How civilization came to be and how social media is ending it
This makes me think of the differences between living in small towns and big cities -- someone I met recently described her upbringing in a town where she knew LITERALLY everyone, and conceded that while to her it was heaven, to someone else it might sound like hell. The fact that she was universally beloved in her home town, "a very big fish in a very small pond," as she said, has everything to do with it. I've mostly lived in vast metropolitan areas where running into someone you know at the store is a rare coincidence, and you can manage separate social circles easily, and you can, if you play yourself out or have a falling out with a certain group of people, give yourself a "second chance" with an entirely different group of people and the two groups will never overlap.
Social media has changed this too -- in the sense that social media tends to keep people connected to their "high school friends" or "old job friends" or any other past group of connections, and in the sense that it documents and latches you to your foul-ups for much longer periods of time, making "second chances" much more difficult. Social media does make the whole world a bit more like a small town or tribe, and that can be heaven or hell depending on whether your see yourself as the big fish or the "trapped" fish -- the fish who wants to start over, but can't, because the past is dragging them down like a dead albatross into the murky depths of sameness.
It's interesting to think that that cold, dark sameness could go on for tens of thousands of years!!
An alternative to the gossip trap (While I do think the idea has some merits, I doubt it is the whole story): the end of humanity's great migrations.
The main distinguishing feature that separates pre and post civilization societies globaly is the cessation of large scale human migrations with the crossing of the bering straight in 10,000BCE. There still existed small scale migration into peloponeisia, for example, but no large new landmasses that could support steady population growth.
Before this point new lands were available for humanity to expand into, so we did not need to live in social arrangements denser than Dunbar's limit. If a group grew too large to handle with gossip it would split and migrate. If a foreign group were to move into your home, you could migrate as well, displacing yet further groups in a chain ending at the frontier. With the absence of a frontier, groups need to learn to live together.
This explanation neatly avoids requiring some innate human nature that keeps us in prehistory, and also explains why civilizations started basically everywhere in the globe within the same time period, from the fertile crescent, egypt, china and the yukatan peninsula. It also explains where these civilizations were founded: in the paths of large migration routes. Bottlenecks in continents, now the melting pot of different migrating groups with no frontier to release the pressure.
This explanation also indicates that twitter won't destroy civilization. While people prefer to live in social environments where they can have full knowledge of social interactions, civilization is not built upon suborning that instinct by creating a hierarchy where some people are untouchable. It's just built on people finding themselves in a situation where that doesn't work anymore, through no fault of their own. Creating that hierarchy was just the most convenient method during a time before modern scientific, philosophical, and technical knowledge allows for a more egalitarian political solution.
Great read! I ultimately disagree with your final thoughts, but only because they cast the "Gossip Trap" as a singular cause. More elaboration is needed to justify the theory, at least in my opinion.
Hope I'm not too far off here, but best I can gauge it: If the gossip trap holds true, then human progress should be measured by sufficient, concentrated population size. People start innovating once a population grows beyond the 150 or so mark, without the ability to split off into separate groups. That should allow for broad-scale societal change which isn't wholly reliant on small town social kudos. So through the gossip trap, you've shifted the question a bit. Now it isn't "Why didn't we make any progress for 50,000 years?", but rather "Why didn't human populations reach sufficient concentration for 50,000 years?" Is there a good answer to that? I'm honestly not well-read enough to put forward my own theory.
The "Sapient Paradox" has genuinely bugged me for years now, mostly because no one ever seems to address it. 200,000 years is such a massive amount of time from a human perspective, it's frustrating that scientists don't feel the need to justify the monumental lack of progress that comes with such a number. I don't think you've quite hit the nail on the head, not yet, but with one essay you've added more to the conversation than I've heard from anyone else I've run across. So thanks for the read!
