In the first article of this series I took a 10,000 foot snapshot of modern US society and its tendency, as a collective, to resist change– even when that change could benefit many of the individuals involved. The dilemma here is that when masses collaborate involuntarily, any common will of the majority does not necessarily manifest. Instead, the sum of selfish acts actually works against the best interests of the majority.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the Braess paradox. That principle, put forth by mathematician Dietrich Braess, makes the counterintuitive claim that removing options from a network can actually serve to improve that network’s overall efficiency. In a perhaps surprising twist of irony, providing a surplus of choice creates a counterproductive chaos that introduces paths of resistance and thus inefficiency into the system. I won’t go into further detail here; Scientific American does a great job in illustrating how this works by showing that removing some roads and traffic signals can actually improve traffic flow on major arteries.
This effect manifests anywhere you see large collections of individuals with common goals, but it’s moreso apparent in areas of urban sprawl. As a city grows, it at some point reaches a state of gridlock in not just traffic but in social services, where competition for limited resources sees that many needy citizens are left out. However, this is the peak of the bell curve; ultimately a successful city government will install solutions (such as public transportation) that get it past this point. Alternatively, cities not implementing public transport will drive change of other kinds, such as telecommuting. But if the gridlock problem is not solved, the city will eventually suffer economic decline as citizens and businesses relocate to more amenable areas.
The latter is again a collective act of selfishness, magnified by modern population sizes. More irony manifests in the fact that citizens abandoning one congested area can create the problem anew in their chosen destination. This is precisely what occurred in my area (Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas) in the 1970s and 1980s as thousands of people arrived from other states. The influx was made especially problematic by the fact that we had plenty of low-cost land available but had never implemented large-scale public transportation. That led to traffic congestion that persists to this day. Maybe it’s time to rip out a few roads and stoplights!
We like to think of ourselves as individuals, especially here in the US, but it’s difficult to behave like one in areas of high and condensed population. It isn’t just the crowding alone that impacts us– it turns out our brains are designed to manage around 150 social contacts (the range is 90 to 200) for selfish purposes. Fewer, and we lack the support structure necessary to survive long in reasonable health. More, and the problems introduced by increased chaos, stress and resource consumption begin to outweigh the benefits. 150 is seen as the magic number that sits at the bell curve’s peak for health and well-being.
The limitation is one more of bandwidth than actual brain capacity, although a direct correlation can be seen between brain size and the number of typical contacts. What I find especially interesting (although not surprising) is how this number follows us onto the internet, where we form virtual microsocieties of likeminded fellows. I currently have 69 contacts to my LinkedIn account, and I can already see where even though a few more would help my job search, at some point I would be ineffective at managing a higher number. Intuitively, I can see where the Law of Diminishing Returns would impact me at over 150 contacts… and the benefits of exponential networking (i.e., each of my contacts managing ~150 contacts) demonstrate that if I am highly effective in the selection of my contacts then I am better served by a smaller number anyway!
Historical evidence shows that in less civilized times we humans did indeed naturally form tribes of around 150 individuals. If a tribe grew much beyond that, a splinter tribe would form and move off. This sort of cycle self-stabilizes as long as there are enough viable and easily-obtained resources for each tribe.
What changed all this was the advent of sustainable agriculture. This drastic change in mankind’s food-gathering practice led to equally drastic changes in social structures that got us to the crowded conditions of today, where the dreams and desires of individuals collide with a forced excess of social contacts and lead to counterproductive behaviors on a severe and damaging scale.
But can the harsh dichotomy between hunter-gatherer and agricultural approaches be resolved? Is it possible to create a societal model that embraces the best of both worlds, where the detemined acts of selfish individuals don’t work against the collective good? More on that next!