The Meta Problem

Just a few hours before I began writing this, I was added to a Twitter Circle for the first time, which was cool because I very much enjoy the more unfiltered and intimate vibe of close friends social content. I figured I’d enjoy this new feature too if there was a similar concept at play, and sure enough, Twitter Circles lets users send tweets only to a select group of up to 150 people (a “circle”).

I found this pretty interesting and quite clever, as it made me fairly certain that someone on Twitter’s product teams is familiar with the deeply important concept of Dunbar’s number.

As nicely defined by Wikipedia, Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships — relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. That number is, of course, thought to be roughly 150. The term itself was originally coined by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar in the 1990s, and various studies on the topic have since suggested that the number may actually be slightly higher or lower, but these granular details are largely beside the point. The main point is this:

For thousands and thousands of years, human beings lived and evolved in the context of these Dunbar-sized communities, and the transition from that reality to one of large-scale societies has been one of the most consequential developments in the history of our species.

So… what exactly is so consequential about this?

As far as I can tell, the answer has a lot to do with how much more complex human social life became as a result of this development. For obvious reasons, an individual human living in a tribe of ~200 people is going to have a much easier time keeping track of the state of the their tribe and the relationships within it than a human living in a society of 500,000 people. This is precisely the “cognitive limit” that Dunbar refers to, and what it really meant, was that humans had to find new ways of managing the societies they lived in. Things had to be done differently.

So as we traversed this new terrain and evolved into who we are today, we learned many things along the way. We learned, first and foremost, that interpersonal trust and self-sufficiency don’t scale. We learned that self-defense is not an adequate solution to public safety in a society of thousands. We learned that everyone can’t grow their own food because a robust economy requires division of labor, and some people need to (and should based on their skills) do other things. We learned that we can’t use informal credits (IOUs in people’s heads) as the basis of a monetary system, because no one can keep track of or verify that at scale. We learned that we can’t all engage directly in dialogue about the governance of our society because there’s no forums that support hundreds of thousands of people (or more) engaging in real time, good faith, coherent conversations (key word being ‘coherent’).

Luckily for us, humans are no stranger to this fundamental problem of consensus and coordination. In fact, we have a long and impressive track record of conjuring up new tools that have allowed us to tap into a shared reality and evolve as a species. This time around was no different, as we began establishing things like social contracts, banks, governments, and institutions of various kinds. Eventually, what were once close-knit nomadic tribes had grown into much larger, complex societies.

Wow. All that seems pretty great… so, what’s the issue?

It is, but like everything in life, this transition came with no shortage of trade-offs and second-order effects. It goes without saying that this more complex manifestation of human social life brought with it more benefits than we could ever hope to imagine. Among those were a radical increase in diversity of every kind, from ethic to neurological and beyond, as well as superlinear scaling in human creative output and productivity. The sum of all this basically added up to an explosion of innovation across the board, the likes of which we still benefit from (and take for granted) today.

On the flip side, however, I think it’s also fair to say that we left a lot behind, including some things that maybe shouldn’t have been left behind. I would argue that there’s a certain way in which this shift away from what is local and communal has alienated us from certain aspects of our nature that are deeply important and meaningful. One of the places where this alienation shows up most obviously is in how we exist in relation to the natural world, and the way we seem to view as it that which must be harnessed and controlled vs that from which we originate and are sustained.

Interestingly enough, it seems to me that this post-Dunbar era of complex society is actually what many people (incorrectly) think of and refer to as captialism, whereas the Dunbar era itself is often invoked as some sort of pre-money communist utopia where everyone lives off the land in harmony without private property or government. Part of me very much sympathizes and resonates with these conceptions, but the problem is actually much deeper, I fear.

The problem of alienation

Some people’s minds will go to straight to Karl Marx when they hear the word alienation, but I ask you to resist this urge, as the notion I’m trying to invoke is not quite the same. What I’m talking about is not an alienation that results from class stratification, but rather one that results from a kind of radical outsourcing. In this context, aspects of human life that existed firmly in the domain of interpersonal trust and/or self-sufficiency began to be outsourced to institutions and social systems. We don’t “live off the land,” we have commodities markets and food supply chains. Things like identity, our very sense of who we are, become a product not only of experience, relation and history, but also of “official record.” Reality itself becomes a centrally managed ledger.

This is probably not great, but I don’t think the real problem lies within radical outsourcing itself, so much as with the economy of power that inevitably emerges around it. In outsourcing all these responsibilities, part of what we’ve done is create centralized power honeypots within society. When we outsource the problem of coordinating public safety, there’s now an institution (or set of institutions) that have something like unilateral control and knowledge over that domain. The same goes for our food supply, financial system, education system, communications infrastructure, and so on and so on.

Individuals now have an intense and perpetual incentive to gain monopolistic control over these honeypots. Why? Because gaining such control allows for value capture via gate keeping and rent seeking, and as a firm believer that powerful incentives have an effect on human behavior that’s comparable to the effect gravity has on mass, this strikes me as problematic. I’d actually go as far as to say that it seems like the pervasive centralization of everything (even domain-specific knowledge), and the subsequent exploitation of that power asymmetry is actually just the logical conclusion of this emergent alienation and outsourcing dynamic. Not the work of the devil, the Illuminati, George Soros, or any anyone else.

I say all this to say that if you’ve also experienced the intuitive sense that everything wrong and broken in society seems to be wrong and broken in the same very specific way… this is why. Hence the ‘meta’ problem.

So… what now?

Dramatic and dark as this may sound, I want to be really really clear that this is neither a critique of human evolution nor a call for the return of tribal living. What I actually think we should be striving for is something like balance.

Before we launch into writing think pieces about the evils of post-Dunbar human life, its probably worth considering whether or not there was really even a viable alternative. Evolution is, after all, an amoral process, and can anyone honestly say they’d prefer human beings to have remained permanently in the Dunbar-era? Did anyone really have a serious solution for how to reap the benefits of large-scale society without sacrificing many of the Dunbar-era benefits? I think it’s safe to say the answer is largely no. So where does that leave us?

I personally believe that we find ourselves in a race against time to identify and transition to a new paradigm before we break something beyond repair in this current one (like our planet or our limbic systems). As one person, I obviously can’t consume or process all the information in the world, but from everything I’ve seen up to this point, there are a few developments that seem especially promising in their potential to help our species succesfully navigate this dilemma.

The first one I’m going to explore involves global-scale peer-to-peer networks and decentralized coordination….




Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
natalie marie

natalie marie

musings of a dispassionate observer