A little while ago I came across this delightful essay, On Being the Right Size, by, courtesy of the always-interesting Farnam Street blog. An essay that seems to be about biology (and for more on this see 2010’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures by Mark Miodownik) ends with a clever twist as an article about the optimal size of political institutions, and its relation to communications technology:
“[J]ust as there is a best size for every animal, so the same is true for every human institution. In the Greek type of democracy all the citizens could listen to a series of orators and vote directly on questions of legislation. Hence their philosophers held that a small city was the largest possible democratic state. The English invention of representative government made a democratic nation possible, and the possibility was first realized in the United States, and later elsewhere. With the development of broadcasting it has once more become possible for every citizen to listen to the political views of representative orators, and the future may perhaps see the return of the national state to the Greek form of democracy. Even the referendum has been made possible only by the institution of daily newspapers.”
Today, for irrelevant reasons, I had to spend hours waiting and re-read the Haldane essay, along with this one from Foreign Policy magazine about the complementary roles of online social networks and old-fashioned on-the-ground political organisation. Put these thoughts together with Dunbar’s Number, which says the size of the human neocortex limits our number of stable social contacts to a relative small 150 (or 230 – estimates differ). And there is an obvious essay question: what does the widespread adoption of social networks imply for the optimal size of political territory and mode of participation? Not to mention the obvious follow-up – are any political reformers at work getting us from here to there? After all, the degree of dissatisfaction with conventional politics strongly suggests reform is needed to revive participation.
[amazon_image id=”0199237700″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]What I Require From Life: Writings on science and life from J.B.S. Haldane[/amazon_image]