31. Our friends and neighbours.

We can all heave a sigh of relief. I don’t know about you, but I just haven’t been sleeping well. I’ve been picking at my food. Losing interest in my appearance. Moping. But that’s all over now. Justin Bieber’s monkey has found a new home. Yup. Poor little Mally is gonna be OK. Group hug, guys.

A dirty, flea-ridden little beast. And a Capuchin Monkey.

A dirty, flea-ridden little beast. And a Capuchin Monkey.

I was going to write a post about Bieber a few weeks ago. You see, he came out here for a tour. With his mom. And he ran amok! He scratched a golf-cart, and asked for some water pistols to be sent to his room. Pop has found its new wild man! And then, because this is South Africa, thieves tunnelled through the wall of his concert venue after a show and stole all the takings.

I didn’t write about him though. I told myself that I didn’t care about him, and neither do you. But that’s a lie. I do. And so do you. You cannot deny it. All you can do is shift the blame. It’s all a guy called Dunbar’s fault.

Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist who came up with “Dunbar’s number”. And what is Dunbar’s number? It is, you will be pleased to know, 150. Brilliant man, that Dunbar. Should I ever come up with a number, it will probably be much lower than that. 23. It will be 23. I’ve already got a number, and I’m too lazy to go off and get another one.

150 is the number of people that Robin Dunbar calculated we could deal with as living, breathing, feeling people. Others have put the number higher, up to about 230. But the theory itself holds. There’s a limit to the number of people we can see as people. Remember the building that collapsed in Bangladesh a few weeks ago. Over a thousand people died. And if anyone out there tries to tell me they lost any sleep over it, I will call them a liar. Not because I think we are unfeeling, but because we can’t feel for a thousand people. It’s too many.

There are no people here. Just a crowd.

There are no people here. Just a crowd.

And here’s the weird thing. If we focussed on just one of those people, we would have lost sleep. If we learned the name of a young Bangladeshi woman who died in the tragedy; if we found out the names of her children, and what her favourite things were, and what her hopes for the future were, then we would have cared. Because one fits within our Dunbar number. We can deal with one. We can sympathise with her, weep for her unfulfilled dreams, worry about her children. We can’t do that for a thousand people though. We’re just not wired that way.

We’re wired to be monkeys. Primates. Primates tend to be social animals. And generally speaking, the smarter the primate, the bigger the social group. But the size of the group is limited by that Dunbar number. Fewer than that, and you can know everyone’s name. You can know who their friends are, who their children are, and who their spouses are. You know who fits into which clique, who is enemies with whom, who is sleeping with whose spouse.

The one on the top right has a not-so-secret meth habit.

The one on the top right is the only one in the troop that doesn’t know that those aren’t his own children.

Go over that number, and you lose track. You have to start lumping people together. You reduce people to types. Liberals are like this. Christians are like that. New Yorkers are like this. Golfers are like that.

And a terrible thing has happened to us. For almost the whole of our existence as a species, we have lived in groups of 150 or so. We lived in small nomadic bands or tiny villages. We knew our friends. We knew our enemies. We knew our leaders, and our followers. And then, a few thousand years ago, that all went to hell. Even if you live in a tiny little village today, it has vastly more than 150 people in it. We live in a world we are not designed to cope with.

So what has any of this got to do with Justin Bieber? Well, a very strange thing has happened. The more people we find around us, the harder it is to fill up that Dunbar number. It’s easier to do so if you are a member of a church, or live in a small town. But how many of us can name a hundred and fifty people and tell us a little bit about them. I mean real stuff, like who their kids are, and how happy they are in their relationships, and what jobs they do?

All of us. We are, if nothing else, a resourceful species. We found ourselves in a world where we didn’t know our neighbour’s neighbours. We didn’t know what the man who baked our bread was called, or if our child’s teacher was happily married. Strangers made our clothes and sat on our town councils. Our primate brains were withering away from loneliness and isolation in the middle of a crowded world. And we fixed it. With Justin Bieber. You need him. He’s part of your group.

He's our friend. Now who's going to have a word with him about those pants?

He’s our friend. Now who’s going to have a word with him about those pants?

You may be howling in outrage. But here’s the thing. I never said you liked him. But you know who he is. You know what he does for a living. You have some sort of idea of what sort of person he is. Even if you have no professed interest in him at all, you may know that he has an on-again, off-again relationship with Selena Gomez. And that Germany took his monkey away. Do you know anything like that level of detail about the people who live six houses down from you?

There might be one or two of you out there professing complete ignorance of Justin Bieber. I’m not letting you off the hook. It might not be Bieber. It might be Lady Di. Or Obama. Or Tom Cruise. Tiger Woods. Lance Armstrong. David Cameron. Mitt Romney. And we really know these people. Better than our local butcher. Or the guy who took out our wisdom teeth.

In fact, if you sit us down and we make an honest effort, most of us could write down about 150 names. And describe their jobs. And the state of their relationships. And a little about their kids. And what sort of people they were. They just wouldn’t be our neighbours anymore. They would be singers, and actors, and sportsmen, and politicians. We might never meet them, or even be on the same continent as them, but there they are, warmly occupying the outer edges of our social groups.

