Pretending to Care, Pretending to Agree

A couple of years ago, I happened to catch the tail-end of a performance of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town on TV, and the poignant closing soliloquy stuck in my mind:

Most everybody’s asleep in Grover’s Corners. There are a few lights on: Shorty Hawkins, down at the depot, has just watched the Albany train go by. And at the livery stable somebody’s setting up late and talking. Yes, it’s clearing up. There are the stars doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk … or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain‘s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.

Being the unsentimental jerk I am, what stuck in my mind was not the poignancy, but the evocative stress and relaxation metaphor. Today, thanks to the medicalization of angst, most people would use the word stress rather than strain to convey the thought.

But it is actually the engineering sense of both terms, used together, that sheds the most light on the cultural idea underlying the passage above. The distinction and relationship between stress and strain can be understood using a stress-strain graph. Here is a pair I made up that I think represent the human psyche (I’ll explain how to read it in a minute).


In common usage, the stress and strain are used interchangeably, but in engineering, stress is the force acting on a material, while strain is the resulting distortion in the material. In humans, stress can be measured by the internal anxiety we feel, and various physiological symptoms. Strain can be measured by the distortion represented by the social masks we need to maintain, in order to function under that stress.

There are two basic types of masks: masks of pretending to care are exit masks, and masks of pretending to agree are voice masks. I suspect these two kinds of masks, between them, cover almost all cases of preference falsification, the concept Sarah introduced us to in her post a couple of weeks ago. Much of her post had to do with the effects of voice masks at the scale of nations, but in this post I want to consider both together at an individual scale.

Masks and Retreats

To understand the stress-strain graphs, we have to consider how we attempt to relieve the strain of operating with a mask. Usually, we look to retreat from the stressful situation in a direction that relieves the strain. This direction can be defined in social terms. Let’s look at a few examples of masks and retreat patterns.

Consider first the difference between two masks: putting on a brave face (say when you’re in adult trapped in a dangerous situation with a child, where you cannot admit you’re scared or worried) and political correctness (say you’re at an office party where you cannot be completely candid). Both are voice masks; masks you put on when you have to pretend to agree with a sentiment you actively disagree with. You relieve the strain of voice masks by moving to a social context where you can speak more freely, and express your real emotions more completely. In the former case, it would be nice to have another adult around — making it a larger group — to share fears and anxieties with after the child goes to bed. In the latter case, it would be nice to retreat for drinks with a couple of trusted friends — a smaller group — to have a more candid chat about current workplace politics.

Now consider two other kinds of masks: pretending to enjoy yourself (say at a family gathering or a graduation ceremony where people who care a lot more are deeply immersed in the proceedings) and pretending to be interested (such as when listening to a boring but influential person drone on in a situation where leaving would cause offense and repercussions). These are exit masks: masks you put on when you have to pretend to care. You relieve the strain by moving to a social context where you don’t have to speak or fake an emotional intensity you don’t feel. Again, in the first case, you might relieve the stress by moving to a larger group that affords greater anonymity (such as a big city) and in the former case by retreating to a smaller group (perhaps going for a walk alone to unwind and get the bullshit out of your head).

These are opposed drives: moving in social space to speak and emote more versus moving in social space to speak and emote less. Of the two, exit masks are more basic: it is only hard to pretend to agree when you care. If you don’t care to begin with, pretending to agree adds no additional strain. You’ll nod along to whatever. Pretending to care is emotional bullshitting. Pretending to agree is emotional lying.

On the surface, it might seem that there’s an obvious a 2×2 of retreat patterns here: retreating in response to voice-mask strain versus exit-mask strain, retreating to a smaller group vs. retreating to a larger group.

As it turns out though, though, there are only two patterns. Group size is not significant, community size is.

Group Size versus Community Size

The fact that you can retreat towards both smaller and larger groups to relieve both voice-mask strain and exit-voice strain is misleading because groups are not communities. In both of the voice-mask cases, you’re actually moving towards a larger community. In both of the exit-mask cases, you are moving towards a smaller community. A big city is a larger societal grouping but is actually an exit zone: somewhere you go for greater anonymity and smaller community.

