The Dunbar Number, Technology, and Anarchism

Something I often talk about on my podcast Sovryn Tech is the Dunbar Number (it may technically be called “Dunbar’s Number”, but I find just “Dunbar Number” rolls off of the tongue and keyboard better). A theory popularized by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, it suggests that we are biologically (by the size of the human neocortex) hardwired to only be able to meaningfully handle anywhere between 100-250 relationships at a time. Deeper ends of the research on the Dunbar Number suggest that you can actually only have “very close”, empathy-filled relationships between 5-15 people.

After studying the Dunbar Number myself, a lot of things began clicking for me. I’ve applied its (admittedly theoretical) tenets to every aspect of human interaction, including technology. Consider social media. Regardless of how many people it can “connect” us to, we can still only have actual real, meaningful friendships and loving relationships to the tune of what our brain can handle.

Eventually, I began applying the Dunbar Number to my other, greater interest: Anarchism (no shock, I’m an anarchist). Is the reason people can’t imagine a world without governments due to the fact that–deep down–they feel so uncomfortable with the world outside of their 15 to 150 people? How can we interact with billions of people without some form of smaller representative group, like governments? These thoughts, and further ideas on the matter are something I explore often, but I’m not the first one. In 1985 (30 years ago!), a grad student named Dennis Fox did a fascinating article on the matter that I recently discovered. And to leave you to your own conclusions, click here to read it. I consider it required reading. Do I agree with it 100%? Not exactly, but it’s a great introduction to the idea of the Dunbar Number being applied in more areas of life.

Personally, I take comfort in that what is a new idea for me…actually isn’t a new idea. And unlike many, I like to give credit where credit is due.

Carpe lucem!