This week → A sequence of Dunbar-like numbers ⊗ How speaking is 2.8x better than picking fleas ⊗ Low-technology: why sustainability doesn’t have to depend on high-tech solutions ⊗ Three more things you won’t believe about Speculative Design ⊗ Third places ⊗ Opportunity cost in policy
For various reasons and through multiple prompts, I’ve been meaning to get back into blogging but doing so on my personal site, with all the time I’m dedicating to Sentiers, seems like splitting my efforts for no reason. Right now, Notes on the website are pieces of the newsletter, plus a few others I add once in a while, meant as ‘connective tissue’ between the newsletter pieces. From now on, I’ll also start treating Notes as blog posts; between fleshed-out articles and short one-topic notes. This is likely more details than most of you want to know, but it’s one kind of thing we’ve been discussing in the members’ Discord, so I thought I’d share (the $20 special is still on, btw).
I’m also mentioning blogging because the first item below is basically just that, an unpolished and un-researched blog post, followed by the regular newsletter. Hopefully, I manage to actually blog, and perhaps I include one here once in a while.
A Sequence of Dunbar-Like Numbers ⊕ See Note
Yesterday a random thought popped into my head. Is there a sequence of Dunbar-like numbers—“a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships” (150)—for larger and larger groups? In a nice bit of synchronicity, I ended up on Matt Webb’s site this morning, and his top post (featured below) is an excellent, quick, but deeper look at Dunbar’s research. It turns out that he went both smaller, with five, 15, and 50, and higher with tribes between 500 and 2500 members.
Which is kind of where I was going with my Dunbar-like numbers. Maybe not everyone is built to live in a village where everybody knows your name. What’s a more comfortable size? Three, four, five Dunbars? We then get away from “this is what our brains evolved into,” to more subjective terrain, but what’s the ‘best’ size for a city? ≅One million? Five? Fifteen? What’s the ‘best’ size for a country? Highly subjective again, but maybe there are some solid, researched numbers to follow in that sequence?
For example, Scandinavian countries are, by various metrics, often seen as fantastic places to live with very egalitarian societies. Norway, Denmark, and Finland are all around five and a half million people, Sweden is at ten and a half. Outside of scandies, Switzerland is at eight and a half, and stable Costa Rica, with no army, a good standard of living, and happy people? Five million. Random? Indicative of a sweet spot between five and ten? Cultural? BS?
If we slide another way, what if Westphalian countries are not the way to go? Would there be ideal sizes for a mesh of interconnected city-states? What’s the size of ‘mother nodes,’ and secondary and tertiary ones? Where does it connect back down to the three-four-five Dunbar villages above?
What if then, instead of made up and arbitrary hypothetical cities and villages, we wonder about directions for the next few decades? What are the best sizes for more autonomous places? Let’s say today the average city imports 90% of what’s used there, and you want to go more circular and autonomous, are the ‘best’ sizes for a village and a city still the same?
Basically, if the Dunbar number identifies a sweet spot for a circle of stable relationships, what are the other rings around that, and which factors might modify them?
Webb’s post mentioned above, where he shares some of the highlights of the actual paper and explains how Dunbar got to some of those conclusions. The idea of the language being the modifier that allows humans to be 2.8x more effective at social grooming is genius. And of course, don’t miss Matt’s pondering at the end, I’m always impressed by his what-ifs.
“Comfortable” conversation means background noise levels typical of both offices and city streets – our normal voice levels, our normal hearing, our normal comfortable personal social distance, our normal width of shoulders all combine to produce conversional groups of… 5 people. […]
Looking at some six billion calls made by 35 million people they did some number crunching and… the average cumulative layer turns out to hold 4.1, 11.0, 29.8, and 128.9 users. […]
[W]hen we’re building software-enabled co-ops or, in new language, creating governance and consensus systems for DAOs, could we optimise around Dunbar’s layers in order to avoid the inevitable bureaucratic requirements when we don’t – bureaucracy which is now perhaps revealed to be a social technology, a kind of relationships prosthetic for when self-organisation caps out.
At The Conversation, Chris McMahon, a Senior Research Fellow in Engineering, University of Bristol, provides a nicely turned overview of low-tech solutions, E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, Kris de Dekker’s online Low-Tech Magazine, Julia Watson’s book Lo-TEK (where TEK stands for Traditional Ecological Knowledge), and more. It’s not about living in caves, but about simplicity and durability, a better balance, an emphasis on sobriety, local manufacturing, and rediscovering ancient methods. The crux of the matter is actually right at the beginning of the piece, quoted first below; to be built, all the green growth ‘solutions’ require more destruction. Technology will bring some solutions, but the main thing to do remains the same: we need to change our lifestyles.