Communities are social contexts to which you feel a personal relationship of belongingness. In terms of size, communities top out at Dunbar’s number or thereabouts. They are contexts you seek out for psychological healing by drawing on shared emotional reserves. Groups on the other hand are just situational collections of collocated people who happen to be in the same place at the same time.

And it is only psychological healing that matters, not physical. A big hospital in a major city has far more physical healing capability and a bigger raw group size than a small remote village, but isn’t necessarily a bigger community (which leads people to sometimes give up better medical care for better comfort). A highly impersonal social group, like the people waiting to apply for a driver’s license at a government office, might have zero community size despite being numerically large.

A hostile group could be viewed as having a negative size: they are out to hurt you rather than help you heal. Having to pretend to agree with something you are diametrically opposed to is the most extreme kind of voice strain you can experience. Group size cannot be smaller than zero, but community size can go as low as -150.

There’s probably a way to compute community size given enough information about the group, such as the social graph and whether people are friends or enemies, but setting aside that yak-shaving exercise, let’s just assume there’s a way to meaningfully do the computation that Facebook will eventually figure out.

The Exit-Voice Asymmetry

Whatever the details of measuring community size, the qualitative distinction between groups and communities creates an asymmetry between exit masks and voice masks: You can stop pretending to care once you are alone, but you can only truly stop pretending to agree when you are with a group with whom you can voice your disagreement to sympathetic ears. The amount of anonymous or pseudonymous voicing of opinions online is one good indicator that being alone is not enough if you are wearing a voice mask.

This asymmetry shows up in the broader exit-voice political dichotomy as well: choosing voice as a means of political expression always means you care. Choosing exit on the other hand, means you might either care and disagree (and are leaving for a different community) or that you don’t care and are leaving to be left alone. The distinction becomes clear from what you do once you exit: do you become nomadic or immediately start looking for a new home where you feel you belong more?

For this post, I am primarily interested in exit as an expression of indifference rather than dissent. Exit as a means to giving up the bullshit instead of giving up the lie. Dissent exits are driven by feelings of anti-belonging or repulsion that drive you away from groups whose sacred values are profane to you. Once you’re out, you start seeking the sacred once more. Leaving the old economy for Silicon Valley is an example of this kind of religious conversion from one set of priceless values to another. To me, dissent exits are not absolute exits. They are merely social movements that look like exit when you zoom in and voice when you zoom out. Leaving a company to join another in the same industry is not an exit at all. Dissent exits are just fractalized voice moves.

But exits of indifference are absolute exits. You are responding to an urge to find less community, not different community.  Or to use a positive definition, exits of indifference are driven by an exploratory urge, to find new things to value beyond the borders of community life, while exits of dissent are driven by the urge to find the “best fit” for yourself, among the valuable things communally organized human life already has to offer.

With these two ideas in mind, the idea of community size as something that can go negative and the idea of the exit-voice asymmetry, we can understand human stress-strain curves properly.

Community as Stressor and Relaxant

There is a basic tension in the human condition: we explore best alone and heal best in togetherness. Scouts, garage tinkerers and mathematicians often operate alone. Individuals are more creative than committees. Hunting parties, startups and small groups of researchers offer more exploratory potential than healing potential.

On the flip side, you cannot give yourself a satisfying massage. A fun party requires a minimum number of people (perhaps half a dozen at the lower end). An extended family in a small town offer more healing potential than a nuclear family in a big city.

Assemblages of humans of size greater than 150 offer richer possibilities. The complex potential field of belonging, anti-belonging and indifference forces can propel you along highly non-ritualized life routines that look like the contours of strange attractors.

Depending on whether voice-mask or exit-mask strain is dominant in a given person, the community they are in can act as either a stressor or relaxant.

In the diagram above, the exit-mask strain graph is the right way up: the bigger the community, the harder you have to work to pretend to care. Community acts as a stressor, so community size measures stress.

