Pack Experience

We experience and navigate the world in packs. Families ride in cars together. Groups of coworkers take elevators together. Dating couples go to movies in pairs.

The pack is a unit, the unit, of operational coordination and everyday problem solving in human life. Pack behaviors always involve some technology, and can involve non-human participants like dogs and cats, but they are human first. The pack is a little sociophysical robot. A transient biological assemblage animated by a tacit, embodied consensus about how to inhabit the environment, and shaped by a shared exposure to the constraints of materiality. Perhaps the strongest of these constraints is the constraint of a shared temporality: A pack is more simply defined as a transient social unit on a shared subjective clock.


The pack is where the rubber of sociality meets the road of materiality. The pack experience strongly shapes, and is shaped by, the built environment. Conversely, every kind of built environment is shaped by a real or theorized pack experience.

There is one kind of built environment that is a huge and crucially important exception. One that is growing so rapidly in scope that it threatens to become the rule. I’m talking, of course, about the internet.

The internet is a virtual built environment where individual experience reigns supreme, and pack experience has hitherto been clumsily accommodated in a shallow way as an afterthought. We have to specify the adjective social with respect to shared digital technologies because unlike shared physical technologies, they are not social simply by virtue of being shared or publicly situated. Online, social has to be explicitly engineered. It does not emerge as an epiphenomenon of shared materiality as it does in physical reality, or simply by virtue of being not-private and not-personal. A shared temporality does not automatically emerge out of the demands of coordination.

In the physical world, we have to specify non-sociality for shared, publicly situated technologies, as in private elevator or  single serving, to indicate individual versions of experiences that we would expect to be public and social by default.

Offline, natural pack experiences have to be broken up with technology to create synthetic individual experiences. Online, natural individual experiences have to be assembled together with technology to create synthetic pack experiences.

Almost all the societal disruption caused by the internet can be reduced to one huge effect: it disrupts our expectations of pack experiences, especially expectations about the amount of assembly work required to create them.

Disruptions of higher-order social realities, at troop, tribe, or nation-state levels, can all be traced back to pack-level disruptions.

The fix in almost every case boils down to the same thing: enable better, richer, deeper virtual pack experiences. The promise of the internet as a next-level social scaling and problem-solving technology rests almost entirely on the possibility of effective virtual packs, because packs are the problem-solving social units of our species. And to realize that possibility we need to understand traditional, physical packs better.

Packs,  Patches, Pixels

A pack is a small, evolving patch of embodied social reality, such as a group of people riding an escalator. Socially, if you zoom out a bit, the world is a patchwork quilt of live, evolving pack realities that do not cohere particularly well. Moving across the patchwork involves crossing pack experience boundaries, which we experience as varying amounts of friction.

If you zoom out a lot, the patchwork quilt turns into a pixellated matrix of pack realities, every pixel representing the state of an actual or potential pack experience. The whole doesn’t necessarily add up to anything coherent. It is important to acknowledge this lack of coherence at scales larger than the pack. We are used to talking about the world as though socially, it is a Coherent Social Thing.™ A Thing that will perhaps Solve Climate Change and Go to Mars.

This is a delusional understanding of social reality above the scale of packs, but an occasionally useful one.

Beyond pack scale, there are coherent bits, mixed up and glitchy mashups of conflicting coherent ideas of a Coherent Social Thing,™ but the thing in itself is, strictly speaking, a mess. Here, for instance, is a snapshot from an experiment conducted recently called Satoshi’s Place (inspired by an earlier, non-blockchain experiment called r/place), where people could pay small amounts of bitcoin to help craft a piece of distributed artwork pixel by pixel (the ribbonfarm logo, put up there by Artem, briefly managed to survive in the glitchy Hobbesian mess).

The point is, the Coherent Social Thing™ that is supposed to solve climate change or get to Mars looks sort of like this.

Perhaps more helpfully evocative is this image: the zoomed out view of social reality, from the 40,000 foot level where individual pack experiences such as people riding elevators turn into pixels, is what I’ve dubbed a Chesterton’s Tangle, a sort of vast, sprawling, global mess of intertwingled Chesterton’s fences.

There is some hope of deconstructing the logic of a single Chesterton’s fence before dismantling it, or a single pack experience. There is little hope of explaining the whole tangle. It is not the sort of thing that admits a totalizing explanation, anymore than the picture above admits a unified clean description. At a sufficiently large scale, it isn’t so much that explanations for the way things are are illegible as non-existent. At most you can inventory a Chesterton’s Tangle, not explain it.