There are even people out there whose only role is to fill up those Dunbar numbers. How else to we explain Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. Do they even have jobs?

What does she do? Honestly? Social worker? Women's rights advocate? Fabric stress-tester?

What does she do? Honestly? Social worker? Women’s rights advocate? Fabric stress-tester?

And there’s something even weirder about this. We don’t do it consciously. We are wired to do it. It just happens. I don’t like Justin Bieber. I cannot identify a single song of his. I have never sought out a single item of information about him. But I happen to know an awful lot about him. More than I do about the woman who teaches my son. It just creeps in there. It’s on the news as I drive to work. It’s on the cover of a magazine as I wait to buy my groceries. It’s on the TV as I wait for Game of Thrones to come on. And it sticks.

And that’s all we have time for today. I would go on, but I’m a little busy. I need to find out how Kstew and Rpatz are doing. Such a shame about their breakup. And any word on how it’s going with Ange’s recovery? Brad’s been such a star, hasn’t he? So supportive. Not like that vile Chris Brown. Thank God Riri has broken free of him. Even though her behaviour does seem a little erratic these days.

I’m lying. I’m not going to find out about any of those things. I’m going to be too busy finding out who Amanda Bynes is. I’m most impressed. In Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, we had people who were famous for being famous. But now we have something new. Amanda Bynes seems to have pulled off the rather clever trick of having a full-blown, fame-induced celebrity meltdown without having gone to the trouble of being famous. She’s famous for not being famous. If Dunbar was starting a faith, he would have found his Goddess.

Like a latter-day Siren, her beauty holds the world in thrall.

Like a latter-day Siren, her beauty holds the world in thrall.

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45 thoughts on “31. Our friends and neighbours.

  1. Eileen says:

    Interesting. But most of the people I know either belong to a church group, a Rotary Group, The Shriners, A Country Club, or have 150 Facebook friends! So, I’m not sure it’s a social need, as opposed to a personal identification need……someone to identify with and project onto since we feel like nobodies lost in a an uncaring crowd….too large schools, too large corporation employers, too large neighborhoods, too large cities, hospitals, to large and indifferent governments, etc., etc.

    Still interesting, thought provoking blog. You really have amazing variety.

  2. odhgabfe says:

    Reblogged this on Sukeshani Tayade.

  3. And indeed, such a shame we waste our time hearing about Bieber (don’t want to, but he’s the talk of town) When this guy was in the Netherlands He went to the Anne Frank house (yes the Jewish girl who’s diary was found after she was killed in a German concentration camp) and left the following entry: ‘Hopefully she would have been a belieber’. THIS is what we waste our time on.

  4. Think you’re a really good writer, but this one definetely made you stand out from the crowd!! Interesting approach to celebrities, had never looked at it from that point of view, but it explains a lot.

  5. Thanks for the like! Have been reading your blog – insight and humour makes for an entertaining read. Love it.

  6. I was trying to prove you wrong. Not working. We don’t watch tv and in fact don’t have it connected. We watch films or the kids get to watch some iView on occasion but we have little connection to the world of celebrity gossip. I no longer have Facebook and I don’t buy or read magazines unless at the doctors, which we very rarely visit (not that I would get the chance to read them with 3 kids either) but even so, I know about Ange’s mastectomy and why. I know about the Kardashians, the old news now of lightning fast marriage and divorce. I still know all this crap. I don’t care to know. I won’t want to know. And yet, I still know. I do however know that my butcher is called Salvatore (it’s teh name of the shop though so is that cheating?) and his wife owns the new cafe next door to the butchers. I know the names of some of the blokes who work at Crossroads but aside from that I know little about the people in this town I call home. And it’s not even a big town (1800 pop). Hell, we know little about our neighbours although we’re working on that. 🙂
    Very insightful most and a lot of food for thought.

    • 23thorns says:

      With 1800 you got a better chance than us. Our little town has four and a half million people in it.
      As I said, we are wired to absorb this stuff. I just don’t understand why we settled for those people. Why not inventors, or scientists. It’s like we’ve chosen to turn our most embarrassing relatives into gods.

  7. Non-Flapdoodle-ental says:

    Good one man

  8. mariekeates says:

    Oh dear and there was me working so hard NOT to know anything about Justin Beiber!

