Filling our Monkeyspheres with Fake People

Lately I’ve noticed that I’m filling my monkeysphere with fake people. They have no flesh or blood apart from the actors that might be playing them. In some cases, their only physical manifestation is the dead tree they’re printed on. With my new Kindle, they’re even being reduced to states of electrical charge and e-ink ball rotations. But before I get into it too far, let’s make sure we’re all on the same monkey page.

The best (and possibly the first) explanation of the monkeysphere came from David Wong back in 2007:

First, picture a monkey. A monkey dressed like a little pirate, if that helps you. We’ll call him Slappy.

Imagine you have Slappy as a pet. Imagine a personality for him. Maybe you and he have little pirate monkey adventures and maybe even join up to fight crime. Think how sad you’d be if Slappy died.

Now, imagine you get four more monkeys. We’ll call them Tito, Bubbles, Marcel and ShitTosser. Imagine personalities for each of them now. Maybe one is aggressive, one is affectionate, one is quiet, the other just throws shit all the time. But they’re all your personal monkey friends.

Now imagine a hundred monkeys.

Not so easy now, is it? So how many monkeys would you have to own before you couldn’t remember their names? At what point, in your mind, do your beloved pets become just a faceless sea of monkey? Even though each one is every bit the monkey Slappy was, there’s a certain point where you will no longer really care if one of them dies.

So how many monkeys would it take before you stopped caring?

That’s not a rhetorical question. We actually know the number.

That number, it turns out, is around 150, except it’s not how many monkeys we can keep track of and empathize with, it’s how many humans we can care about as individuals. This number is also referred to as the Dunbar Number, and it actually has a fair amount of science behind it, both in neuroscience and in anthropology. It varies from species to species and even from individual brain to individual brain, but 150 is a decent approximation.

So, I can think about and feel about only 150 people as individuals to the point where I really care about what happens to them. That doesn’t seem like all that many, so I should do my best to use those slots wisely, like on my family, my friends, my coworkers, and so on it. It would be nice, too, if I could spend a few on the people who help make my life better, like my doctor, my kids’ teachers, the fireman who lives down the road, and those guys who mow my lawn – you know, the boss guy and… and… you know, the other three guys. Oh dear, I think I’ve already run out.

And how did I run out so soon? Well, while I can’t remember the names of the guys who come out and mow my lawn every week in the blistering Texas heat, I do remember John Sheridan, Delenn, Kara Thrace, Luke Skywalker, Andy Sipowicz, Josh & Donna, Harry (both Dresden and Potter), and yes, even The Mule. There are easily a dozen or two more that I won’t bore you with, but you get the idea. I know these people far better than I know the mowers, or my kids’ teachers, or even my doctor. I know their sense of humor. I know their darkest fears. I have gone to sleep thinking about them and been grateful for their presence when I woke the next morning. They seem to be as real to me and my emotions as that fireman who lives down the street.

But they’re not. Yes, we can make all kinds of metaphysical arguments that my caring of them makes them real, or that they exist in the hearts of millions of fans, but the truth is that when my house is burning down, none of them are going to show up to help put out the fire.

And this is a very real thing. That fireman down the street saved the life of a good friend of mine once. My friend was mortally injured, bleeding to death in his yard, and the ambulance was wandering the neighborhood trying to find his house. He was going to die, but my fireman neighbor was listening to his emergency scanner at home, heard the ambulance dispatch, and realized it was someone in his own monkeysphere who was hurt. He drove over, assessed the situation, and called in the Life-flight helicopter to get my friend to the hospital. Thanks to the fireman down the road, my friend is still around and tossing shit at the other monkeys.

John Sheridan, for all his take-charge ways, wasn’t going to save my friend’s life. He couldn’t. And yet, he’s one of the reasons I can’t remember the names of my cousins’ kids. I can’t even keep track of how many of them there are. Sure, I remember a few of them, but for the most part they are faceless sea of youngsters that I know I’m supposed to remember and yet can’t.

Somehow John Sheridan made the cut, but little Maggie didn’t. (And here’s the shame of it – I’d have to go ask my mom if there even IS a little Maggie that I’m forgetting.)

I worry about this. The real social connections we have in this world make our lives very fulfilling. We can talk about happiness from career success or material enjoyment, but nothing seems to hold a candle to that personal warmth we get from the people who matter to us. And also, when the shit hits the fan, it’s those real people around us that will help clean us up and get the smell out of our clothing. How much are John Sheridan and his fake fellows costing me?

But then I think about what they are giving me. Certainly, I enjoyed all the stories, and even though I haven’t watched or read those particular stories in a while, I continue to enjoy my memories of them. But I think I get more than just that. I can go somewhere and start talking to someone I’ve never met, and if I’m lucky, he might know John Sheridan too. “Oh yeah,” he’ll say, “I know John and Delenn very well. Do you, by chance, happen to know Gaius Baltar?” I’ll nod and pull up a chair. Before long, we’re buying each other a drink and sharing common memories of mutual friends.

Suddenly, this stranger has become a fellow monkey, if just for a moment, because we both share these same fake people in our two monkeyspheres. This gives me something in common with not just 150 people but with millions of people. Maybe I’m being cold-hearted to little Maggie, but in the calculus of social engagement, I think that’s a worthwhile allocation of my monkeysphere slots.

Then again, maybe I haven’t cut myself off as much as I think. I wonder… does little Maggie know Harry Potter?

3 thoughts on “Filling our Monkeyspheres with Fake People

  1. I was rather intrigued when you mentioned The Mule. If you meant the one from the Foundation series, he’s the one character who stuck in my mind more than any other in the series. Most of the rest of the characters you mentioned are ones I know on some level.

    And writers have it worse than others, because our own characters take on lives of their own inside us. I have a few who have been with *me* for most of my life, and who have very distinct and memorable personalities, who aren’t yet part of *anyone* else’s experience. (Yet. I continue to hope that they will, someday.)

    But so far, it’s been a luxury I’ve been able to afford .. 🙂

    • Indeed, I meant The Mule from The Foundation series. I always thought that his first story (from Foundation and Empire) was the best writing Asimov did in the entire series.

Comments are closed.