Sunday Open Thread — January 6, 2008

Life with Alacrity chart
Chart of group satisfaction by size, from Life With Alacrity

These days I’m thinking almost exclusively about Love, Conversation and Community. In the last month or so I’ve lost a sizable number of readers who think this new direction in my thoughts and actions — walking away from trying to reform, or even worry about, civilization’s dysfunctional systems, and instead focusing exclusively on creating new models of how to live and make a living through conversation in community with people I love — is idealistic, irresponsible, or absurd. But I’ve also picked up a lot of new readers who are at the same point in their thoughts that I am, and ready to try, or at least explore, something new.

My infatuation with Second Life, despite its infuriatingly non-intuitive and unreliable technology, is due to the ease and low cost of finding like minds, conversing, and creating communities of sorts within it. It’s a Petri dish, a place to experiment with models and tweak them and abandon them and try something else, before trying to do the same more onerously in Real Life.

I have tried to organize my networks, my fledgling communities of people I love, so that I can spend as much time with these people as possible. It’s a bit of a ‘herding cats’ exercise. Even though most of these people now can communicate with me (and each other) anywhere, anytime through GMail/GTalk, a lot of them don’t like that particular platform, or face technological obstacles using it. Some of the people I’ve come to love in Second Life, or though this blog, or in Real Life, won’t use GMail at all. What’s interesting to me is that the total number of people with whom I now communicate with any regularity is a little less than 150 — the famous Dunbar number of the maximum number of people with whom one can sustain a meaningful social relationship.

What’s more interesting is the research that Christopher Allen has done (see his chart, and the accompanying link, above) showing that, while 150 is perhaps the maximum, the optimal is either 6 or 50. This jibes with my intuition and my experience. When I wrote the story recently about a fictitious polyamorous community, the number of intimate lovers in it was 6. The size of ‘bands’ in prehistoric times was around 30-60, while ‘clans’ were around 100-150 people and ‘tribes’ 1000-2000. Just as there is a naturally occurring number of electrons in each shell around the nucleus of atoms, this suggests to me that 5-7, 30-60, 120-150, and 1000-2000 are ‘natural’ levels of the circles within circles of human social association.

Over the next while I’ll be writing about the research (primary and secondary) I’m doing on intentional community. In the meantime I’d be very interested in your thoughts on two subjects:

  1. What are the ‘right’ sizes for intentional communities? My hypothesis is that the first circle (5-7 people) is optimal for intimacy, the second circle (30-60 people) is optimal for enterprise/economic activity, the third circle (120-150 people) is optimal for political association, the fourth circle (1000-2000 people) is optimal for mutual protection and security (with a buffer between each of the 1000-2000 person groups to ensure natural diversity between ‘cultures’ can emerge), and that any human association with greater than 2000 people in it will be inherently dysfunctional.
  2. What’s the best way to deal with the issue of private property in intentional community? My instincts tell me that it was when civilization changed our worldview from us belonging to the land, to the land (and its bounties) belonging to us individually, that we got screwed up. But without private property, with everything as a shared Commons, how do we avoid the Tragedy of the Commons? And how do we liberate land that is currently private, so that we have a Commons within which to develop model intentional communities in the first place?
This entry was posted in Collapse Watch. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Sunday Open Thread — January 6, 2008

  1. Martin-Eric says:

    The number thresholds for each community types sound about right. As to reclaiming private land, I’m not sure, since too many owners of anything resort to brute force to hold on to their possessions. This include states holding on to the better parts of the land by calling them “jewels of the crown”. The absurdity of it all hit me straight in the face when someone recently forwarded me a link to the lyrics of a song by quebecois band called Les Aieux: Degeneration. There is this part where they talk about how land used to trickle down in inheritance from one generation to the next and stay in the family, versus how recent generations wasted it all and the young generation is now faced with the prospect of never ever being in a position to own their little piece of land, constantly living at the mercy of corporations and governments… which their parents’ generation created out of greed.

