitter. How can anyone have that many followers as friends. They aren’t really friends. Internet followers are a new and different category of relationships. Before going high-tech, some context is useful to understanding the limitations we all face in accumulating friends. I have under a thousand ‘friends’ on Facebook, and I follow 23 people on Twitter. That’s a large spread and I want to come back to the idea of the maximum carrying weight for ‘friends.’
We are violence prone species when expanding our territory in search of resources and mates. Like other primates, we lived in small groups. The size of our population remained relatively small and stable for 12,000 generations. It is the last 500 generations that a number of events happened that allowed an inflation of population size. And in the last 20 generations the way people clustered together and their lives inside that cluster expanded beyond the initial seed of our universe. In terms of evolution, the human species experienced something like a Big Bang in technological evolution only the brain has stayed much pretty much the same wiring configuration.
We’ve all had moments when tearing out our hair over red tape when we’d vote for anyone who would dismantle bureaucracy. The far right wants to do something like that in America and elsewhere. Getting entangled with bureaucrats makes a revolutionary out of many. Or have you ever wondered why elections, demonstrations and protest need layers of bureaucracy? Given the interconnected age of the Internet why haven’t we figured out a way to leave bureaucracy in the past?
The answer to this riddle is found in what might be called the Dunbar number: 150. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, discovered that the maximum of our cognitive abilities to keep straight the people we know and their relationship with us and each other. These are the people you know and keep in social contact with.
Our cognitive limitation is found deep in our 250,000-year-old brain structure. It’s a hardware limitation in other words. We evolved to live off the grid.
Others have argued that “the optimal size for active group members for creative and technical groups — as opposed to exclusively survival-oriented groups, such as villages — hovers somewhere between 25-80, but is best around 45-50.”
The numbers are linked to brain size and grooming habits. What has made our species different from other primates, according to Dunbar, is we used language as a substitute form of grooming. Language, as it turns out, our species found a more efficient and effective grooming kit in words that largely replaced the hours of picking lice and fleas off the hair of our friends.In other primate social groups, 42% of the group’s time is spent on social grooming as a means to maintain social cohesiveness.
Language, as it turns out, is a more effective and efficient kind of grooming. We are in the next stage where digital grooming has replaced face-to-face language exchange. Press the ‘like,’ ‘share,’ ‘retweet,’ or ‘reply’ button, or the thumbs up vote icon act as grooming techniques. There are people grooming others all day on social media. We have our social grooming colonies that share our personal biases online. Rather than 150 groom-mates, many people have a thousand or more and we appear to have returned to a new environment where many spend 42% of their time digitally grooming other primates. Only we don’t think of it as ‘grooming’ any more than we think of ourselves as primates. We are as inventive as we are delusional and biased. We clutch these illusions as reality as we find them useful in making our way through the jungle of everyday life.
For the sake of argument, I am using Dunbar’s 150 as the upper limit on the number for the self-management of effective social relations among people that doesn’t require someone from outside the group to organize resource acquisition or distribution. Inside Dunbar’s world, things are done in-house. The group doesn’t need a manager. It is useful to note that the upper limit is not the same as the optimal number, which hovers closer to 60 people rather than 150 people.
How did we scale from small bands of less to 150 in number to living in cities like Bangkok with 12 million people—all of whom need, as some point, to use transportation, sewers, drinking water, food, hospitals, schools, and jobs. That required creating a ‘grid’ and this work in progress of creating, refining, managing the grid in the face of technological destruction of our history.
This is a massive scaling problem and the experiments to ever larger numbers living in dense, concentrated areas has been going on for the last 10,000 years. But it is the last couple hundred years that management of resources and people with ever better technology, systems, management and logistics has permitted co-ordination needed to feed, cloth, house and control millions.
Bureaucracy has been the backbone of the system that distributes resources and benefits. From the beginning there was a conflict of interest between those governing the allocation of benefits and the people who received benefits. History is filled with slavery and oppression arising out of governing elites who used bureaucracy and threat of violence to domesticate people and use them as a resource rather delivering resources to them.
Why would anyone agree to such an arrangement? Rebellion and uprisings are a constant feature in our culture. Herding large numbers of people into close quarters and demanding that they to do things they’d rather wish not to do often requires threats of violence, a combination of tools such as genocide, displacement, starvation, exile, and territorial expansion through wars. It also leads to rebellion.
The question is who has the whip hand in running the vast enterprise of an entire culture, society, and economy? And how are individuals and groups under control of the whip treated? The elite members seek to give an appearance of grooming the rest of us. Our new social media grooming venues suggests that appearances no longer are sufficient. People want actual grooming. And what does that mean? It translates into demands for justice and fairness and liberties, and rights to participate in the decision-making process. They no longer like the old way of being treated like members of a grooming herd to be managed and culled for the benefit of the rulers. We don’t groom sheep. We sheer them for their wool. Modern economic models have adapted the sheep template to humans and packages it as grooming. A clever, sinister streak runs through our desire to dominate, acquire resources, mates and power.
The problem has been one of legitimacy of bureaucrats coercing people to do or not to do things. The threat of official violence underwrote their order. Originally bureaucrats, in religious or civil organizations, operated under the authority of religious leaders, kings, chiefdoms, warriors, or strongmen. They were sacred and objects of worship; they inspired awe and respect making following orders tied with loyalty, purity and honor.
Once the social setting requires organization that vastly exceeds the Dunbar number there is no going back. Society is organized along very different principles and the values and ethics evolve to reinforce authority and to punish unconformity. Our brain ware doesn’t give us any other choice. Our neocortical architecture is our cognitive prison. The grooming prison is egalitarian, housing everyone despite high IQ, status, birth, or abilities. No one, but no one breaks out of brain prison holding cell.