The voice-mask strain graph is upside down because the bigger the community, the easier it is to lower your voice mask and speak your mind. You can think of the Dunbar Gap (150 minus the community size) as the measure of the stress. We are under the lowest possible voice-mask stress when the Dunbar Gap is zero, and under maximal voice-mask stress when we are alone (again, in the sense of belonging rather than merely being around people).

We use stress and strain interchangeably for a reason: up to a point, known as the proportionality (or elastic) limit, they change together in very simple, often linear ways. When the stress goes up, the strain goes up, when the stress goes down, the strain goes down. When you remove the stressor altogether, the material bounces back to its original relaxed state and shape.

Beyond a point known as breaking stress or the elastic limit though, depending on whether or not the material is brittle, it will either break down catastrophically or distort endlessly without a significant further increase in stress, like putty. It will not bounce back when the stressor is removed. Before you reach that point, the stress-strain relationship is reversible. Past that limit, it is not.

Now the interesting thing about humans as a species that is both social and exploratory, is that we can’t normally get the strain to zero. At best we can get to some sort of home comfort zone with a minimal amount of chronic stress, where our personal needs for healing and exploration are in some sort of zero-sum dynamic balance (I suspect the diagram above can be rearranged to form a classic Nash equilibrium saddle diagram, but I’m too lazy to do that).

If you have a roughly balanced need for group belonging and individual exploration, the intersection of the two strain curves defines both your chronic stress level and ideal community size. If you have a strong bias one way or the other, your strain curves will reflect the corresponding distortions, and both your chronic stress level and ideal community size will change.

Beyond Breaking Stress

We actively plan for both kinds of stress and strain. When you walk into a potentially tough meeting, you might bring friends along for “moral support” (planning to lower voice-mask strain). When you anticipate getting sick of friends during a group outing, you might insist on driving separately, bringing a book, or renting separate hotel rooms (planning to lower exit-mask strain).

But sometimes, all anticipatory measures fail, and we are pushed past our breaking stress. At this point, we change irreversibly.

When humans break down, they tend to do so through brittle failure modes: they lose their composure, they have “nervous breakdowns”, they experience psychotic “breaks”. Sometimes you can bounce back quickly with some active effort, if you were not pushed too far past your elastic limit. Other times it can take years. Sometimes you cannot bounce back completely at all. It depends on how far you’ve been pushed.

You can recognize the signs of impending breakdown. As a voice mask starts to break, you get angrier and more cruel, or break down in tears.  As an exit mask starts to break, you might get increasingly callous, reckless, contemptuous or coldly logical. A completely broken voice mask leads to ranting on the streets. A completely broken exit mask leads to near catatonic levels of checked-out-ness, of the sort we see in Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener.

You can also have  patterns of breakdown marked by complete compliance: a significant amount of energy drains out of behavior, and resistance disappears. This is humans being broken in the sense of being tamed or domesticated like horses. Outward appearances of structural integrity are maintained at the expense of an internally broken spirit, like a building with an intact facade but fractured load-bearing columns. Such breaks are still brittle breaks.

Our individual elastic limits for voice-mask and exit-mask strain limit what we can do collectively and individually. The elastic limit of human masks is also the factor that limits human accomplishment.

Sarah touched on one aspect of this in her post, noting that a shared sense of the sacred, imposed through authoritarian force, can extend the elastic limit significantly.

Weaponized sacredness though, is a temperamental and unreliable tool, since it relies on breaking the spirit of humans just enough to achieve the right level of compliance, but not so completely as to destroy their ability to generate productive cognitive energy. Get it slightly wrong and you’ll have either a revolution on your hands, or a mass of unusable humans. Brittle materials are hard to work.

But there is an alternative to authoritarian force and weaponized sacredness: technological leverage. And we humans have invented several major technologies to extend our elastic limits without the need for weaponized sacredness.