  2. Count me as a reader who hasn’t walked away. I might not always agree with you, Dave, but I always get something out of my visits here, and I think you have your heart in the right place.I get very discouraged about our world, so I don’t blame anyone for walking away from actively trying to change it on any large scale. We have limited power as individuals, and I think we’re best using that power in ways and places that we can reach and not letting ourself get stretched so thin and become so discouraged that we lose heart. I think that those who truly care about the earth and its inhabitants are certain to sometimes feel that it’s just too heartrending to watch what’s happening today. It seems as if the tipping point is very close, if not past, and I know too many people who are caught up in the consumer-greed madness, some who realize it and some who are in complete denial, none of whom appear able to extract themselves from it. They’ll do almost anything to “fit in” and the message from our culture these days is that we have to earn a lot and spend a lot to fit in, and everything else comes second. It’s sad, and has a kind of magnetic attraction. I’d have been easily sucked into it myself at times if I didn’t have to watch every penny. There is a connection between earth-friendly and frugal. Perhaps if frugality became trendy again, as it has been at times in our history, we’d have a chance.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    Some of the people I’ve come to love in Second Life, or though this blog, or in Real Life, won’t use GMail at all. What’s interesting to me is that the total number of people with whom I now communicate with any regularity is a little less than 150I’m frankly a little bit astonished. I am inferring that you communicate in the mode you describe regularly, consistently and in a timely fashion .. and that only a month or two after some reasonably frequent and regular statements on your part about how your readers / friends should not necessarily expect regular, timely or maybe even any response from you to comments or emails.Did I miss something ?

  4. melisa Christensen says:

    So much thinking about it, when im just ready to do it. Í really do learn better by doing.

  5. Dave Smith says:

    Without judgement, I wanted to throw this quote I just ran across from Wendell Berry into the mix because it may apply to intentional communities as much as unintentional communities: “But I’m much more interested in the results of accidental communities that have formed by fate and fortune and circumstance. The intentional community seems to me a rather escapist idea, sort of a new version of the white citizen’s council. I thought that’s what we were trying to get away from. I think the idea that you can have an intentional community is about as misleading as saying you can have an intentional life. If you’re going to have a decent and stable community, you’ve got to produce the cultural and social forms by which to deal with the unexpected and the undesirable. The intentional community idea assumes that when you say love your neighbor as yourself, you have some kind of right to go out and pick your neighbor. I think that the ideal of loving your neighbor has to take on the possibility that he may be somebody you’re going to have great difficulty loving or liking or even tolerating.” Dave Smith

  6. Theresa says:

    Fascinating comments! That quote by Berry explains everything that bothers me about the intentional community idea. I ever only thought the only thing that mattered was tolerance but I wasn’t sure why. Also, the phrase Barbara used to describe shopping madness: “magnetic attraction” also describes what some have called an addiction to places like secondlife. I could never think of it as an addiction, the concept of magnetic attraction describes the experience better. I’m not sure how the early boomer generation “wasted the land” except maybe it is about how Canadians have “sold the farm” to US companies. I can only speak for myself re if Dave communicates in the mode he describes “in a “regular consistant and timely fashion”, but if I see his green light on google or his online status on SL I know he is just sort of there like seeing a light in a friend’s house. I might wave if it’s a holiday or if there is a celebratory message attached to the google online status but otherwise I don’t communicate unless it is very very important or if its not important and I’ve been putting it off too long. The sense of community in this case is just a feeling of presence not of participation. About the community sizes: you know I never believed in the big groups, the clans and tribes. I ever only believed in micro groups of uneven numbers (seven is unlucky) and belonging to multiple micro groups. Every individual has to be guided by his or her own vision otherwise you’ve got a gang which can be a bad thing if the leader has a poor conscious. The smallest unit of society has to be the indivudual not a group. You may not want to hear this but love is the glue that holds the mafia together, love is also the energy that gives gangs momentum also. Its just energy and it can have a good or bad result.

  7. Siona says:

    I love that Wendell Berry quote, too; thank you, Dave, for posting it.

Comments are closed.