I grew up as a Spokane Indian on the Spokane Indian Reservation—a salmon tribe—and gossip and social shaming in major and minor ways is very prevalent. My tribe is renowed in our region for being "mean." We tease and tease and tease. In many Native tribes now, including my own, the humor and teasing can be very risqué, very blue. I've lived away from the reservation for thirty years but recently spent time with some tribal members and family and immediately fell back into domestic social custom and speech patterns. Of course, I still express myself in this way among non-Indians and that has aided me as a writer/performer. But I think I tease non-Indians and my audiences less than I tease tribal members and family.
great essay. i've had similar thoughts about the rise of patriarchy as greater male fluency/manipulation of formal rules and structures, as opposed to gossip, where men and women are more level
btw, robin dunbar, not robert :)
A thoughtful review, Erik. Congratulations on the prize. One thought: historians need texts, and so “prehistory” is the period before written records. A discussion of why people stayed in “prehistory” has to reckon with the absence of a writing system. As far as I’m aware, no non-agricultural society has developed a writing system. Creating and transmitting a writing system requires non-laboring people with surplus time and mental energy. These are more available when you have stored food energy, usually in grains. Writing, then, is both a cause and result of societal complexity and specialization of labor.
The introduction of a writing system is often fiercely contested and controversial. Some, such as Plato, objected that writing fostered complacency and weakened the human power of recall. But some of the controversy may reflect people’s discomfort with increasing social stratification. Codified in ritual, religious, or legal texts that legitimize certain power relations (e.g. obey priests and judges), writing can short-circuit the dynamic governance by high-school style gossip and cliquishness that you describe.
James C. Scott, in The Art of Not Being Governed, suggests that hill peoples of the vaguely defined SEAsian territory he calls Zomia were not “pre-literate” but “post-literate,” actively rejecting writing after seeing how it fostered rigid, durable power relations. Just as they actively resisted calls from valley civilizations (*ahem* China) to become sedentary farmers, pay taxes, and serve in the military, they also rejected the writing system that made possible all this organization, extraction, and, to them, exploitation.
All this is to say that for people accustomed to a high degree of social fluidity and permeability, writing can appear not as a tool of civilization, but as a tool of oppression. Many peoples around the world seem to have flirted with writing before rejecting it. Tens of thousands of years of this back-and-forth can appear as stagnation or the absence of civilization, even barbarity. But perhaps that is because you and your readers are winners in the world that writing wrought. For more on this topic, I recommend Daniel Quinn’s didactic but provocative parable, Ishmael.
Side note—I didn’t understand the quite jarring reference to the Gestapo! But anyway, great newsletter. I look forward to further essays.
Very thought provoking and kind of scary! I don't want to be trapped in the gossip trap!
I suppose this could be called "Revenge of the Popular Kids"? Nerds (I consider myself to be one, so no offence meant) essentially took revenge on the popular kids by developing science and technology, eventually building the internet and social media, managed to at least get some respect and a ton of money, (though not much love), but in the process sowed the seeds of their own downfall? That seems so unfair!
Marshall McLuhan foresaw Twitter when he coined the phrase, "the global village":
> The multiplication of far-reaching techniques of communication has two important results. In the first place, it increases the sheer radius of communication, so that for certain purposes the whole civilized world is made the psychological equivalent of a primitive tribe.
This is like reading a favorite Arthur Clarke or Isaac Asimov short story complete with horrifying punchline. You might be my new favorite blogger, Erik
The rule of bullies. Charming.
I agree that we stuck to small groups wherein popularity provided enough of a group structure to self-manage, but I'm not sure that was a trap. We don't stay stuck in high school forever, we strike out on our own and find a band more like us. As Harari posits in Sapiens, "When the group grew too large, its social order destabilised and the band split." (Emphasis on "the band split.")
We don't stay stuck in our crab bucket, we move on to better ones. What made one small group decide to become a bigger group? Probably needing to band together for some cause (war, shelter, food supply). Even today, when we have organized into larger groups (countries) in order to band against other larger groups (conquesting countries), we still organize in smaller communities—a fanfiction community, a soccer team, a university—and break away if they are not to our liking.