Democracy, in the modern sense, is a very late arrival—only about 500 years ago—when the sentiment shifted to asking whether the authority to devise and implement the policies that controlled the actions of the bureaucracy ought to come from the citizens. That was and remains a revolutionary idea. All of history had been either people living together in small bands where everyone knew one another or much later, forming into larger agricultural communities that had various degrees of tyranny to compel compliance with the allocation of resources according to the desire or whims of the top leader.
We live in a time where extremists seek to reinstate a council of elders, purists, who are truth believers in an ideology or faith, a strict hierarchy of authority beyond outside challenge or change. That’s the Taliban model with the suicide bombers, oppression of women, hatred for gays, infidels, or foreigners. Inside the capitalist system: wealth is used to terrorize and control; the wealthy co-opt the bureaucracy like ancient caliphs for their own personal benefit.
Capitalism, in the gilded age mode, has produced a kind of suicide vest destruction leaving the people who most need bureaucracy unable to access it or, if access is allowed, the range of benefits available are reduced. The battles in the United States to expand bureaucracy into the field of universal, public health care in a way that many developed countries have done is a classic example of ideological beliefs undercutting distribution of resources to the wider population.
The old grid our parents were born into, one based on a monopoly of ‘state’ bureaucracy is threatened by a new grid built by the social media. You signal status, wealth, success and power through a registry of ‘likes’. A lot of companies and people pay for ‘likes’. They use wealth to generate authority. It is an illusion that ‘likes’ bought for likes have any meaning. But it is not an illusion that social media is causing a reorganization of how people accumulate into group with shared goals, values and interest. The center of management is returning to smaller groups who define themselves by affiliations to political, economic or social causes, charities, sports teams, or other interest.
Today it is difficult not to question Winston Churchill’s observation that “it is the people who control the Government, not the Government the people.” It is the very wealthy people who are retaking government, meaning the vast management system that runs the machinery of life for millions, and they are doing so with the intention of dismantling it.
It is utopian, as the Khmer Rouge demonstrated, to believe that millions of people living in large cities can be emptied into the countryside and coerced into a social system based on ‘self sufficiency’ or ‘self-reliance’ and survive as their ancestors had done. Such a time never existed, except in a romantic, idealized imagination. The Chinese disastrous Cultural Revolution miscalculated our capacity to form large coherent rural communities without the inevitable brutality, murder and oppression. The villain in both cases was the educated, urban person. Destroy that type and return the population to its roots was the policy. But the roots had died long ago. There is no going back to where we’ve come; that road washed away centuries ago.
We haven’t quite come to terms with the importance of having crossed a system threshold that has allowed more than 7 billions people to exist. How far can we scale before the whole system comes tumbling down? No one knows. Our cognitive abilities can’t take in those numbers. We can’t imagine the implications of that number on the overall population. We have and will continue to experience the collateral fallout from the large population and the economic system that and face the prospects of climate change that may well cause the population to crash.
Our weakness is for the benefits of scaling population, and convincing the population that the government is working for them. As Gore Vidal wrote, “The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return.”
The ruling class has its own set of grooming rules. When someone within the ruling class is perceived to have violated the elite grooming protocols, there is the risk of huge disruption as Thailand is experiencing. Thaksin’s problem was when he stopped grooming the ‘right’ people and brought in a new grooming tribe. Until the elite grooming system is revised, agreed upon, and implemented, expect more violence, disruption and instability. Nothing makes primates more irritable and insane with anger than having their grooming interfered with especially by another member of their band.
People pay for a system that watches them, controls their lives by pandering to their biases, feeds them propaganda, and uses them for the watcher’s purposes. To transcend our inability to keep track of people and their connections, we have put faith in a system of organization, logistics and management that woke up to its own power, and that is when the nightmare started. We haven’t woken up from the reality, that we’ve been captured, harnessed, domesticated by a system that herds the population and limits their grooming rights. We had a taste of coherence—social media has created the illusion that we’ve busted through the 150 Dunbar number. It has made us unruly, more demanding, more suspicious of authorities outside our grooming stables.
We’ve gone way beyond the 150-group member limit. Our cognitive abilities are flawed by cognitive biases, and have limited carrying capacity, but we are smart enough to look around and understand once we handed the keys to the bus to others they will ultimately drive us to whatever destination they have in mind. It will be a place that suits and benefits the driver. We have no choice but to go along for the ride. We are passengers riding together in one of those double-decker upcountry Thai buses at three in the morning with 150-meter ravines on a narrow road and a driver taking another large slug of whisky.
This is our transport. It isn’t really our choice of how we’d like to travel. It’s the way things turned out as the speed of change started to accelerate about 10 generations ago. There is no evidence that the pressure on our cognitive resources is slowing down. More friends, more data, same meat operating system to process it.
Look out the window, look over the edge into the ravine and ask yourself if the airbrakes will hold on the next hairpin curve. It’s too late to get out and walk. That is a definition of noir to keep us awake at night and force us to flee back to our computer and log on to our grooming station, looking for ‘likes’ and ‘thumbs up arrows’ for coherence, comfort and calmness. This is the source for the Hollywood ending where all that grooming leads to redemption, fulfillment and happiness. Our primate cousins made friends finding and eliminating head lice and ticks. We are trying something to do something similar with our relationship with our digital friends. It makes us feel far superior and worthy. Until you sit back and think about the implications.
After some thought, can I offer you, my friend, a Red pill, or blue pill? The choice has always been yours.