Extending Elastic Limits with Technology

Say you’re trapped in a boring gathering with friends for somebody’s birthday, where you have to pretend to care about making someone feel special. You could do many things to lower the exit-mask strain. You could:

  1. Bring a gift of cash instead of a thoughtfully selected personal gift
  2. Step out for a cigarette
  3. Check your phone and keep up with a conversation on Twitter you actually care about
  4. Excuse yourself by saying you have a work appointment to get to

Money, drugs, communication technologies, impersonal organizations. The Big Four technological means for extending your elastic limit.

These technologies also work to lower voice-mask strain. Say you’re at a meeting being dominated by a cabal proposing a course of action you’re opposed to. You want to speak up, but they’re powerful and open dissent would be dangerous. You could:

  1. Bribe members of the cabal with money, subverting the preferences they must pretend to in public
  2. Suggest continuing the meeting at a bar, and speak up under cover of drunkenness
  3. Backchannel on IM with co-conspirators at the meeting on your phone
  4. Invoke organizational protocols like the ability to formally propose amendments

The technological leverage in both these cases arises from the fact that you do not need to openly challenge notions of sacredness, or precipitate conflict with an authoritarian agent in possession of weapons of mass sacredness. In all these cases, technology represents a means of subversion rather than direct conflict. It increases your agency while masked rather than moving you to a context where you can act unmasked. 

Written language is a particularly powerful example: it allows us to entirely avoid the physical stress of putting on expressions we don’t feel.

This presence of an authoritarian adversary is an important factor in mask dynamics. The strain imposed by a mask maps to a gain to a counterparty who is the beneficiary of the mask (we could probably extend the stress/strain graphs out into the negative regimes of both variables to represent the anti-stress and anti-strain, or slack, enjoyed by the powerful). Normally, a zero-sum condition exists: if you lower your mask, the counterparty must raise their mask to compensate, giving up some gains.

This gain accrues primarily because the mask constrains how you can act. If you act more freely, the counterparty must generally act less freely. But if you can act with greater leverage without taking off your mask, the gain to the counterparty need not visibly decrease, limiting their ability to retaliate and be seen as justified.

In other words, technology drains power from those who impose masks on others. 

An example should hammer home the point. A major class of situations where we need masks is waitingPowerful people make others wait around all the time, often in states of ceremonial silence or physical discomfort. Punishment for relieving the stress either through complaining or leaving is high.

But smartphones  drain the authoritarian power of making people wait. Since punishments for transgressing waiting norms are calibrated against big, visible actions like leaving or talking on a dumbphone, it is hard to justify acting harshly against relatively innocuous acts like texting or tweeting. The phone acts as a loophole in the cultural control structure. The weaponized-sacred becomes overkill for the subtle act of subversion, the norm fails to function as designed, and the authoritarian eye loses visibility into the behavior behind the mask.

Let’s develop this point further.

Small Steps and Giant Leaps

One way to understand how technology works as a means of disarmament  in weaponized-sacred societies, is to think of it as a means for taking a brittle working material — the human psyche — and getting it to work like a perfectly inelastic material like putty, capable of handling an indefinite amount of strain without either breaking or requiring extreme stress. By allowing technology to do most of the stretching, we can behave like putty without turning into putty. And the authoritarian eye cannot easily tell the difference (leading of course, to a technological arms race, which I talked about in an old post).

This curious “simulated putty” aspect of technologically enabled humanity is captured well in Neil Armstrong’s line, one small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind. 

Apollo as a story of exploration represents neither individual heroism (in the sense of a Campbellian narrative) or community heroism but bureaucratic heroism.

In several previous posts, I’ve made use of the Jeffersonian-Hamiltonian distinction to analyze social systems. Stress-strain models based on voice/exit masks shed further light on that distinction. Both individual heroism and community heroism are the basis for Jeffersonian narratives. Such narratives tell the story of individuals and communities acting with grace under intense mask strain, like the tragic citizens of Grover’s Corner. Deadwood is a story of voice-mask heroism where a community comes together against an external force. Every story of escaping an oppressive small town to find freedom in a big city is a story of exit-mask heroism.