In this way, I don't think Twitter is indicative of some kind of natural "we just love being part of the drama" state. Rather, I think the inability to form small communities there (that people can break away from) is what makes it go awry.
What I am curious to know, then, is what got us OUT of the gossip trap?
Small hunter-gatherer bands, limited in size by Dunbar's number, enjoyed natural social relationships centered on gossiping. When the ice retreated, farming appeared; next up was irrigation. But that required large-scale cooperation, which came with a cultural change to agricultural civilization. Once achieved, societies of a size far beyond Dunbar's number could develop.
One string of developments led to medieval Europe, central to which was the village church. An echo chamber for conditioning minds into speaking only (the then) politically correct thoughts and ensuring that only feelings deemed virtuous were signaled. But outside the earshot of the priest, the village was small enough for the gossip of natural social relationships.
Today we are blessed with social media and, as you persuasively argue, the gossip trap. But the technology is also used to filter and preach in virtual echo chambers. Perhaps our societal regression is not as far back as hunter-gatherer bands but rather to the gossip and censorship of medieval times.
I'd love to hear from people working on agent-based simulations of social systems to comment on the gossip trap hypothesis. In simulations do they observe long periods of small groups/social simplicity before spontaneous emergence of complexity? Under what conditions? I believe Dunbar has done some of this work, among others. Here's an example of a paper (Dunbar et. al.) in the field for a flavor: https://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/15/4/3.html
Well-done and congrats on the win. I am wondering if you might draw from this essay and write an op-ed for _The New York Times_ (of course word limit would be a challenge) on our current political mess and the effects of social media on the potential devastation of our constitution and our democracy?
I was reminded of mimetic theory while reading your piece. Our herd behavior helps us to adopt ideas. Also, we are so certain of our own innocence that someone must be to blame when things go poorly, so we look for those we find odd and make them our scapegoat. When we have someone to point a finger at (rather than ourselves) we feel great, great relief. Gossip is a tool for this.
Though I find it quite difficult to observe "Mean Girls" playing out in our society, especially when so many can't see themselves being manipulated by their desire to be accepted. By themselves, or a standard they judge with, often their parents. But then there is this beast, the crowd.
How do we rectify individualism with the benefits of the herd?
Another thought I wondered at was that of gathering sites being cultivated. This might originally occur due to a need for protecting these from other grazers, and in time one could have observed the ideal conditions that preceded a good harvest and this could have developed into Agriculture. But I'm spitballing here.
Now for a curve!
When it comes to memetics, I think they have some of the same mechanics as ideas. It seems possible to mix and match them to make a new formulation of culture. Early on in society we didn’t have a large arsenal from which to spark ideas and customs. Now we have more ideas from which we can connect concepts, and this makes us more adaptable.
While there are more ways to innovate, there are also more ways to go awry. Though I believe our intelligence will win out, as that’s what is believed when one values democracy and free markets (of things and ideas). However, this must be done with more foresight than a gossip machine. And this requires a valuing of reason alongside the tribal instinct of gossip.
Tribalism is a tough nut to crack. Acceptance by the group fits a primeval need for survival. And this makes it really easy to point our fingers at others, with a bunch of others. We instinctively know this will help ensure we aren't next on the chopping block. We want to maintain our tribe's value in us so we allow another to be pushed under the bus and we breathe easy a moment that we aren't the one being ostracized. Go to hell whoever is cool to mock!
However, with this seemingly comes the origins of our battle with ego-centricity. Now, most of us are just swell decent folks, but the problem with social media and the Mean Girls is that they will stifle innovation if the global gossip village keeps us from wanting to challenge the status quo for fear of retribution. Or, being cancelled, as the woke of the woke call it. (That is some ol' school meta-shit right there. Being so woke, you're against wokism. Dang! I hope I don't get too much shit for that.)
Now, something I am wondering about here is within our tribes, with our separate tribal customs, does living in echo chambers keep us from a greater organized success?