You Have About Five Words

Cross posted from the EA Fo­rum.

Epistemic Sta­tus: all num­bers are made up and/​or sketchily sourced. Post errs on the side of sim­plis­tic po­etry – take se­ri­ously but not liter­ally.


If you want to co­or­di­nate with one per­son on a thing about some­thing nu­anced, you can spend as much time as you want talk­ing to them – an­swer­ing ques­tions in re­al­time, ad­dress­ing con­fu­sions as you no­tice them. You can trust them to go off and at­tempt com­plex tasks with­out as much over­sight, and you can de­cide to change your col­lec­tive plans quickly and nim­bly.

You prob­a­bly speak at around 100 words per minute. That’s 6,000 words per hour. If you talk for 3 hours a day, ev­ery work­day for a year, you can com­mu­ni­cate 4.3 mil­lion words worth of nu­ance.

You can have a real con­ver­sa­tion with up to 4 peo­ple.

(Last year the small or­ga­ni­za­tion I work at con­sid­ered hiring a 5th per­son. It turned out to be very costly and we de­cided to wait, and I think the rea­sons were re­lated to this phe­nomenon)


If you want to co­or­di­nate on some­thing nu­anced with, say, 10 peo­ple, you re­al­is­ti­cally can ask them to read a cou­ple books worth of words. A book is maybe 50,000 words, so you have maybe 200,000 words worth of nu­ance.

Alter­nately, you can monologue at peo­ple, scal­ing a con­ver­sa­tion past the point where peo­ple re­al­is­ti­cally can ask ques­tions. Either way, you need to hope that your books or your monologues hap­pen to ad­dress the par­tic­u­lar con­fu­sions your 10 team­mates have.


If you want to co­or­di­nate with 100 peo­ple, you can ask them to read a few books, but chances are they won’t, un­less you have di­rectly in­ceThey might all read a few books worth of stuff, but they won’t all have read the same books. The in­for­ma­tion that they can be co­or­di­nate on is more like “sev­eral blog­posts.” If you’re try­ing to co­or­di­nate nerds, maybe those blog­posts add up to one book be­cause nerds like to read.


If you want to co­or­di­nate 1,000 peo­ple… you re­al­is­ti­cally get one blog­post, or maybe one blog­post worth of jar­gon that’s hope­fully self-ex­plana­tory enough to be use­ful.


If you want to co­or­di­nate thou­sands of peo­ple...

You have about five words.

This has ram­ifi­ca­tions on how com­pli­cated a co­or­di­nated effort you can at­tempt.

What if you need all that nu­ance and to co­or­di­nate thou­sands of peo­ple? What would it look like if the world was filled with com­pli­cated prob­lems that re­quired lots of peo­ple to solve?

I guess it’d look like this one.