Social Scalability

Source: Unenumerated <Nick Szabo blog>, Feb 2017

the secret to Bitcoin’s success is that its prolific resource consumption and poor computational scalability is buying something even more valuable: social scalability.

Social scalability is the ability of an institution –- a relationship or shared endeavor, in which multiple people repeatedly participate, and featuring customs, rules, or other features which constrain or motivate participants’ behaviors — to overcome shortcomings in human minds and in the motivating or constraining aspects of said institution that limit who or how many can successfully participate.

Social scalability is about the ways and extents to which participants can think about and respond to institutions and fellow participants as the variety and numbers of participants in those institutions or relationships grow. It’s about human limitations, not about technological limitations or physical resource constraints.

Even though social scalability is about the cognitive limitations and behavior tendencies of minds, not about the physical resource limitations of machines, it makes eminent sense, and indeed is often crucial, to think and talk about the social scalability of a technology that facilitates an institution.

The social scalability of an institutional technology depends on how that technology constrains or motivates participation in that institution, including protection of participants and the institution itself from harmful participation or attack. One way to estimate the social scalability of an institutional technology is by the number of people who can beneficially participate in the institution.

Another way to estimate social scalability is by the extra benefits and harms an institution bestows or imposes on participants, before, for cognitive or behavioral reasons, the expected costs and other harms of participating in an institution grow faster than its benefits.

The cultural and jurisdictional diversity of people who can beneficially participate in an institution is also often important, especially in the global Internet context. The more an institution depends on local laws, customs, or language, the less socially scalable it is.

Without institutional and technological innovations of the past, participation in shared human endeavors would usually be limited to at most about 150 people – the famous “Dunbar number”. In the Internet era, new innovations continue to scale our social capabilities.

Innovations in social scalability involve institutional and technological improvements that move function from mind to paper or mind to machine, lowering cognitive costs while increasing the value of information flowing between minds, reducing vulnerability, and/or searching for and discovering new and mutually beneficial participants.

Alfred North Whitehead said, “It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

Friedrich Hayek added: “We make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up.”

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