  9. narf77 says:

    Sigh…first sparkly vampires and now Justin Bieber?! Is there NOTHING that you won’t resort to to get better blog visit numbers sir?! You are shameless! Dunbars …numbers …science …next you will be delving into my least favourite subject mathematics! Slow down Mr 23Thorns or you will exhaust all of these possible post subjects in one fell swoop! The ONLY things that I knew about the beebster before todays post were that he was young, he was an idiot, he came from Canada and that I didn’t want to know anything else about him. I promised to read your posts faithfully Mr 23Thorns but this one is challenging me severely! You are picking fleas off the wrong monkey sir and passing on lice from the beebster! I agree with you that the media has taken our need to be part of something bigger and to “belong” to a group for the same reason that a zebra would like to be a bit closer to the centre of that pack than on the fringes… security in numbers Mr 23Thorns BUT that’s only if you listen to and read the media. The problem comes when you try to engage your neighbours and your childs teacher etc. We, as a progressive society, have decided that much like Ingrid Bergman “Ve Vant to be ALONE!”. We have developed a HUGE personal space that we don’t like anyone to step into and as such, discovering simple things about first world occupiers is a difficult thing. Have you ever noticed how close Indian and Asian people get to each other? It isn’t unusual to see 2 men holding hands or hugging where if you did that here in the Western World, you would be slapped with a specific label and would be given a decidedly larger personal space than you might like. I think you are talking about the flip side/dark side of social media Mr 23Thorns…and that sir, is another post entirely! I am off to take an asprin and have a lie down…My number would be 42. Aside from being Mr Douglas Adams number for the meaning of life it is as many times as I can hold up my 10 fingers before getting bored of the whole exercise and using the last 2 fingers to gesticulate wildly at the world…

  10. johnjroberts says:

    Reblogged this on John Roberts Photography (and other stuff) and commented:
    If you haven’t discovered this writer yet you are missing out on something as invigorating as your first cup of coffee in the morning. He’s trying to write 100 posts in 100 days and he’s right on track so far. And it’s not filler and fluff. His posts are chock full of tack sharp insightfulness and rib splitting humor. If you like this, and I can’t believe you won’t, you’ll want to find time to go back and start at the beginning. It’s not to be missed. Have fun!

  11. I probably know more about your life than I do most of my neighbors’ lives.

  12. I’ve come to appreciate your humor immensely, now on top of that you add deep insight into human behavior! Your writing keeps getting better and better – very entertaining!

  13. Tasneem says:

    Great post. Really interesting and frighteningly true. I find that I know very little about celebs; I don’t buy magazines or watch those shows, BUT I find out these things through Facebook. People post about it on my newsfeed. I didn’t know who Cara Delavigne was, or that Justine Biebier and Selena Gomez broke up until I saw it on FB. As much as I don’t want to know this stuff…I just know this stuff and it’s creepy!
    I even read an article online about Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds holding hands while out shopping. Why I read the whole article I don’t know…and why that is even an article is even more baffling.

    • 23thorns says:

      That’s the scary part. We know much more about these people than we like to admit. I don’t know why, and I don’t know how, but for some reason a potentially valuable corner of my brain is occupied by the fact that Johnny Depp likes to collect hats. Profound stuff indeed!

  14. johnjroberts says:

    Really enjoyed this one. If you have no objection, I’d like to repost it on my blog today.

  15. You have made a profound point, whether or not you intended to. I call a strike on mass (visual) media. Bloggers of the world unite. Let us take back our neighbors through words. Even if they are only “virtual” neighbors.

  16. billgncs says:

    ah…. a good reason why a rugby team has 15.

    I think too that the media has an endless need for new faces and it creates them to fill the emptiness.

    • 23thorns says:

      I think it’s us who have the endless need. I just wish we were worshipping cancer researchers or writers rather than spoiled children.

      • billgncs says:

        celebrity seems to have a way of ruining people, even the blade runner seems to have fallen. he had accomplishments behind him at least.

  17. Learning the hard way says:

    Amanda Bynes was once a sweet young actress with a very successful kids TV show, I was honestly just discussing her and the whole cult of celebrity with my Instagram, Twitter, Facebook obsessed offspring. I must get the child to read this…and perhaps tweet the link to Amanda while I’m at it. 🙂

    • 23thorns says:

      They were all sweet and young once. You would think that with all the evidence piling up that someone in charge would realise this isn’t the right way to treat kids.

      • Learning the hard way says:

        Exactly what I was saying. Where are the grown ups slapping these kids in the back of the head when they need it? Oh that’s right, making shirt loads of money out of them.

      • 23thorns says:

        Yep. And even if you’re not, how do you tell a teenage multi-millionaire to tidy up his room?

  18. Buzzwordz says:

    Sounds like you’re just not a “belieber” to me. My, my, Anne Frank would be so disappointed in you.

  19. sula1968 says:

    excellent thought provoking post

  20. Interesting story which I never heard of Dunbar’s number before. Thank you. By the way, I knew Amanda Bynes as she was a hit for a while from her series, which I ever saw it but couldn’t remember a name. Then she moved to be a lead actor in a film called ‘She’s a man’ which I quite liked it. Afterward, I think she might not be successful at other films so she kind of disappear for a while. And suddenly she shows up again with some a little scandal news. Yes, I think I just proof your story’s point as I could write about Amanda without searching for her information on the internet, everything is from my memory of her 🙂

  21. NIDS LOVE BIG EYES says:

    I read somewhere that the maximum number of people in a company should be 150, as soon as the number of employees in an office exceeds this number, the company loses effectiveness. At this point, the company should then shift the excess over 150 somewhere else. Not many companies do this, they love to jam the punters in just as tight as possible, cutting costs you know. They should be listening to Dunbar, shouldn’t they?

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