But Apollo (and movies like Contagion which the linked article above discusses) is a story of Hamiltonian heroism: putting together technological systems to relieve both kinds of mask strain without requiring significant amounts of social engineering. This allow very large groups to stretch and act collectively in ways no organic, non-technological assemblage of humanity could. Advanced rocket engines might have gotten us to the moon, but money, alcohol, cigarettes, typewriters, phones, copiers and meeting procedures helped the humans involved build those engines without murdering each other in the process.

Where advanced technology is involved (unlike say building pyramids using whips and shackles),  weaponized sacredness (in this case the rhetoric of the Cold War space race versus the Soviets) arguably plays a negative role by creating stresses and strains in imagined communities, which prove costly later. These costs show up in the form of the ills of hyperextended Hamiltonian systems, such as a runaway military-industrial complex. What actually enables the heroic accomplishment itself is not the weaponized sacredness, but the use of technology to subvert and dilute it at both the Jeffersonian-group level and the nation-sized imagined-community level.

When this kind of thing happens, you get the leveraged “one small step for a man”, subject to entirely human levels of stress, and requiring no superheroic gifts to endure. Neil Armstrong reputedly had ice-water in his veins and a preternatural capacity for handling stress, but it was still within the normal human range.

With tens of thousands of people taking small steps in laboratories and factories everywhere (and a few on the Moon itself), we got a giant leap, way past the nominal elastic limit of humanity sans technology.

The weaponized sacredness aspect of the Space Race certainly drove the goal-setting at the political level in the US and USSR. Ideological propaganda was certainly instrumental in creating the necessary level of popular support.

But it is highly unlikely that the scientists and engineers on either side of the space race worked under the influence of the sort of (real or dissimulated) ideological fervor and solidarity that characterizes tribal warfare. The reason is simple: complex technological achievements that draw on human creativity require far more lowering of exit masks than lowering of voice masks. To get to the Moon, you need to stop pretending to care what others think a lot more than you need to stop pretending to agree with what others think.

This is why the industrial age organization was designed to enable specialization: giving everybody intellectual turf to retreat to. Somebody interested in electronics did not have to pretend to care about somebody interested in book-keeping.

The fact that complex technological achievements enable more exit than voice has major consequences.

Humanity as Expanding Collective Mind

Technological leverage expands what humans can do without breaking under the stress. This sounds like a free lunch at first blush: put in new knowledge and capabilities on one end, get to the Moon and beyond on the other end, no new masks needed.

So why is it so hard for so many to be satisfied with this apparent win-win situation?

It is because technology introduces an asymmetry into the age-old tension between exit-masks and voice-masks.

Under normal circumstances, human communities are self-stabilizing at some size, just like ape troops. Wander too far, and voice-mask strain draws you back in. Get too deeply immersed in community life and exit-mask strain pushes you back out.

The problem is that technology has an exit bias.

It is much easier to develop technologies that allow us to lower our exit masks further and wander farther off, than to develop technologies that allow us to lower our voice masks and come closer together. Technology already allows us to entirely drop our exit masks and live in complete isolation (and hermits have been historically choosing this path for thousands of years). But the best technology we have for coming really close together today is still no better than alcohol, music and ecstasy.

Perhaps a future designer drug and brain-to-brain interface technology will allow extreme communitarians to truly come together and entirely dissolve their individuality, but that day seems far off.

This means technology is fundamentally an expansionary force in social terms. One way to understand this is to think in terms of growth paths.

There are those to whom growing is synonymous with growing apart. Becoming more uniquely and individually defined. Any group of such individuals, given increasing technological capability, will use it to spread out more. This is Asimov’s Spacer civilization, a good approximation of what would happen if techno-libertarians had all the technology they desperately want from rockets to life extension to cryogenic freezing and brain uploads. It would be the cultural equivalent of a Big Bang followed by eternal expansion of the sort the universe seems to be undergoing.

