(Some background music for this post. Click play).
For my masters degree that I finished last year, I decided to research something that’s always interested me: group dynamics (and specifically the concept of ‘critical mass’). I wanted to know what happens with groups of people, as they grow larger. I ended up finding a niche in this, but it still came from a curiosity in terms of how humanity functions together.
I’m particularly fascinated by the research of the Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist that correlated the size of the prefrontal cortex in relation to size of groups in primates.
What he discovered (and it’s just a well substantiated hypothesis) is that the size of the prefrontal cortex does in fact correlate to larger group sizes. Later on, he went on and postulated the idea of the “social brain hypothesis”. There is safety in numbers, and the primates that managed to be able to group together in larger numbers, survived. One of our greatest assets is the extent of social capability.
In a sort of fibonacci manner, these groups extend in size by increasingly larger factors. Here’s an in-depth post on it looking deeper into these delineations.
This picture says a lot:
Have you ever been to a social gathering, where there is 5-7 people? Everyone has fun together, but once you add the 8th person, it’s too much and the conversations splinter.
You’ll also agree that that you probably have 5-7 really close friends/family. Then after that it starts branching into close acquaintances (and friends you don’t see often), up to about 50 people. Then it goes onwards until 150, which according to Dunbar is the limit of people with which we can have “stable” relationships with.
Each new delineation means a new kind of relationship. In humanity’s history we’ve consistently found ways to extends these groupings. With each new technology (as part of our system), as individuals we’ve managed to collectively put faith in it so that we can function better together: the sum is greater than the parts.
If you look at innovations such as agriculture, sewage systems, rail, cars, internet, etc. Each time we can let go of some “trust” in others, but put faith in the “technology” so we can ALL be better off. If we are only primates in the wild, we required the trust of others in the group: which limits us to 150. But NOW, we don’t. We can arbitrate the trust through the extra pillars in our systems.
Now we manage to collectively hold faith in systems such as democracy, capitalism, policing, nation states, etc to able to function at “higher levels” of organization.
I mean. If you think about it. Isn’t it a bit weird that another individual has the authority to lock you away? Or isn’t it weird that we stop for red robots, which is just a red light? Isn’t it weird, that on some pieces of land I can walk freely, but then suddenly walk into artificial boundaries? We, however agree to work with this, because for the most part, it enables other things. We are all cogs in an increasingly larger machine (not implying the negative connotation here): allowing us to enjoy things like Game of Thrones thousands of kilometres away, allowing us to enjoy the Internet, communicating with fascinating stranger in different countries.
It’s a growing, complex system. The parts become larger, creating smaller autonomous pockets within the larger whole. Currently the escape velocity of these systems seem to get stuck at nation states. We’ve tried creating systems of international (and wordly) agreement, but it still sometimes fails. We unfortunately must still have an hegemony to act as the world’s “police” (aka USA). Nations (*cough* Russia) continuously test their geopolitical influence, and international agreements often fizzle out.
The benefit of the Internet has made nation states more intertwined, which is good. We seem to move towards the right path.
Now: if you catch where I’m heading towards. In terms of humanity, trust and systems, technology enables us to trust the people less, because we can put trust in the system. As time went on, we put more and more trust in the “black box” of the systems we’ve created. To use a crude example, I can swipe my credit card at a shop in Amsterdam, and everything *should* be okay, because we can put trust in the systems behind it. I don’t have to worry that the waitress behind the desk has any incentive to suddenly whip out a knife and kill me for my clothes. I don’t know her… from anywhere. But I don’t need to. And that’s the beauty of the wonderful systems we’ve created. Some are still flawed, but we’ve managed to do a really great job so far, thanks to our prefrontal cortex.
We understand the concept of “police”, blackboxing it in our minds, that allows us to go along with the collective “illusion” that another individual can lock us away.
To sum up thus far: better systems require less trust -> enabling us to achieve more. (I generally don’t need to worry that my chair that’s keeping me steady is going to break). In the center of this is technology/innovation. In terms of complexity theory: it’s the rock solid foundation that allows creativity and innovation to exist at the “edge of chaos”.
Now comes the most fucking mind-blowing part: the next step. The almost perfect trust-less system. A cryptocurrency’s blockchain.
Humanity, in the guise of a group of people (or individual) created Bitcoin: Satoshi Nakamoto. A system that propels humanity aeons ahead. Through clever exploitation of numbers, verifiable by the laws of the universe we inhabit, we can establish consensus. Just think about it: a verifiably secure, global, nearly instant public ledger. That’s unfathomable.
The blockchain becomes the foundation for a system in which humanity can organise in a much larger fashion: continuing our walk to trump Dunbar’s Number.
Think of it as a pillar - a strut - propping up humanity. A “large city” attracting people from neighbouring towns. A star, attracting celestial bodies to form a solar system. The blockchain’s “systemic gravity” is incredibly strong.
Like agriculture, sewage systems, the automobile, the pc & the internet, we’ve reached a new substrate in complex systems that will help us withstand the entropy of large social systems.
It’s going to a really awesome decade or 2 ahead.