Old Social Technology

I have often said that our current level of social technology is like that of medicine before the mechanisms of disease and the need for sterility were understood.   We now have medical terms like microorganisms and sterile fields which by themselves speak volumes and by themselves could have changed the course of medical history.   To get society out of the 18th century it might be helpful to have similarly provocative terms.   The term social technology is itself one such expression.  Others are below.  For some of them, see Wikipedia.


There is now a conspicuous increase in the use of the term Social Technology. Often this refers to what can be called Social Hardware, such as smartphones, but sometimes it is used to mean Social Software. An example of the latter is Facebook, which describes itself as a Social Utility.


One use of the term Social Technology can be traced from the RAND Corporation’s Delphi Project of about 1959, principal researcher Olaf Helmer, through the 1964 book Social Technology by Helmer and others. As I have explained elsewhere, the Delphi Method and the related techniques written up in Helmer’s book are badly flawed since they neglected the key issue of error-covariance. There is absolutely no doubt of this whatsoever. They had a chance to get it right, and they blew it. Considering the amount of mathematical expertise available to them, this is astounding and rather inexcusable.


I suppose I could trace my own use of the term Social Technology back to theirs, but I don’t. There certainly were some influences, though. I read and Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, which mentions the Delphi Method, and enjoyed John Brunner’s very prescient The Shockwave Rider (which first talked about the kind of malware we call worms and was the first to describe someone like a modern computer hacker) – in that book Brunner describes Delphi pools, where people bet on a future event, the accuracy of the result depending on the pool size. This, by the way, is the basis for the RAND Corporation’s controversial Policy Analysis Market, later canceled.


Behind Brunner’s idea of a larger pool of people making a better choice is a grain of truth, since with a large number of people their error-covariances may tend to cancel each other out — but, only if independent. That was his mistake. If this voting was entirely private, it might have a chance, but if the public, people influence each other too much.

It is possible to skip one step and say that my own discussion of Social Technology is based on this since I did make use of decision theory and did (correctly) write about error-covariance, but two things should be noted: first, that I was less interested in the actual decision making than in the possible social relationships between people with minimal error-covariance. An early hypothesis of mine: Two people who tend to make very different mistakes are compatible as individuals – interpersonal compatibility is inversely proportional to error-covariance.  This may or may not be true, a great deal of empirical research would be needed to verify it.   If true, it would simplify things, but the basic idea involved using compatibility in the organization of society, which does not depend on the hypothesis.


The second thing to note is the skipped step. I was interested in social technology to do something like network optimization on the social network before I ever realized that decision theory and something like the Delphi Method were at all relevant. I briefly called it Social Network Optimization, shudder, then quickly realized that this sounded too much like social engineering. Nobody wants to be “optimized” or live in a socially engineered world. We do want tools to help us improve our own lives. As I have written many times, such tools are important but can either improve society as a whole or make it worse. Good or bad social technology. What I am seeking is not only effective but good social technology in that sense. I see it coming.


The more that is written about social technology in general, the more easily it will be to point out how it can be bad or good. I often use the term Social Environment. That is indeed what each individual wants, to improve his or her social environment, finding compatible people, jobs, and so on. The push for good social technology is then just another form of environmentalism. To want a powerful car is OK, but to disregard how much it pollutes the atmosphere is wrong. There is a social atmosphere, a social environment, which can not only be polluted but almost destroyed.  For example,  I blame terrible social technology for wars and even for the Mutually Assured Destruction of the Cold War.   We could never have gotten into that mess if we had good social technology.    But that is an argument for another day.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published.