Monday, 27 June 2016


Less than a week since Britain, or at least 52% of Britain, made the maddest, saddest decision of my lifetime.

Less than a week since the blackest, bleakest day in our recent history, at least one that didn't involve loss of life.

Yes, Britain is to detach itself from the European Union and do its own thing.  Whatever that is.  Markets have already plunged.  Expect job losses next, and not just amongst evil bankers.  And when the price both on the forecourt and at the Magaluf bar lurch upwards the gormless Mail readers who led this craziness may finally work out that they put their Xs in the wrong box.

There are so many reasons for being baffled by the result.  Not least that history, from wandering the plains trying to find a mastodon for lunch through to our projections of the far future through science fiction have been all about smaller units - family, tribe - coming together into cities, states, corporations and empires.

The reasons are obvious: economies and efficiencies of scale.  As, say, building a dwelling has progressed beyond mud huts and blocks of ice stacked together the technical skills, let alone the heavy lifting, no longer resides in one man, or even a close-knit family.  If you want progress -- better harvests, better homes, longer lives -- then come together in teams, folks.

And with it comes the need to let go of some decision-making and defending-the-realm responsibility.  Let politics, policing and soldiery become professional, so I can get on with writing code or growing GMOs.  (America, you may want to review the background to your right to bear arms before another schoolkid or minority gets wasted; it comes out of the need for a citizen militia after the Revolution, since made redundant by your military-industrial complex and 2.1m armed regulars and reservists, but that's another blue-touch paper of a posting altogether).

In fact, space opera is awash with alliances, empires and federations.  Star Wars has The Empire; Star Trek the United Federation of Planets; Blake's Seven the Terran Federation.  1984 has the world divided into three megalithic nation-states; and even then there's a hint they may be colluding to prolong the war.  You never seem to get spatterings of independent states in our thought-out futures, unless they're in some chain-with-no-name arrangement.  That's not just because it gets hard to write; it's not how we see the future progressing.

And here's an oddity.  Some of these socio-political units have definite, distinct figureheads - The Emperor, or Servalan (who, from memory, seemed to work from home, albeit an ostentatious one, possibly Cheshire).  Others seem leaderless - who's in charge of the United Federation of Planets?  We see lots of statesmen, but there doesn't seem to be a single Putin, Trump or George Washington, to pick three banknote-faces at random.

But in sci-fi the ones with faces always turn out evil (is that right? - I can't think of a disproof, a happy star-cluster led by a benevolent altruist).  The EU's problem may have actually been the polar opposite; it's the fact that we're not sure who the muscles in Brussels really is that makes us distrustful: turns out we'd prefer to stick with people whose faces we recognise, even if the current team are lizard-people in human masks.  (Seriously: look at Cameron and Osborne in HD - that's not flesh.)

However, there's evidence that Britain's decision to say 'no more' to all this joining up of nations is perfectly sane and reasonable and it's our whole direction of travel that's wrong.  That we shouldn't just stop at dismantling Europe but most of our own nation; our countries, counties, even cities.  What we need to get back to is the optimal size of community.

And that's 150.

That's not my view.  It's called Dunbar's number.  And if you're an anthropologist it crops up everywhere.  It's the personal relationships that a human can typically manage and maintain.  It's the size that villages or tribes get to before somebody thinks that a second tribe or village may be a god idea and leads a contingent off over the horizon.  Think of a Roman legion of centurions and the associated upward management structure - it's that kinda number.  WL Gore found that when you had more than 150 people in a building then issues started to crop up as people stopped dealing with each other one-to-one, so they limited their organisational units to 150.

One day we may achieve enlightenment and return to the village.  I foresee a possible - although highly unlikely - future of us living in 150-person units, dealing with our own shit and ignoring everybody else.  It would be a utopia, not because everything would be rosy in the garden, but because at least we'd be in control of the weeds.

If I was brave I would map out this way of life in a sci-fi magnum opus.  But, given the happiness and lack of conflict therein, where would be the fun in that?  Long live The Empire!

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