And there are those for whom growing is synonymous with growing together. I don’t know how to cure these people of their perverse and profane notion of growth, but presumably, if they had all the technology they wanted, they’d gratefully collapse into a Borg-like collective. It would be the cultural equivalent of dark matter and energy suddenly disappearing from the cultural universe, followed by a Big Crunch.

Curiously, those who dream of a communitarian utopia created by such a Big Crunch do not see the potential for an expansionary Big Bang as the main threat (Asimov’s Spacer society is rarely invoked as a picture of techno-dystopia). Most communitarians believe (mistakenly in my opinion), that the Big Bang and technology driven societal expansion is not a threat because most humans would not want it.

So they focus their fears around the Ultimate Anticommunity: the Singularity. A Big Crunch of people terminally trapped under immense anti-belonging stress and extreme, frozen, voice-masks. Voice-masks that must extend deep into the brain, lest the Evil AI reads your very deepest thoughts via brain implants, and punishes you for thinking them. Smile with your amygdala; you’re on candid neuro-camera, says Skynet.

Why this is a ridiculous fear is a story for another day. Suffice it to say that the Big Bang of culture as an eternally expanding exit zone is a more real threat to those who value growing together over growing apart.

Kidding aside, though I am an expansionary Big Bang type myself, it’s not that I am opposed to the natural inclinations of the Big Crunchers. It’s just that I think they have no real hope. On the scale of days, weeks and small towns, the collective nature of humans seems to dominate. The forces of belongingness are extremely strong on these scales. Moreover, since they are capable of being both positive and negative, they tend to cancel out. But on the scale of complete (and increasing) lifespans and cheap and expanding access to the entire globe, the weaker forces of exit compound powerfully and unidirectionally, exerting a steady, expansionary force on civilization.

We are amazingly good at ignoring this phenomenon.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, our accounts of culture are curiously biased. We pay a great deal of attention to our social, collective natures and our genetic need for love and belonging. We pay almost no attention to our exploratory, individualist nature and our genetic need to get the hell away from each other using any and all means, driven by curiosity, restlessness and the desire for freedom. The literature on our social-ape nature is extensive. The only significant idea I’ve found on our exploratory-ape nature is Potts’ variability selection theory. Yet, our evolutionary history shows that unlike any gorilla or chimpanzee population, our exploratory nature has already driven us to occupy the whole planet and build layers upon layers of technology to stretch it out to near-Jupiter size in social psychological terms. In the short term, our social natures dominate. In the long term, our exploratory nature dominates.

To paraphrase Stewart Brand, we are an expansionary species and we might as well get good at it.

Let me wrap this up for now with a note on addiction.

One of the most interesting ideas I’ve encountered in recent years has been the hypothesis that the opposite of addiction is not cure, but community. Setting aside genetic predispositions, it seems that the risk of debilitating addiction to anything is vastly lowered and even managed down into a positive, if the cause of addiction is socially situated. Drinking or gaming alone risks triggering any latent genetic tendencies towards alcoholism or addictive gaming. Drinking and playing games socially seems to make us flourish more, instead of degenerate (though it does create higher-level addictions, such as civilizational addiction to oil).

We can explain this as follows: any technology we use to lower voice-mask stress can turn into an addiction that acquires a life of its own when the social cues governing its use are removed. The cure for voice-mask strain becomes the new disease.

But there is no reason this explanation cannot be extended to exit masks. There is a reason that generative, creative work, even when done in complete isolation, does not turn into a debilitating addiction. When technology is used to lower exit mask strain (to create freedom rather than belonging in other words), increasing isolation helps you flourish more rather than turning into an addiction. As I argued in Eternal Hypochondria of the Expanding Mind, this might actually be the bigger effect on historical time scales.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Ilya Yakubovich says

    One small correction: the pyramids were likely built using weaponized sacredness or financial incentives, not whips and shackles.

