Maybe It’s Time to Decentralize

Bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to politics and technology

George Dillard


Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

Robin Dunbar first noticed it in the grooming patterns of primates.

In the 1990s, Dunbar, a British anthropologist, was trying to understand primate grooming behavior — why did these animals spend so much of their time on the practice, and how did they choose whom to groom? He theorized that a primate’s number of grooming partners was connected to the size of its brain. Basically, bigger-brained primates could have larger social groups. Dunbar eventually realized that his findings could also apply to the biggest-brained primate: you.

Dunbar calculated that the size of human brains would support a close social network of about 150 people. Then he looked to see if his ideas were supported by real-world data, and he found that there was a lot of evidence that “Dunbar’s number” was meaningful for the human species. He found that, throughout history, military companies, hunter-gatherer bands, corporate departments, and even British Christmas card lists indicate that our brains are wired to accommodate about 150 social contacts.

Dunbar’s model has become more complex over time: he argues that most people have around 5 close loved ones, 50 “big-weekend-barbecue people,” 150 in your “weddings and funerals group,” and up to about 1500 people that they can recognize. Of course, these numbers vary from person to person — an introvert may have smaller, more intensive social networks, while an extrovert may have a somewhat bigger group.

But Dunbar’s key insight remains: the human brain is only built for so much social connection. There’s probably a physiological limit on the number of people we can really know and interact with.

Politics and technology have centralized

One of the fundamental problems of modern human society is that our brains are built for groups of 150 people, but the society we’ve built prizes scale.

I don’t reside in a village of 150 people, and, I’d wager, neither do you. The scale of modern society would be unimaginably massive to most humans throughout history. I live in what would be considered a smallish American city; It has a metro…