Many modern technologies use materials like copper, cobalt, lithium and rare earth elements. These metals are in devices like cell phones, televisions and motors. Not only is their supply finite, but large amounts of energy are required for their extraction and processing – producing significant emissions. […]
“Low-tech” does not mean a return to medieval ways of living. But it does demand more discernment in our choice of technologies – and consideration of their disadvantages. […]
[T]he first principle of low-tech is its emphasis on sobriety: avoiding excessive or frivolous consumption, and being satisfied by less beautiful models with lower performance.
This might be slightly too much in the direction of nitpicking for those not working in or closely following design, critical design, and speculative design, but considering how many articles I share on those topics, and on futures, it becomes kind of a must-share. Tobias Revell recaps the last couple of decades of those disciplines and reminds us that speculative design is “an academic research tool. It was tested and validated as a way of producing knowledge, originally in the academic context of the juvenile field of design research but sometimes in applied contexts too. The speculation is never the outcome: What you learn or uncover in the discourse with others or yourself is the outcome.” Hopefully, speculative design (and later futures) doesn’t become a dirty word like design thinking.
In 2020 I sat on a panel for a speculative design award; half of the entires were just designs for future apps, autonomous cars, smart cities or gadgets. The element of criticality, for which speculation was a lever, had been overshadowed by the opportunity to create ‘edgy’ aesthetic-led future visions that supported pre-existing assumptions. […]
This context created a particular thinking about design, society, power and people which it may well be inappropriate to duplicate to the present day in different places. The opportunity now is for new types of design, imagination and critique that maybe take the best bits of those practice but grow it into something better and more needed for today. […]
If the speculation is simply meeting or amplifying inherited expectations about the future then it, again, is not useful. Whatever process, method or approach your design uses, it should, must be critical. It must be vulnerable and challenge yourself and others and be aware of its context and implications.
Do Yourself a Favor and Go Find a ‘Third Place’. On the need for third places, how it’s one more thing hurt by our productivity fetishism and the pandemic, and how our lack of third places is another sign of atomization. ”To me, the ideal hangout has a few components: spontaneity, purposelessness, and a willingness among all parties involved to go wherever the conversation leads them. … Unstructured quality time with friends is replaced with a scheduled series of continuous catch-ups. Subsequently, these overscheduled people lack meaningful ties with their neighbors, and so they patronize spaces to make those connections even less frequently.”
One thing we don’t talk about enough in public life is opportunity cost. Great thread that’s actually a short article by James Plunkett, a really good way of framing the challenge of changing policy. ”[W]e’re at a time of accelerating economic/social change, when we need ever quicker/more agile development of new laws, institutions, policies, just to keep up. … We’ve accumulated bugs, inefficiencies, workarounds, and instabilities in our basic social/policy/institutional settlement, and these have a big cost for resilience, economic security, market efficiency, etc.”
No.214 Asides ⊕ See Note
- 😱 God-mode abyss gazing by Noam Chomsky here. “We’re approaching the most dangerous point in human history. We are now facing the prospect of destruction of organised human life on Earth.”
- 💚 🌳 🌲 Thank you, friends! The world’s forests do more than just store carbon, new research finds. “The role of forests as carbon sponges is well established. But comprehensive new data suggests that forests deliver climate benefits well beyond just storing carbon, helping to keep air near and far cool and moist due to the way they physically transform energy and water.”
- 🤯 🤓 ⚛️ New experiment could confirm the fifth state of matter in the universe. “Physicist Dr. Melvin Vopson has already published research suggesting that information has mass and that all elementary particles, the smallest known building blocks of the universe, store information about themselves, similar to the way humans have DNA. Now, he has designed an experiment—which if proved correct—means he will have discovered that information is the fifth form of matter, alongside solid, liquid, gas and plasma.”
- 🦑 ☕️ 🍄 🧱 Squid skin inspires heat-regulating coffee cup. “Inspired by squid skin, engineers at UC Irvine have created a cheap, easy-to-recycle material that can be “tuned” to regulate heat. As insulation for food and beverage packages, it could ensure that whatever is inside cools at the perfect rate.” Also concerning ‘new materials,’ I wrote this post for Fab City Montréal, which regroups a few articles.
- 🤔 🍄 Mushrooms communicate with each other using up to 50 ‘words’, scientist claims. “Mathematical analysis of the electrical signals fungi seemingly send to one another has identified patterns that bear a striking structural similarity to human speech.”
- 🇮🇹 🏗 M. Nolan Gray 🧵. Did you know? After surviving a pandemic that wiped out a third of the population of Milan, Leonardo da Vinci decided to sit down and design his ideal city. Let's explore some of the main features.
- ☀️ 😍 🌻 🇫🇷 🇪🇸 🇺🇸 Aerial Photos of Vast Solar Farms. “Tom Hegen aerially photographed solar power plants in France, Spain, and the US. It’s not an accident that some of these look like flowers and plants — the compact geometry to ideally capture solar power is similar in both instances.”
- 🤩 ⌨️ Creating the Commodore 64: The Engineers’ Story. “The daring and design that went into the best-selling computer of all time.”
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