On the size of disagreement and the public sphere

How large is the public sphere? How large can it reasonably be? If we assume that the public sphere is at least to some degree rooted in our biological nature, it seems as if we could answer the question partially by looking at how large our social networks reasonably can be. This in turn leads us to examine things like the Dunbar number – Robin Dunbar’s hypothesis about how large a group our neurological capacities can sustain.

The Dunbar number – arrived at by looking at brain sizes in primates and how they relate to group sizes – reveal that we have, biologically, a boundary at about 100-230 people.

This has been interpreted to mean that the thousands of friends we have in social networks cannot all be real friends, and that we are deceiving ourselves about how many social contacts we can manage – but there is naturally a connection here also to our ability to carry a polity.

The size of our politics matter – there is a palpable difference between politics in the city and politics in international organisations – and as we debate the relationship between technology and democracy, one of the things we may want to examine more closely is the question of how we organize that size.

A flat global public sphere seems impossible, if we propose that there are biological boundaries at around 200 people — and the results of the size / deliberation mechanisms mismatch likely leads to a break down fairly quickly.

One application of this is free speech. It is interesting to note that free speech also has a size. Even in dictatorships small groups form where people speak freely, but the difference – or at least one difference – between dictatorships and democracies is the size of groups that enjoy free speech. The term “free speech” obscures the question about size and assumes that the audience can be of any size – something that was never proposed by any theorist, or even analysed more in detail.

The second limiting factor is also biological – it is the amount of attention we can effectively pay to a discussion and debate. If time is too fractured and our attention dissolved in distraction we lose our ability to disagree meaningfully as well.

How large free speech can be – how many people can deliberate together – is an open research question. The creation of a global public sphere seems unlikely. What is more concerning is that even national public spheres seem to hold up poorly in some cases. Solutions are also hard to come by – is what we need here some kind of sharding of the public sphere? Is there a way to decompose and then re-assemble free speech so that it scales better than if everyone just screams into the same digital aether?

One way to think about the relationship between free speech and technology is to examine the functional perspective and ask what it is that we need free speech for. Two alternatives readily present themselves to such an analysis: the first is discovery, finding ideas an opinions that can be evaluated and used to advance human society. The second is deliberation, the debate and discussion about how we make decisions in our societies. The first is roughly a market place of ideas and the second a Habermasian public sphere. The first perhaps more American and the second more European in origin.

What did you do to my public sphere?

Now, what technology does is that it vastly expands our powers of discovery, but at the same time does nothing – and there by degrades – our capability to deliberate within that enormous space of opinions.

Developing means to think through how we design disagreement in networked environments then seems to become key. Human interaction is always designed, and some of the most detrimental social outcomes flow from the assumption that we have a natural social ability to do something — there are few if any natural social abilities in complex societies like modern day states. It all is designed, either by ourselves or by chance (I do not believe in malicious designers behind our challenges here – that both overestimates and underestimates the nature of the work we need to undertake here).

What if our democracies are not networks, or do not functions as networks, but need to be designed as networks within networks, limited by considerations of our biological capability – group size and attention – to carry a structured disagreement?

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