  2. Great post, but it leaves out is the backreaction of technology on your preferences. There is good reason to believe that the sensation of exerting willpower to continue an action is the subjective experience of calculating the opportunity cost of that action*. If this is true, then there are many situations in which you would not feel stress if you didn’t have the technology to do something else (in the case of a party you don’t care about, for instance).

    By allowing particular patterns of behavior to continue even in situations where the social environment doesn’t allow it, technology reinforces the belief that there is a fixed self working against the environment and thus makes you more restless, driving a desire for more technological solutions to restlessness.


  3. “But the best technology we have for coming really close together today is still no better than alcohol, music and ecstasy.”

    Maybe the best technology *you* have! :)

    Religious communes use various technologies to help unite their members into a strong and healthy we-brain, such as manual work, liturgical prayer, fasting, and various nonliturgical rituals. These work on much longer time-scales, and give much more robust results, than alcohol, music, and ecstasy.

    We can see that salting with dance parties a fundamentally expansionary way of life preserves its expansion. I would like to hope that exploratory work within a we-brain also preserves, and possibly even contributes to, its contraction.

    • Worshiping endurance and robustness is a direct reflection of our death-fear. We are fragile so we want to overcome this and historically we did so by magic, religion and other symbolic practices, which are not quite “technologies”. Usually I’m reluctant to quibble over semantics but here it is important because technologies merge empirical stuff with mathematical models. A working technology is kind of a platonic body set in motion with the means we find in the material world. Its expansive nature echoes the “supernatural” expansiveness of mathematics, which easily goes beyond every conceivable limit. Its endurance is not one of preservation but the ability to derive it from a small germ of axioms together with often lucky but systematized findings. From this point of view the limits of the “we-brain” is one of thermal dissipation or “chip cooling”. The Borg collective hasn’t come very far by that standard but monks of Mt. Athos haven’t either.

      • Jordan Peacock says

        A technology is what it does, not what it claims it does.

        In that regard, religion and magic are very much technology.

        • Technology isn’t a subject that claims anything, nor is it an entity which does anything. Like magics, it is a way of seeing and doing things and a very specific one.

          One can lump them together, because word and categories are merely symbolic stuff, which doesn’t fight back but once words have consequences the fun is mostly over.

  4. There’s a paradox in this definition of community which I find quite interesting; although you talk about the distinction between communitarian feeling and escape, in your model depth of community is not defined in terms of belonging, but in terms of honesty:

    So we have two categories of falseness underlying community difficulty; fake interest in boring randoms and fake emotional states. It occurs to me that some of what you call “voice mask breakdown” is actually limitations in the expressive capacity of social discourse.

    Someone has something that they need to express, and no way to do so, but it must be said, so people must abandon the socially recognised dignity of a standards compatible role in social communication, and basically DDOS everyone with malformed syntax.

    Testing that, does a larger number of people similarly expand discourse diversity? Not necessarily, but you might expect that just as “in the wild”, language tends to subdivide into peculiar dialects based on local conditions, interacting with a wider spread of people would tend to encourage code switching such that a diversity of emotions can be expressed.

    Muti-lingualism as an answer to psychosis (in the sense of the analytical tradition that emphasises interpretation and bringing the repressed within language).

    This suggests something else interesting, as which I skipped over when talking about “in the wild” earlier, and it occurs to me that before the appearance of analytical approaches to mental health in the 20th century, we had a 400-ish year communication revolution based around standardised type, dictionaries, and standardised language (Academie francaise 1635, standardisation of english to match the Oxford triangle in the 16th century, Luther Bible 1534), eventually resulting in collective universal education.

    Standardising out communicative weirdness could lead to increased social strain, in that you would have to move further afield to meet the same diversity of expression that you would previously have found by moving to the next village.

    Your model suggests people minimising the combined sum of two kinds of strain by adjusting their habitual community size, with the implicit assumption that communities that require less “voice mask” can get away with being smaller.