This is why the larger the scale, the more any attempt at “design” necessarily involves some unexplained, unjustified, destruction. You can only systematically dismantle what you can explain as a system.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s leave Chesterton’s Tangle alone, and zoom back in to the level of a single pixel of pack experience.

When we say “first we make our tools, then our tools make us,” the we usually refers to the pack rather than the species, the nation, the tribe, the troop, or the individual. Almost everything you see around you — elevators, stairs, cars, queues, shopping carts, restaurant tables, movie theater layouts, kitchen counters, sidewalks, dinner tables, traffic lights — is sized and shaped to accommodate a pack experience, not an individual one. In terms of sheer mass, volume, time, and energy occupied, individual experience objects like forks, pencils, handguns, and underwear are the exceptions. Pack-experience objects such as trains, tables, and couches are the rule.

Look around. Packs of humans are everywhere. Clusters of people riding escalators. People standing in for groups in ticket queues. Mothers ordering meals for children at restaurants. Families clearing immigration together at airports. Groups of people playing sports. Packs backstop all of social reality. When other levels of social reality unravel and fail, pack realities get stronger. Your emergency preparedness plan — for floods, earthquakes, hurricanes or whatever is the big risk in your neck of the woods — is almost certainly a pack-level plan that includes family, neighbors, and friends. Pack realities are much stronger in countries, like India, where higher levels of social reality are particularly weak.

When other levels of social reality fail, pack realities backstop life. When pack realities fail, chaos ensues.

A famous James Mattis quote gets at why, “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” The scary thing about it is that you don’t have to be in an environment of trained soldiers for this possibility to be realized. Any pack reality environment can easily turn into everybody trying to kill everybody under the right conditions — a torn patch in the patchwork quilt, a bad pixel in the matrix of social reality.

When you talk about societies unraveling, you’re talking pack level. It is a far deeper level of breakdown than mere political polarization or tribal rancor.

A normal pack experience is an everyday instance of polite and professional collective problem-solving. A failed pack experience, in the worst case, is always people trying to kill each other with whatever is handy. Any pack experience can be weaponized and turned into a kill-box. Ideologies don’t kill ideologies at the level of ideas. Packs kill packs at the level of furniture.

As I sit here working in Starbucks, I see about 20 people in packs ranging in size from 2 to 9, and about 5-6 isolated individuals (yes, I am being polite and professional; no, I do not have a plan to kill them all). Some are walking, some are sitting, some are working behind a counter. Significantly, every single one of the isolated individuals is on a digital device, and I would guess that most of them are trying, clumsily, to participate in a virtual pack reality somewhere online.

Packs need not be personal or intimate simply because they involve a degree of close-in physical coordination. A short queue staffed by a checkout clerk and a bagger at a grocery story constitutes a pack immersed in a pack experience. For a few minutes, the members are navigating reality in a functionally coordinated way.

Within a pack there is a set of mutual expectations about how to behave. As you will know if you’ve ever attempted to order coffee in a foreign country, every pack experience is made up of a set of learned behaviors. You have to fumble a few times before your thread of a pack experience acquires the nearly unconscious fluidity from which the pack reality derives its structure and boundary. Until that happens, you are an out-of-tune instrument in a little concert, a fault line in the pack’s behavioral space, a glitch in a pixel.

When the individual clocks that are loosely synchronized in a pack lose synchronization, it is instantly noticeable. We fall out of step and stumble on a sidewalk. We step on our partner’s toes while dancing. We play the awkward foreigner who does not know how to order coffee. We order wrong at the biker bar and suddenly a room full of big, strong men is debating whether to beat us up.

Within a pack, individuals fluidly and almost unconsciously negotiate structural/functional roles, coordinate physical movements, share information (including through physical behaviors such as getting out of the line of sight of another individual who needs to see something) delegate and accept authority, split and merge tasks, complete transactions, and arrange themselves in time and space to do it all.

The behaviors of a pack consume inputs, including energy, and produce state changes, and outputs. The output may be functional and utilitarian or purely ceremonial. It may produce a validation of a religion, a reinforcement of status, or a cup of coffee. It may or may not cause enduring change in the built environment it plays out in.

What matters is that the pack visibly does work of some sort. What the work means is secondary.

The pack is both a computer and a computation. Structure and function blend together, and the living part of the structure dissolves when the function is fulfilled. The non-living part persists, as a container full of potentialities and affordances for the next pack experience. An off-pixel.

