Collective computation is the process by which groups store and share information to arrive at decisions for collective behavior. How societies engage in effective collective computation depends partly on their scale. Social arrangements and technologies that work for small- and mid-scale societies are inadequate for dealing effectively with the much larger communication loads that societies face during the growth in scale that is a hallmark of the Holocene. An important bottleneck for growth may be the development of systems for persistent recording of information (writing), and perhaps also the abstraction of money for generalizing exchange mechanisms. Building on Shin et al., we identify a Scale Threshold to be crossed before societies can develop such systems, and an Information Threshold which, once crossed, allows more or less unlimited growth in scale. We introduce several additional articles in this special issue that elaborate or evaluate this Thresholds Model for particular types of societies or times and places in the world.
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We thank several colleagues (Elizabeth Bradley, Stefani Crabtree, Anna Frishman, Adam Green, Juergen Jost, Jin Hong Kuan, Cameron Petrie, Hajime Shimao, Michael E. Smith, and Miriam Stark) who offered talks at the SFI Working Group but did not contribute papers here. Their presentations, enthusiasm, discussion points, and comments on both Seshat and on the Thresholds Model were instrumental in developing this special issue. We would further like to thank James Evans, who suggested this journal as a destination for these papers. Finally, we greatly appreciated the many non-presenting participants at the WG for their contributions via discussion, email, and interest in the topic.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (No. SMA-1620462). T. A. Kohler further acknowledges support from the Cluster of Excellence ROOTS, EXC 2150, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under Germany’s Excellence Strategy.
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