    So what would be the opposite of this voice mask? Well presumably it would be an explosion of diverse syntaxes or expressive mediums that allow people to express various kinds of ideas while being respected, in other words, channels of communication that have a reduction of retaliation for non-conformity, and also allow functional linguistic invention. We definitely have part of that in the reddits or tumblrs of the world, although “lack of retaliation” is replaced instead by pseudonymity and purely emotional retaliation, partially patched by blocking or filtering.

    I mean, you could look at this as a fight between gay marriage and reddit vs amazon and space travel if you wanted to; social techniques to accommodate diversity vs movement techniques to functionally separate people.

    In other words, I would suggest that focusing the big crunch high-communicative-density community as exclusively being about dissolving individuality is incorrect. Instead I would say that it would be about reducing the emotional costs of intersubjective feedback loops, of “I am feeling this while that other person is feeling that about me feeling this”.

    You could do this via collective emotional experiences where you have straightforward positive feedbacks encouraging heading in the same direction; “I’m feeling this and you are feeling something similar, and knowing that we are feeling something similar itself increases the original feeling”.

    But you could presumably also have an increase in understanding of human psychology such that a broader diversity of human emotional experience is comprehensible for bystanders, and an associated understanding of multi-agent-stable morality such that it is possible to act coherently based on that knowledge; “I’m feeling this, while you are feeling that, but I understand that, and realise that I can do this”. Essentially using psychological/philosophical investigations and passively collected data on social interactions to analyse outcomes and self reported emotional states to directly process the interpersonal knots that make social interactions more self-defeating.

    An obvious distinction between this and the above is that rather than someone who is not actually that interested in collective social feeling being able to generate it via drugs or experience design, you could have collective social experiences designed on the assumption that some of the participants can be relatively disengaged “assholes” without actually disrupting the basic emotional dynamics.

    Another equivalent technology would be emotional intelligence co-processors, assuming the probably inevitable social-manipulation arms race from bringing that domain into goal directed technique development could be minimised.

  5. I like the concepts here, but get fuzzy very quickly when trying to apply this to my job in a 1,000 person corporation with another 1,000 contractors. My community could be: people in my profession, 200?, people in my department, 40, people I worked with or chose to interact with on a weekly basis – 150 or more? My exit-mask was low because I bought into the mission, which didn’t filter into caring about every single person’s off-work life, but I did care about making them efficient colleagues. My voice mask was high because there was a lot of bureaucracy and not many people with my perspective – some, yes, but if I was swimming against management then it requires more effort to find people willing to admit that. So something is missing in your oversimplification, such as: large groups expect less caring, which is easier to fulfill (city vs small town life, e.g.). also, the larger the group, the slower the information dissemination, ergo the more confusion about your priorities, abilities, frustrations. You need critical mass to find one person to confide in, but ultimately long term disagreements need to be worked out with the individual. Smaller groups seem to have more compact information flow – in a group house, e.g., everyone knows that X is under relationship stress and to steer clear/ cut slack, even if you don’t talk to X or you think X is the problem in that relationship. On the other hand, I was in the office the day after an important death in my family and my second-level manager reprimanded me for being withdrawn briefly in the elevator, clearly unaware of my situation.

    I was also intrigued by the dunbar limit as applied to my brief stint teaching high school – where 150 is just the students I’m responsible for, before we add in other teachers, admin, parents, after-school… I felt like I was barely managing to keep up with the emotional demands, just adding that many people I needed to know at a very high closeness level. I’d had years of teaching the subject matter and could do that with both hands tied behind my back. I assumed I was a poor personality fit for the job, but your comments suggest that the educational model needs to be overhauled. Obvious solution is for students to take intensive courses, fitting in a years’ worth in two months. Intensive training generates momentum and helps students tie concepts together, but there’s higher losses in the unused 10 months.

    • Yes, larger organizaitons can be more confusing especially if it’s not organized in a way where local workgroups are stable over time at sizes <10-15. One way to add some complexity to the model would be to model falling voice _and_ exit masks as you go more degrees away on the social graph, but weighted by whether you're jumping degrees upwards towards the CEO or sideways.