Within a pack, there may only be a weak overlap of beliefs and alignment of objectives, but there is usually a strong shared sense of time and, to a lesser extent, space. While an active pack experience is unfolding, a social reality you could call pack space-time prevails. It is something like a computational context. This social reality occupies the non-living patch of built environment, turning it into a live patch, like a pixel being turned on.

Take a moment to look around you right now and notice this patchwork structure, this pixellation of social reality, the local differential-geometric view of the matrix as it were. There are on pixels and off pixels. There might be the minor spectacle of a glitchy pixel, such as a foreigner clumsily ordering coffee. And there might be a bad pixel where somebody is trying to kill somebody. An unraveling patch of social reality. That’s the global space-time structure of pack experience. Zoom out and notice how incoherent it is, even if is visually harmonious. The stories don’t add up to a grand narrative. Taken as a whole, it is sound and fury signifying nothing.

Fortunately, this is a normal day for me. From where I sit here at Starbucks, I see several fully occupied, partially occupied, and empty seating areas designed for groups ranging from 2 to 6. I see a bank of elevators with people clustered in front of it, and an empty staircase. I see a revolving door leading out to the street. I see an area of to the side with milk, sugar, and other beverage fixings. I see a display of goods for sale. I see a hallway leading to bathrooms. There are no glitchy pixels or bad pixels.

Not all days are like this. Once, a few months ago, an extremely drunk, big and strong looking man stumbled up the steps of this Starbucks (which is on the mezzanine level of an office building) and began yelling repeatedly at nobody in particular:

“My brother will FUCK YOU UP!”

This went on a for a few minutes as the patrons and baristas all watched, uneasy and tense and prepared for violence. One bold barista went up to him and tried to talk him down. He could easily have hurt her badly.

Eventually, security came and took the man away. I suspect he’d been fired unexpectedly from a job (he was respectably dressed in business clothes, which was a big part of why the experience was so surreal). I suppose his brother was some sort of tough guy.

That was a bad pixel.

The built environment is a pixellated landscape of active and potential pack experience space-time patches. Zoom out, and it is a matrix of pixels, on, off, glitchy, or bad.

Keep this image in mind. We’ll come back to the big picture after exploring the pixel-level pack experience.

The Social Stack

In at least in a narrow sense, Rousseau was right and Hobbes was wrong. We have always navigated social and material reality in groups, not as individuals. If there was ever a war of all against all, the units of all would have been packs. Pack versus pack. Pixel versus pixel. Pixels gone from on to glitchy to bad.

Different kinds of groups help us navigate different realities. Social reality may not cohere at all levels and resolutions above pack, but that does not mean it lacks levels.

Three that have historical significance are tribes, troops, and packs.

Tribes help us navigate political reality at scales ranging from several hundred to several thousand. They tend to hold beliefs about the world being a Coherent Social Thing™ and conduct long, never-ending conversations about it.

Troops of between a couple of dozen to a couple of hundred individuals are the level at which we navigate multi-generational biological, life-scale reality: meeting energy needs, ensuring physical security, mating, reproduction, childcare, eldercare, healthcare, and mortality. In the modern world, they map roughly to city neighborhoods. Instead of conversations, troops produce what one might call activity logs: records of routine but important events worth recording.

And finally, the pack, as I define it, is the grouping we use to navigate physical reality at a day-to-day, episodic level. Lifting things, collecting things, throwing things, hunting things, building things, repairing things, making things, pouring things, moving things from point A to point B, plotting courses on maps, making sense of Ikea instruction manuals, splitting checks at restaurants. Note the pervasive presence of things and representations of things in pack experience. Packs produce neither conversations nor logs, but might maintain functional state (is the garbage can full? when is the next train?).

The medium of tribal experience is language. The medium of troop experience is the human body. The medium of pack experience is the built environment complete with designed affordances and signage.

Tribes last indefinitely but can die out. Troops last for generations. Packs last between hours to years.

Mythologies can go back millennia, accurate genealogies can go back a century or two, and memories of who was with whom when they did what, and where can fade within minutes, absent historic significance.

A memory metaphor helps: tribes are long-term cultural memory. Troops are short-term memory. Packs are sensory memory.

Or, packs share transactional time and space, troops share events, tribes share histories.

To these three historical levels of social organization, we can add two more recently evolved ones: the imagined community and the individual. Both, in their recognizable modern forms, evolved alongside the printing press and its successor communications technologies. There’s a whole story to be told there, but that’s for another day.

