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Yesterday's RSA Thursday featured Robin Dunbar, Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford, but  best known  for having his own number (a sure sign of success), 150, which he argues is the upper limit on the number of people you can maintain stable relationships with.

Yesterday's RSA Thursday featured Robin Dunbar, Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford, but  best known  for having his own number (a sure sign of success), 150, which he argues is the upper limit on the number of people you can maintain stable relationships with.

The idea is powerful, but it's not new. I first came across it more than a decade ago when it was already called Dunbar's number (Dunbar's first major paper on the idea was in 1992), but it was then a much simpler anthropological notion about optimal group sizes, i.e. the upper size that communities and organisations should maintain in order to retain the informal efficiency of mutual recognition, trust and stability, rather than creating cumbersome rules and regulations that we seem to need in society at large.

In this respect,  Dunbar's new book, How many friends does one person need? can be thought of as Dunbar 2.0, in which the idea has been revitalised as a corrective to the rampant polyphilia on facebook  and other social networking sites. Dunbar 2.0 says loud and clear that you can have thousands of  facebook 'friends' if you want, but there are constraints on how many of them can meaningfully be called friends.

There can be no uncontested notion of what 'friend' means, but Dunbar argues that humans consistently show a pattern of layering their social contacts, with a core of close friends around 5, 15 considered 'good friends', 50 as 'friends' and up to 150 as acquaintances. Jacob Morgan's blog gives a powerful graphic for this idea and the discussion on socialmediatoday.com is well worth reading.

Dunbar's work is highly complex and interdisciplinary, and his core claim is that there are two constraints on stable relationships. The first is cognitive, the neural density and processing power needed to retain detailed information on people, or 'keep track' of them as Dunbar put it yesterday. The second is temporal, the time we need to invest so that people to create mutual interest and regard, and so that such relationships don't decay, i.e so that  friends don't become strangers all over again.

There are many things to say about this fascinating idea, but I want to raise one in particular. It might be true that human beings are limited by Dunbar's number, but much of Dunbar's work seems to be based on extrapolations on primate behaviour. He thinks in evolutionary terms that are framed principally by biology and anthropology. But I wonder whether he should pay more attention to technological change as part of cultural evolution, for 21st century human beings in the developed world are now suspended somewhere between primates and robots.  Indeed, many, most notably Andy Clark, have argued that human beings should be thought of as cyborgs.

"We cannot see ourselves aright until we see ourselves as nature's very own cyborgs: cognitive hybrids who repeatedly occupy regions of design space radically different from those of our biological forbears. The hard task, of course, is now to transform all this from (mere) impressionistic sketch into a balanced scientific account of the extended mind."

So that would be my challenge for developing a Dunbar 3.0. Our minds and our technologies are increasingly part of continuim, with much of our memory and functionality stored in digital form. A person may only need a certain number of friends, or be capable of maintaining 150, but what of person-plus? What of the fact that we now live and learn and think with machines? What of the Cyborgs that we are becoming? We are so now thoroughly dependent on digital tools, and our sense of self interwoven with them, that it is far from unimaginable that future technologies will overcome the temporal and cognitive constraints intimated by Dunbar's existing work.

Perhaps we are already doing so, because  it is easier to keep track of people, and it is easier to invest time in relationships than it has ever been.

However,  one of the many big suggestive points made yesterday was that we may need to physically touch people to remain close to them. The importance of touch for bonding is not fully researched yet, but it might be crucial- those handshakes, hugs and cheek-kisses may matter more than you know... and as Dunbar noted, it is hard to imagine 'virtual touch'...but you never know...

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