The Real World


June 2013  The Psychologist, 26 (6), 398-399.

Technology is often presented as a solution to the woes of the human condition. E-mail, for example, was initially promoted as a tool that would facilitate a host of cumbersome working practices and free up time for things that we really wanted to do. Reality, though, is less glamorous. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the main thing e-mail has freed us up to do is more e-mails.

At a more specific level, the NHS National Programme for IT was initially sold as a project that would revolutionize health delivery — saving both time and money by streamlining the management of medical records and associated processes across institutions, services, and professions. 10 years and £13 billion later (enough to pay the salaries of 30,000 clinical psychologists for a decade), the project was scrapped without a single patient ever having benefitted from it.

In such ways our capacity to be seduced — but ultimately betrayed — by technological development seems to be as limitless as the budgets that such developments demand.

Turning, then, to new social media like Facebook and Twitter, a critical question is whether their promise to create a new super-connected and super-socialized citizenry is equally far-fetched. Do they really offer anything different? And, if they do, is this something we really need or can actually use? These were questions that Robin Dunbar — Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford — addressed in his recent keynote address to the BPS Annual conference in Harrogate.

Despite the fact that many of the speaker’s lectures are available on-line (e.g., on Oxford’s Creative Commons website) the auditorium was packed to the proverbial rafters. This itself bears testimony to the fact that in the age of the digital classroom, there is still something significant to be gained from face-to-face experience. Moreover, having been there, this is something to which I can attest. Indeed, in itself, the ability to say, “I was there” is no trivial thing. For those at the BPS meeting it affirms one’s place in the world as a high identifier with contemporary psychological science just as surely as having seen Derek Stark’s screaming 40-yard goal in Dundee United’s 2-0 victory over AS Roma in the 1984 European Cup semi-final marks one out as a committed and credible Tangerines fan.

Moreover, having watched the Roma match replayed on YouTube and listened to Dunbar again on Podcast, I can confirm that technology does violence to social reality. At Tannadice Stark’s shot screamed into the net like a guided missile, on YouTube it looks altogether more ordinary. And athough Dunbar’s lecture was up there with very best, the same is true of conference keynotes. Moreover, it is one thing to hear the applause of others, quite another to be part of its collective authorship.

Technology, then, is a good supplement but a poor substitute for the real thing. And much the same, it turns out, is true of Facebook friends. In its infancy Mark Zuckerberg’s creation was promoted as having the capacity to do for friendship networks what jet engines did for aeroplanes — with possibilities limited only by the scope of the user’s imagination. In the case of Facebook, this means that one could potentially have up to 5,000 friends. But in reality, unless they are using them for something other than friendship (e.g., as a client base or fan club) the number of friends that people actually have appears stubbornly constrained to an average of around 150.  

For Dunbar, 150 is an integer that has particular resonance, since it is the number that bears his name.

Why? Well because, as his research has shown, this is a recurring number when it comes to modern social groups (equating ‘modern’ with the emergence of the human neocortex aproximately a quarter of a million years ago).  It is, for example, the size of a band of hunter gatherers, the size of effective organizational units (as discovered by Gore-Tex), and the number of people that typically read the Christmas cards we send.

Dunbar’s key point is that for all its promises, the value of technology is always contrained by human socio-biology — in this case, the number of people with whom we can interact meaningfully. Biology (the size of the neocortex) places limits on the number of people whose names we can remember, whose activities we can work into our diaries, whose allegiances we can monitor. Or, looked at another way, it was the need to sustain large social networks (and, in the animal kingdom, 150 defines the upper extreme of a continuum) that required us to develop brains that could support this. 

Going back to one of the examples with which we started, the significance of this analysis is that it points to the problems that are likely to arise when we put a techological cart before the social psychological horse. The reason the NHS IT project failed was that its architects imagined foolishly that social behaviour would necessarily follow where computer science led. Likewise, it seems naive to believe that Facebook or any similar product can, in and of itself, be a panacea to problems associated with a lack of human connectedness. 

This is not to say that such technologies are worthless. Indeed, Dunbar presents plenty of evidence that speaks to their utility and value — something with which 40 million Facebook users would no doubt agree.  The critical thing, though, is that our appreciation of their worth and our ambitions for their application must be tied to an appropriate understanding of the nature of human society.

Indeed, emprirical work that explores the impact of new technologies affirms that, far from making such understanding redundant, it is now more important than ever.