A City Is A Village Of Villages

There have been three major eras of human history: foraging, farming, and industry. During each era our economy has grown at a roughly steady exponential rate, and I’ve written before about some intriguing patterns in these growth eras: eras encompassed a similar number of doublings (~7-10), transitions between eras were much shorter than prior doubling times, and such transitions encompassed a similar number of growth rate doublings (~6-8). I’ve also noted that transition-induced inequality seems to have fallen over time.

I just noticed another intriguing pattern, this time in community sizes. Today in industrial societies roughly half of the population lives in metropolitan areas with between one hundred thousand and ten million people, with a mid size of about a million. While good data seems hard to find, during the farming era most people seem to have lived in communities (usually centered around a village) of between roughly three hundred and three thousand people, with a mid size of about a thousand. Foragers typically lived in mobile bands of size roughly twenty to fifty, with a best size of about thirty.

So community sizes went roughly from thirty to a thousand to a million. The pattern here is that each new era had a typical community size that was roughly the square of the size during the previous era. That is, a city is roughly a village of villages, and a village is roughly a band of bands. We could extend this patter further if we liked, saying that an extended family group has about four to eight members, with a mid size of six, so that a band is a family of families. (We might even go further and say that a family is a couple of couples, where a couple has two or so members.)

If previous growth patterns were to continue, I’ve written before that a new growth era might appear sometime in roughly the next century, and over a few years the economy would transition to a new growth rate of doubling every week to month. If this newly-noticed community size pattern were to continue, the new era would have communities of size roughly a trillion, perhaps ranging from ten billion to a hundred trillion.

Admittedly, after a year or two of this new era, things might change again, to yet another era. And the growth and community size trends couldn’t both continue to that next era, since a community size of a trillion trillion would require much more than twenty doublings of growth. So these trends clearly have to break down at some point.

I’ve been exploring a particular scenario for this new era: it might be enabled and dominated by brain emulations, or “ems.” Interestingly, I had already estimated an em community size of roughly a trillion based on other considerations. Ems could take up much less physical space than do humans, and since ems could visit each other in virtual reality without moving physically, em community sizes would be less limited by travel congestion costs.

So what should one call a city of cities of a trillion souls? A “world”?

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  • Jess Riedel

    The obvious objection is that you can’t expect to infer anything from 2 data points. (The first number only provides normalization.) Maybe if you had come up with a plausible reason for the nesting of group size before looking at the data, but you didn’t. Heck, you didn’t even come up with an explanation after the fact!

    Also, the image Google has associated with you and displays when searching “Robin Hanson” is pretty great.

    • David Jinkins

      Hear, hear. The same sort of extrapolation about population size led to the lifeboat earth scenarios of the 1970’s.

    • So what is the minimum number of datapoints from which inference is possible? Have a cite for that theorem?

      • arch1

        I think it more apt here to coin a heuristic than cite a theorem. How about:

        The points you seek should outnumber the dials you tweak.

      • Norman

        Translation: positive degrees of freedom would be nice.

      • John_Maxwell_IV

        Supposedly you want 15-20 data points per predictor variable before using regression beats weighting all your predictor variables evenly. This is discussed Robyn Dawes’ paper “The Robust Beauty of Improper Linear Models”, which I was just reading recently. Not sure how relevant it is.

      • Hanson’s not using regression.

    • srdiamond

      I think you underestimate the weight that should be accorded the simplicity of the square rule and how that fits a compositional analysis. (I think, moreover, the Bayesian criticism of classical hypothesis testing should be accepted: the happenstance of what prior hypotheses the proponent entertained shouldn’t figure into public scientific discussion.) Actually, it strikes me as quite brilliant.

      But neither can I adduce a theorem demonstrating that my inference is better. (Yudkowskyites, I think, would maintain that such a theorem exists although we might not be able to apply it–but such a theorem is conceptually impossible.)

      On EMs, I wonder whether Robin has considered that he’s doing what he disdains: research on a top that nobody cares about or has reason to care for the unmitigated purpose of signaling analytic skills and unconventionality.

      • Hanson has previously stated his disdain for signaling futurists specifically. Thus he is trying to depart from such tradition, by showing how one potential future could potentially play out. I find it interesting.

