The Perfect Community

futurelab default header

I loved this short film that asked one simple question: “What Does ‘Community’ Mean To You?”. As Maria points out there are some (perhaps expected) universal needs that seem to emerge including proximity and convenience, face to face interaction but the over-riding need seems to be for a sense of belonging.

Which leads me to this fascinating question posed by Robert Dunbar a couple of months ago. Dunbar’s number of-course posits that the ideal number (or put another way the cognitive limit) for a human social network  (defined as those with whom one can maintain stable social relationships, or acquaintances that are both reciprocal and have a history) is 150.

So, goes the argument, this was the typical size of communities in hunter-gatherer times, of villages from the Domesday book right through 18th-century England, of parishes in modern day Hutterite and Amish fundamentalist Christian communities. Similarly, in the military the company (usually around 120-180 in size) is the core to the organisational structure. Some companies (like Gore-Tex) have even used the principle (before it was known as Dunbar’s Number) to limit the size of working units and factories to ensure a work community where everyone knows everyone else and where everyone feels real responsibility toward a shared group vision.

Yet dramatically changed levels of economic and social mobility present a dramatically changed scenario from the traditional dense, geographically confined, small-scale communities of old. One in which the mutual obligation and close-knit relationships that characterise such societies have been replaced by fragmented and distributed social networks and sub groups – pockets of friends from where we grew up, went to college, the variety of jobs we’ve had, who are unlikely to know each other and geographically dispersed. This, says Dunbar, means that communities are no longer as self-policing as they once were. It’s easier to offend or step out of line in one community and retreat to the relative safety of another. Quoted in the current issue of Wired:

“…the price we pay for having more personal freedom is that we lose social cohesion on the larger scale. We become less committed to our neighbours and each other. If we are to survive in the global village, we must somehow find a way to recreate that sense of community.”

I can see his point, but find myself wondering about the real impact of technology in all this. Technology has facilitated diffused networks and communities often on a global scale, diminishing the exigency of proximity and making it easier than ever to maintain a group of friends, or multiple groups of friends, wherever they might be around the globe. Yet many seem to derive a sense of belonging and fulfillment from online communities (however dispersed they might be) that are fluid, often overlap and are seemingly capable of self-moderation. The formation of collaborative groups has become easier than ever. And technology is as effective at bringing people together in localised, neighbourhood communities as it is on a global scale.

So is technology contributing more toward social fragmentation or cohesion? Do our own limitations, and our increasing mobility facilitated by technology mean that it is diminishing our sense of community and belonging, or might it just be providing the very connections we need to help keep it alive?

Image by: Anirudh Koul

Original Post: