SocietalCode: Curated #0
Hi there, I’ll take this special first edition to explain what this newsletter will be, and what the overall SocietalCode project is. Subsequent editions will get into our regular programming.
What Is SocietalCode: Curated?
Goal: to be the only resource one needs in order to stay on top of how technology is affecting society. I write this in order to give back to the community and do my best to support everyone’s efforts to improve the world.
Format: a weekly newsletter containing a concise, curated collection of links to the best news, analyses, resources, etc. Intentionally presented with little analysis, it’s meant as a curated feed rather than my personal thoughts (though of course, I take editorial license in determining what is important and what is not). I already do this research for my own benefit, this newsletter simply passes along the highest signal content that comes up in my personal feed.
What Is SocietalCode in General?
Put succinctly, SocietalCode is a project to bring more light to how technology affects society and how we can use technology to improve society. Underneath the SocietalCode umbrella, I have a few different ideas for how to do this. This newsletter, Curated, is the first.
“Society”, “technology”, “affects”, etc. are all such overloaded terms, though, so let me use a few more words:
When I was a kid growing up in Boston, one of my favorite places was the Museum of Science. It’s a sprawling building built right across the Charles River with hundreds of exhibits. As a kid it felt like a huge playground that just happened to feature live animals, a life-size Apollo space module, a five-story-tall Omni theater, a hangar-sized Van de Graaf generator, hundreds and hundreds of interactive exhibits; I even got to meet real astronauts at the Q&A events they hosted– but I digress.
Whenever I arrived I’d skip all of that though, and head straight for a dark corner of the Blue Wing on the second floor. There, there was a wall of screens with a handful of command consoles facing the wall. On the wall, the screens showed a live simulation of a fish tank with a few different types of fish swimming around; each of the consoles facing the wall displayed a single specimen of a single type of fish.
Whoever sat down at one of these consoles controlled one of the types of fish. Not through direct commands, but through changing basic properties of the individual. How fast or slow would I make them? How timid or aggressive? Would they try to swim close to each other or far away? And on and on.
These small, simple changes to the behavior of the individual created huge changes on the wall in front of me. I remember watching the dread when another kid would create an apex predator of a model, and I had to watch my population reduce to a few fish swimming in the corner of the wall. Yet if I then figured out the right adaptations for my species’ individual behavior, the wall would fill back up triumphantly with my little guys.
Decades later, emergent systems still fascinate me. There’s a beauty to the whole concept, but what really thrills me is the same thing that grabbed me years ago in the Museum: no matter how dire, or how large the problem, the solution may be the slightest tweak at the smallest scale, and then the system roars back to prosperity, like magic.
Human society has always been an emergent system, of course, but there weren’t many opportunities for customization. We had whatever social behaviors we had, and it would take a few million years of evolution to meaningfully change anything.
It’s only the last 5,000 years or so are when things started to get interesting. All of a sudden we had technology that could augment those social behaviors. We developed writing, and in the blink of an eye we could now communicate omnipotently through time and space, simply by sending a letter. We can think more complicated thoughts than whatever we can hold in our heads at a single time. Then we developed the printing press; now one could directly speak to millions. Then the telegraph. Then the telephone. Then the television, the internet, the cellphone, the smartphone, video calls, virtual reality, and hundreds more inventions I don’t have room to list. The core of human behavior now drips wires and glows with electricity.
And as we adopt these technologies, our slight changes in individual behavioral create tectonic shifts in societal behavior. Horrible, terrifying, beautiful, inspiring shifts. Rather than passive observers watching the wall of screens, we are now, intentionally or not, manning the console and tweaking our own behavior. All we have to do is be careful, be intentional, and be smart with how we use technology to augment our behavior. If we can only use it to empower the better angels of our nature, then we will bring about a better world.
That’s why I sat down to write. As technology has grown more and more advanced, it has become harder and harder to predict its societal implications. The engineers developing the networking protocols that gave rise to the internet were not sociologists considering the resulting effects, nor are the sociologists of today writing the social network algorithms of tomorrow. I hope to do my part to bridge this gap by using my technical background to communicate the real, objective behavior of modern technology from the perspective of emergent behavior and how social change works at scale.
Above all, I’m not interested in cheap criticism, rambling philosophy, and despairing pessimism. Once we’re aware of the problem, there’s nothing else to do but solve it. Once we have an idea, there’s nothing to do but experiment and test it. And if we’re looking out at the future, the only rational thing to do is hold hope. Whatever content I make will follow these principles.
With regard to what specific topics I will cover, here is at least a sample of what’s been on my mind lately:
What will be the social impact of information-centric networking, a networking architecture currently in development that will eventually become as ubiquitous as the connection-centric architecture that the modern internet is based around.
How do organizations of people intentionally change their overall group behavior? E.g. the intentional “offset” initiatives in the 1970s and 2010s that successfully, rapidly changed the behavior of the sprawling US Department of Defense.
What social tendencies do different social media algorithms/designs amplify?
How do our natural instincts of trust and reputation work in digital spaces where identities are ephemeral if not entirely nonexistent?
I would love to expand on these further with specifics, but I have to stop myself here. If you too are interested in learning more about topics like this, excellent! Everything else I’ll produce for this project will be meant to explore (and hopefully answer) these questions and others like them.
Back to the real world; what’s next?
Follow this newsletter to get a feed of the best new information I find from the intersection of technology and society.
Keep an eye out for original content and further developments. I have plans to launch some other SocietalCode sub-projects with original content. There’s much more of this space that ought to be explored further.