    • Yes, do a Google search on ‘Robin Hanson’. He appears to have undergone a most remarkable rejuvenation.

  • Cambias

    Call it a “system.” Because such a community would almost have to be multiplanetary or post-planetary. Note that in such a civilization, individuals become almost vanishingly unimportant. A city of a million people would be as important, in a world of trillions, as a single church congregation in the modern United States.

    The good news is that it might be literally impossible to manage any kind of centralized state on such a scale. We can hope, anyway.

    • IMASBA

      Yeah, great. I can imagine the newsreel already: “50 billion died this morning in a tragic incident in New New York, word on the street is that a single trillionaire skimped on the maintentance of his interplanetary luxury liners (compared to his competitors, as no official guidelines exist), one of which crashed onto New New York with a speed of 20km/s. Without a central government a single person skimping on the maintenance or safety precautions of incredibly powerful technology could initiate a global catastrophy, hell, with advanced technology a single firm could easily develop and unleash a virus that would wipe out 99% of mankind.

      • Cambias

        Huge logical fallacy. Lack of centralized state is not a synonym for lack of any government.

        Explain how a central government attempting to regulate the lives of trillions would be MORE effective than smaller states?

      • IMASBA

        I apologize, it’s just so common to see libertarians here that I immediately assumed you were one, my apologies.

        “Explain how a central government attempting to regulate the lives of trillions would be MORE effective than smaller states?”

        It would not, there would have to be local governments underneath the central government, but having a central government at the top does bring benefits such as elimination of warfare and the pooling of resources (if one local government gets hit by disaster the other ones would be obliged to help if there is a central government, they would also have joined research programmes and having a central government makes sure there’s always an authority more powerful than the most powerful corporation to keep them in check and protect the people), it would also make sure all humans are equal (so a murder wouldn’t land you in jail for 10 years in one place and 20 years in the other and the minimum age for marriage or drinking would be the same everywhere). At least that’s how 97% of current humanity sees it and their views are more likely to shape the future than those of American conservatives.

    • IMASBA

      P.S. and that doesn’t even account for breakaway colonies or alien civilizations with powerful militaries.

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  • Lord

    It is clear from the demographic transition, it won’t be in biologic humans. Even interplanetary or postplanetary would be geological if it involves terraforming or environment construction. If ems, perhaps the numbers come from extremely short lives or organizations before replacement or reorganization and a breakdown of what constitutes an individual.


    “If this newly-noticed community size pattern were to continue, the new era would have communities of size roughly a trillion, perhaps ranging from ten billion to a hundred trillion.”

    No, we have anticonception and are freeing ourselves of nationalist and religious dogma. The Earth’s population will probably never go above 10 billion because people simply don’t want that. The only way we would ever see a new rapid grow era was if we colonized other planets and came into competition with civilizations much more numerous than us. I also doubt that a transition to an EM world (let’s suppose people stop having children after EMs are invented) would automatically lead to a rapid population increase: most people prefer to share bountiful resources with as few people as possible instead of multiplying just because the resources for it are available (of course that assumes people will have a say, in a dystopian ultra-libertarian EM world the ruling wealthy elite would override the will of the people and create new EMs if it suited the interests of the elite).

    • Stephen Diamond

      The future Hanson invisions is one where the freerider problem to a centralist solution can’t be overcome because these EM entities can be multiplied so fast. A small freerider breakaway which implemented EMming would immediately overpower the rest of humanity.

      If we grant his technological assumptions arguendo, his main nontechnological assumption is that some form of capitalism will be dominant when EM technology comes into being. This is to preclude society being integrated economically (hence normatively) in such manner that freeriding by producing EMS isn’t possible. One way would be to outlaw any private ownership of productive resources. Another would be to refuse to recognize EM creatures as human and ruthlessly exterminate them.

      • IMASBA

        Yes, he does assume everything will change except for capitalism, which is just ridiculous. I think there’s another solution to the EM problem (the same solution applies for all AI): give the EMs full human rights (include the right to refuse to work for their creator) and make their creators pay upkeep (maybe a robot body for the EM too, so you can’t run away from your creation: they’ll literally take up space and people will get angry at you for it) and assume legal responisbility for a few years (like with children), that will make it economically unattractive to create lots of EMs. Besides, without capitalism it may be much harder to achieve power through productivity: with a guaranteed minimum income for everyone and a legal income cap (so there can be no billionaires) and non-transferrable currency all the rules change.

