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October 30th, 2019
In the 1990’s, an anthropologist named Robin Dunbar proposed that humans can only maintain social groups of about 150 individuals. This refers to stable relationships, it does not mean to include any and every acquaintance or simply people we might know about, such as celebrities, which is purely a one-way street.
The number has come under some scrutiny but no one disagrees that the concept is valid and we are certainly limited when it comes to how many people we can know, and that number is somewhere around what Dunbar has proposed.
Dunbar’s number is the result of an innate physical limit on memory. Our brains are only so big. And this limit is the reason why we have developed systems like money.
Since we live in societies that far exceed Dunbar’s number, we need a way to trust strangers. Money fills in this role, and it’s even baked into the words that we use around number.
For example, to have good credit means that you’re likely to be loaned money. The word ‘credit’ means simply ‘belief’. Think of the word incredible. Which means literally, unbelievable.
A credit card is therefore a ‘belief’ card, and if it isn’t declined, the transaction basically implies that a stranger is trusted because they make good on their debts.
Compare this system of money to the way very close friends handle similar ‘transactions’. If for instance, a good friend asks for help, and then offers some sort of payback, it’s far more likely we wave them off and say something like “you would do the same for me.” And indeed, we say it because we know it’s true. This is the nature of friendship, and money is the system that substitutes for friendship when we deal with strangers.
Recent advances in brain interface technology calls all of this into question. One such company, Neuralink has created a system that allows for direct communication between the brain and a computer outside of the skull. There’s an interesting Black Mirror episode that has the same premise.
Now, while the technology is still in early development, it’s conceivable that such a communication can be hooked up to a hard drive of some sort and radically expand the capabilities of our memory.
This might sound like science fiction, but the basic components of this fiction already exist in separate parts. We do have storage devices that can hold enormous quantities of audio, text, and video, and now we have a way for the brain to communicate with computers. The parts of the equation are there and it’s unlikely that industry won’t supply the addition operation to these parts.
Strangely enough, this technological possibility calls into question the use of money.
Imagine this: You have an infinite memory of people. Not only that but you have access to other people’s opinions about people. This might sound like a data breech but we do it all the time. It’s what a resume is, and what’s going on when we call a reference, or when we ask close friends at a party about someone attractive on the other side of the room.
Imagine even further: many researchers, companies and doctors are trying to unlock the mysteries of aging. Radical life extension may or may not be around the corner. Let’s say it is. With enough time, and enough memory, you could get to know. . . everyone.
This might seem like impossible fantasy, but it’s without a doubt that our ancestors from tens of thousands of years ago would think any description of modern day society would likewise be an impossible fantasy.
When we are young and just learning to ride a bike, we have training wheels. And those who can remember the experience, might agree, they don’t do a great job teaching you how to ride with two wheels.
We might say something similar about money. The system of money has all of these unfair loopholes, and the amount of money someone has certainly doesn’t predict how trustworthy they are. In terms of being a substitute for authentic friendship, money works about as well as training wheels do on a bike.
The difference is that a child’s growing brain ultimately gains the capacity to handle balance on a bike, whereas human memory is capped in its capacities and it never expands to accommodate the enormous size of society.
But with technology, it might one day be able to handle this enormous amount of data.
Imagine a day when the use of money becomes irrelevant because the cooperative capacity of each and every person is completely transparent, and the complex network through which we all help each other with our projects is illuminated.
The end of money isn’t even the most radical implication of these possibilities.
Instead of 6-derees of separation between you and everyone else, imagine no degrees of separation. The potential for enhanced efficient cooperation doesn’t just exist on a financial level, but an emotional level.
The greatest possibility of increased time and memory is the chance to get to know our enemies and eventually
to cooperate with them.
This episode relies heavily on Episode 325: Failures of Cooperation. If the idea of money as a substitute for trust sparked your interest then check out Episode 325 which thoroughly explores this idea.
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