Monday, January 03, 2011

Dunbar's number, etc

Last month Ethan linked to this Wikileaks-related post at Americana called "Pathologies of Scale". The Wikileaks stuff is pretty good, but I'm more interested here in the first part of the post, in which the author, Justin, writes about his personal experience working at a smallish company as a software developer, because it dovetails nicely with some of what I've been thinking and wanting to write about here with respect to the future and how to act, etc. Justin tells of some advice he received from an older colleague who was leaving the company on "difficult terms", to the effect that he "should get out of there as soon as possible" that he "would do best in small, loose organizations" and that he "should begin looking for a new job as soon as [he] heard talk of a security badge policy". His friend
was really describing sicknesses that are endemic to organizational growth, the point at which an organization reaches critical mass and begins experiencing new kinds of communication breakdowns from scale. Businesses often call these issues 'growing pains', where in the early days of an organization, it is possible for everyone to talk with everyone and as the company grows, open communication and unrestricted access becomes impossible and counter-productive. To function, the organization needs protocols, proper channels and badges because it is no longer possible for everyone to know everything and everyone. He could have chosen any one of numerous symptoms; help desk tickets, organizational charts, whatever, but he chose security badges, which was interesting because security badges are vaguely authoritarian, betray a puffed up sense of self-importance and neurotic insecurity approaching paranoia.


The unintended side effects of growth manifest as pathologies. The role of ‘proper channels’ in an organization is to synthesize raw data into actionable information for leadership to act upon. The problem is that any synthesis also, by definition, results in information loss. The information that is [lost] is partly determined by what underlings choose to report, which is influenced by their cognizance of the reality that no matter how rational they may believe themselves to be, leaders still sometimes resort to killing the messenger.
Other than simple recognition, two things in particular occurred to me as I read these paragraphs. The first was Dunbar's number; the second was the arguments put forth by James C. Scott in his book Seeing Like a State. I've written about Scott's book in the past (here, and also here; heh, that second post reads like a dry run for, or perhaps a better version of, this post of mine from last month: I do repeat myself); here I want to talk a little about Dunbar's number.

Dunbar's number is a concept first proposed by the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, as "a theoretical 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" (Wikipedia). The number, it turns out, is roughly 150 people. I first learned about Dunbar's number by way of Stan Goff, and it so happens that Stan revisited the topic in a recent post at his essential Feral Scholar blog (seriously, Stan and his co-blogger DeAnander have been a crucial resource in recent years, in particular in such areas as gender and militarism and food praxis, among others; you should read them regularly):
. . .we ought to begin right now subjecting every institution to scrutiny, and work against the institutional tendency to transform from an in-itself into a for-itself.

Every time friends become a committee, we ought to exercise the precautionary principle; because our desire to get bigger and stronger to pursue tempo tasks can blind us to the more formidable strength we risk losing by neglecting – and underestimating – primary relations.

If we spend 80 percent of our time managing secondary relationships, then we need to figure out how we can flip that to 80 percent of our time nurturing primary relationships.

One of the reasons we have so little power to act creatively in the face of so many crises is that we are fragmented, yes, but cut off in a much deeper way by the lack of social cohesion that can only happen in the small, intimate group.

It is not hyperbole to say, I don’t think, that Management is the enemy of social cohesion, because it substitutes secondary weak bonds for primary strong ones.

It only seems symmetrical to suggest that by restrengthening primary bonds, we develop a greater capacity to resist, but also to creatively adapt to, the forces that seem so threatening now.

When I first learned about Dunbar's number the idea made immediate, intuitive sense to me. Stan opens his post by linking to a short video in which Dunbar explains the idea and some of the underpinnings of it. I recommend taking a look.

(Incidentally, in the course of his brief lecture, Dunbar mentions almost in passing the importance of touch in maintaining relationships, something that science has pretty much completely overlooked. I naturally thought immediately of Gabriel Josipovici's book-length essay Touch, and again my sense that this all matters a great deal is mutually reinforced everywhere I turn.)

I don't have a lot of time to explore this topic right now, but I did want to throw it out there, in part in connection to the question of how we are to act, given the forces aligned against us and our own complicity in it all, the hugeness of it all. The battles before us seem massive, intractable, impossible even. The sheer scale of the problems we face tends to lead us to believe that large-scale solutions are needed. I admit that I am just as susceptible, if not more so, to this way of thinking as anyone else; I am an impatient git. And, lacking any personal connection to a tradition of political or social action, the tendency for me to just say it's impossible and do nothing is still all too strong. Nonetheless, action is possible. Lately I've come around to the idea that action must be local to have any hope of succeeding. But succeeding at what? Is a locally sustaining food economy going to arrest global warming? Well, no. Of course not, not when you put it like that. I don't honestly think anything will help when it comes to problems of that scale. We can only do what we can do. My position is one of both pessimism (we will eventually be forced to make do locally, so we may as well learn now) and optimism (we really do work better in small groups, live better when we know those around us, work better when we work together, etc).

As so many previous posts have been, this one is little more than a pointer towards future writing and activity. Localism is unpopular in certain quarters of the left, which tends to view it suspiciously as often so much mystical blood and soil fascist shit, and which itself is still very much wedded to the large-scale solution of state socialism. So this is another theme to which I hope to return. (Also: what does it mean to be left? or socialist? or liberal? or conservative? how meaningless are those terms?)


Ethan said...

As so many previous posts have been, this one is little more than a pointer towards future writing and activity

As so many of my previous comments on your posts have been, this one is littler more than "wow this is interesting" and "I'm looking forward to future posts."

Richard said...

Ha, thanks Ethan. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure why I have a habit of putting disclaimers like that. I think it may in part because I'm aware that there's a lot to say on this topic (a lot to do), and I'm wary of people commenting negatively when I haven't really explored it.