      • Clearly he should predict a Marxist utopia.

      • IMASBA

        Yes, because there is nothing besides laissez-faire capitalism and marxism and nothing else will ever be invented? In any case I was merely pointing out that Robin’s scenarios assume an extreme economical position, and it’s not just extreme, it’s also an outgrowth of something traditional (capitalism in some form has been around for centuries). Why would we change all our morals and even ethics, but not change our economical system when the future offers us so many possibilities to do so? He’s basically saying: “get over your petty “human rights” and notions of “equality” and “justice” or your aversion of genocide, but don’t touch capitalism, tat’s sacred”.

      • Highly doubt that “outlawing and exterminating” would prevent rapid and widespread EM adoption.

        When the incentive is so massive, forces are difficult or impossible to impede.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Let me admit, first, that a society whose first priority must be outlawing and exterminating is not all that attractive either–yet a lot more attractive than the EM society. But as to whether it would work–that depends on the penalties society is willing to impose. Given that the stakes are so high, society would probably be willing to impose the most draconian punishments: say, the imposition of a slow, horribly painful death for violation. (Or, let’s go further: an eternity in a virtual hell–let’s do notice that Robin’s technology makes that possible, too.) I would hope that milder means could be at hand (assuming the unlikely technological premises). A Marxist utopia, indeed, could isolate violators without punishing them (maybe).

        I disagree with IMASBA that passing laws in itself would deter self-reproducers. (I think everyone may be overlooking just how bad person reproduction is for all forms of civil society. All copies of a given person constitute a strategic political faction: the barriers to coordination between duplicates is far lower than with anyone else.)

      • IMASBA

        “When the incentive is so massive, forces are difficult or impossible to impede.”

        That’s why the incentive has to be taken away: prevention is better than cure. If there is little to no power or material wealth to gain from copying yourself, or better yet, if it’ll most probably end up costing you then why do it? Horror scenarios of rabid AI production followed by an AI uprising or otherwise dystopian outcome almost always have to do with the AIs being enslaved, in Robin’s scenarios the EMs aren’t technically enslaved, they can leave the sweatshops of their creator, but to do so would mean “starvation” with a very high probability, so it’s slavery in practice (the same way human children can be enslaved in a libertarian society). Entire libraries have been written about how to prevent enslaved AIs from rising up, or how to stop them if them do, but it seems no one ever asks “what if we just didn’t enslave them?”, I’m sure future humans will be perfectly able to wipe their own asses, what do we really need AI slave labor for?

      • Stephen Diamond

        no one ever asks “what if we just didn’t enslave them?”

        By hypothesis, the AIs are created in such a way that their creator is strategically positioned to enslave them.

        Let me ask you this. Do you contend that it’s impossible to imagine a technology (not completely precluded by known science) that would be likely to cause slave conditions? Can you provide a reason why you would expect this to be impossible?

      • IMASBA

        Technology doesn’t “cause” anything final, how we choose to use it matters in the end: you can use a knive to cut up vegetables to feed orphans, or to stab a man in the heart.

        The very act of granting all AIs human rights (so they can walk away fromt their creator and collect welfare benefits or work somewhere else) makes creating them so much less interesting commercially, and it means they’ll hold less of a grudge against us, not to mention it’s the right thing to do, yet this option keeps being overlooked, why?

  • VV

    This argument is a form of magical thinking.

    • Muga Sofer

      Just like expecting prediction markets to work. Or any physical reaction to occur, without simulating it on a quantum level.

    • Cyan

      You seem to have mistaken “If this newly-noticed community size pattern were to continue” for “This newly-noticed community size pattern will continue”.

  • “So what should one call a city of cities of a trillion souls? A “world”?”


  • Gene

    The existence of Street Gangs is a demonstration of this effect. They stake out territory and defend it from others. Their numbers tend to be few. Even when they join confederations or are co-opted by organized crime they continue to “be with their own” or use their local Gangs as “farm clubs”, which establishes loyalty based upon their personal histories.

    As far as growth…. we may be seeing a distorted Logistic Curve, with our time in the period of greatest increase.