In conversation and writing, I often feel drawn to use the phrase “Human Scale.” The idea I want to convey is that there are certain things you can clearly understand in relation to your life. To me, human scale means that the entity of observation can easily be understood and experienced on a deeply human level; It can be felt from end to end.
As it turns out, I didn’t make up this phrase. It’s been around for some time. Even though there are some measurements built into this definition, I am going to add another: human collectives.
I think collectives can be defined by Human Scale. One-on-one relationships are obviously the most human scale. The larger the collective, the less you know and understand all of the individuals that make up the collective.
For example, I can clearly understand my relationship with my wife, my family, and my small business co-workers. These things are all human scale. Several years ago I worked for a large university. The university had a ‘personality’ in its architecture, marketing, and programs – but I certainly could not understand it in the deepest sense without knowing the people that made it up. In this sense, the organization itself, is beyond human scale.
Anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, observed that there is a magical number beyond which a human collective can not maintain it’s deep understanding of each member from end-to-end. The approximate maximum size is 150 and it’s called Dunbar’s number.
Some reasonable human scale relationships/collectives:
- Small business.
Some relationships/collectives that are beyond human scale:
- “The Economy” or The Market.
- Large Corporations (thousands of employees).
- National Government and Nations.
In my own life, I have noticed that I most enjoy interacting with collectives that are close to human scale. I like walking into a bakery where I can see the owner and feel how this institution relates to my community. I do not like getting on the phone to talk with my health insurance provider (large company, does not “know” me at all).
As a collective increases in size:
- Relationships to other humans are based on statistics (numbers on paper)
- Communication is based on script (when communicating with a customer) and marketing (when communicating to groups of customers or potential customers).
- Decreasing numbers of people understand it. For example, no one really understands the market or the economy (there are guiding theories but much is still conjecture – hence the debate about the stimulus package).
What I make of these observations is that with all of the size we have created, it is still the human scale relationships that matter most to us. I suspect that as modern civilization continues to evolve, if we continually find that large, disconnected collectives do more harm than good, we will eventually move away from them and back to simple human scale relationships. The internet (or its future form) is the tool that will allow this to happen.
Just a thought… but of course it’s all beyond human scale which is all I can really understand!