The imagined community (I am borrowing and overloading the term from the Benedict Anderson book), such as the race, nation or the army, exists above the tribal level. It is a social grouping beyond the scope of direct behavioral embodiment, and requiring a set of ideas and abstractions outside of time — an ideology — to animate it. A mythology that can sustain an ongoing historical conversation is enough for a tribe, but an imagined community needs social realities outside of time.

And below the pack level, we have the individual level. This is at once the most tangible and familiar, and the most ineffable and mysterious level of our existence. In social reality terms, the individual is something of an inscrutable atomic mystery, and hard to accommodate unless cloaked in an interface we call personhood. The one-person pack experience is a singularity. It takes at least two to do something socially sensible, like tango.

These then, are our five layers of social reality, each with its own medium of embodiment, and each approximately supervening on the one below (ie differences at a given level can only exist if differences exist at the one below). So the social stack looks like this:

  • The imagined community embodied by ideology
  • Tribes embodied by language
  • Troops embodied by biological bodies
  • Packs embodied by physical built environments
  • Singular individuals embodied by personhood

Each medium of embodiment implies a spatio-temporal scale and scope.

Imagined communities can be continent scale or even planetary scale, and persist across severe temporal disruptions of social order and membership, such as total war and massive demographic changes. “Europe” for instance, has persisted past plagues, World Wars, and genocides.

Tribes have a segmentary spatiotemporal structure defined by increasing levels of mutual linguistic intelligibility (in a broad sense of language) and narrative recognition. Their spatial extent is limited by the range of routine travel, and their temporal extent spans generations that enjoy a degree of continuity in the economic order. Tribes can be destroyed by events such as genocidal wars. We can have dead languages (including short-lived ones, marked by unusual slang usages that emerge and die with say a short-lived faddish music scene in a single city) because tribes can die.

Troops are defined by the limits of physical proximity. The idea of personal space is a troop-level default that kicks in when there are no strong pack-level functional geometries in play. Troops can form and dissolve with population movements, and the rise and fall of viable human settlements. Migrations typically happen at troop level, and almost all migration is chain migration of sorts — enabled by troop relationship links that were formed through physical proximity at a source location.

And packs occupy, as we discussed, pixel-like patches of social reality strongly shaped by the built environment. Spatially, they are limited by the maximal distance across which we can physically visually distinguish individuals as friend or foe (a friend pointed out that historically this distance has been determined by bowshot; you generally want to recognize anyone you plan to kill with an arrow or be polite and professional towards). Temporally, they tend to be bounded by troop-level biological constraints such as the need to eat or sleep, that interrupt pack-level experiences.

Here is a computational metaphor: pack experiences constitute an assembly language, troops are operating systems, tribes are high-level languages, imagined communities are societal graphical user interfaces for politicians.

I’ll stop here for now. To summarize:

Social reality is composed of a stack of five levels, of which the pack level is the one where sociality meets materiality. Packs are patches of social reality contained within patches of physical reality, where life happens. They are the units of routine, unmemorable everyday life, the sensory memory of social reality, the space-and-time sharing level of life. The internet is disrupting our expectations of pack experiences, since it is an environment composed out of individual experiences.

Zooming out, these patches are either on or off. If they are on, they might be functioning normally, glitching, or going bad. Zoom out further and you get a pixelated view of large-scale social realities which does not cohere into anything meaningful.

This then, is the foundation, the canvas of social reality. In the next part of this series, we will talk about packs behaving normally, packs gone glitchy or bad, and how packs manage operational risks. Then maybe, in future parts, we’ll get to virtual packs, crumbling social realities, the prospects for digital Hobbesian conditions, and so forth.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. Bruce Jia says:

    The Internet may prevent packs from forming as easily as they do in meatspace partially because of sorting algorithms that cluster people into tribes and because connection is _not_ a necessity as it is in meatspace.

  2. Bruce Jia says:

    If individual time is measured by chronos, and pack time is measured by a shared “clock”, is there anything resembling a coordinated timescale for tribes? Nomadic tribes have set migration patterns and agricultural tribes have a “calendar” based around the intersection of agricultural needs and social reality, e.g Harvest Festival as a time where people take a break from the harvest _and_ temporarily emphasize the nominal bonds holding the extended family and tribe together. It seems that industrial tribes have some kind of clock to bind , but subcultures might.

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