If, however, there is one agent in the network who is at the top of the social hierarchy, who the two researchers call the “Big Man”, then the status of other agents depends on how closely connected they are to him.
How does this affect the group’s ability to coordinate its members’ choices? This depends on what the Big Man knows, since his choice is afforded more weight than others’. The Big Man’s closest contacts are also proportionately more influential, and so on down the social hierarchy. That helps the group to reach the right collective decision if the Big Man knows best. But if he’s wrong – if he’s deluded about where the food is, say – then coordination can be very slow. The more likely the Big Man is to be correct, the steeper the optimal social hierarchy.
This situation isn’t just restricted to cases where a Big Man is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – it could apply to coordination on some arbitrary issue, the existence of God say. The more the Big Man is regarded as authoritative, the more steeply hierarchical the society is. Conversely, the more scepticism there is about the Big Man’s opinion, the more egalitarian the society. Is this sounding familiar yet?
David-Barrett and Dunbar discover a particularly intriguing implication for our information age. One of the important factors in their model is the cost of communication: how hard it is to exchange information. It’s often suggested that by lowering the cost of communication, electronic networking will make it easier for everyone to access information and so will flatten the social hierarchy. The researchers find that, if there is an initial inequality in how information is distributed, lowering communication costs counter-intuitively sustains this steep hierarchy and promotes inequality. There’s less incentive to spread information around: you can just keep on looking until you find it.
If we want to avoid this effect of cheaper communication, they say, then we’ll need ways of compensating for it – for example, by greater social investment in education to disseminate knowledge. The web won’t do it for us.