Like many other change agents, I celebrated new social technologies as vehicles of change. We now see the unintended consequences of these changes. The challenge for their advocates is what to do next.
As an economics student, I was fascinated by unintended consequences. So many policy decisions in government and business achieve differing or even opposite outcomes because they fail to account for systemic effects. For example, replace a community managed fisheries licensing regime with a national annual auction process for tradeable licences in an effort to make resource use more equitable and discover that your newly auctioned licences have become part of a portfolio of financial assets, the livelihood of traditional fishing communities is more precarious and the new asset owners have incentives to overfish the resource. Transactional solutions don’t always capture the richness of relationships and systems.
The Hopes for Social Technology
The hopes for social technology were that it would give individuals a voice and connection. That hope led to an assumption that making the world smaller and more connected would increase learning, understanding and community. Others hope that these tools would enable the voiceless and the powerless to make change. In Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Albert O Hirschman had described the potential value of voice inside systems as an alternative to the traditional economic alternatives of exit or loyalty.
From a transactional perspective, these goals have been largely met. Everyone has the ability to have a voice. Global connection is far easier. Information flows are faster. Change has happened by people leveraging these new platforms to connect, organise and advocate.
Unintended Consequences of Economic and Social Systems
This transactional analysis of interactions on a platform assumed a neutral role of the platform itself. When the platform has algorithms and an economic model to sustain, then the platform grows power to shape outcomes to its needs. The platform is not neutral as it is seeking to grow and make money. Transactions occur in the domain of and the influence of platform capitalists. When the platform connects the planet and generates huge revenues, the platform is a power of its own. When voice is controlled, the only tool left is exit, leaving you voiceless.
Human social systems also play a role. Human actors are not neutral economic bots. If everyone has a voice, then there is chatter. With chatter people need filters and social proof becomes an easy way to sort through the chatter. Next thing we know we have power law curves of influence with individuals running away with followership because they are in front. The quest for followership and a way to buy into this social proof system promotes a race to the bottom in the battle for attention. Drama, conflict and hacking traditional channels of attention like the media to build followership becomes the main game.
Connecting everyone means connecting everyone. The traditional arbiters lose their power over discussion and debate contributing to an erosion of trust. Rumours and falsehoods circulate as facts in communities susceptible to their comfort. Connecting everyone also means giving voice to those intent on hurting, harming and humiliating others. Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’ holds, but the arc of the troll is short and it bends towards injustice. Long term change becomes threatened by short term human concerns like fear, pain, self-interest and uncertainty. Instead of drawing individuals out into the world, social interaction increasingly feels like it has become an industry of narcissism, narrow communities and inward-looking discussion. The bubble replaces the globe.
In face of these unintended outcomes, it is no surprise that hope crashes into negativity and despair. Some partisans are now arguing to abandon hope and adopt the tools of those abusing the systems.
Return to the Hope
Changing systems is not impossible. However, transactional solutions won’t be enough. You can’t wish influence, fame-hunters or trolls away with a feature change or an algorithm tweak. Each new transaction change likely leads to new unintended consequences. The time frame won’t be short as we need to learn again into that ‘long arc’.
To create this change, we need to remember the principal issues are issues in human systems. We will need to use all our tools of human and social influence to create change. That includes both the good natured tools of love and the tools of power, as Adam Kahane’s Power and Love reminds us.
Exit from the worst behaved platforms and communities is one part of the puzzle. We will also need a greater focus on community norms. Violation of community norms will need enduring consequences. Shame, ostracism, boycott and exclusion are tools that will be of growing force. Loss of authority and influence is a consequence that will eventually restrain the economic and social returns of misbehaviour. We need a little order to contribute to change for the better. In a game of no rules, the lowest common denominators will win.
We may also need to continue to foster and scale experiments in new better ways. We cannot assume that current systems will lead the changes themselves.
Over the weekend, I saw a letter E.B White wrote in 1973 , a time of much social, economic and political turmoil, reminding us to hold our hope and keep working. That letter reminds us that
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness…
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
Edmund Burke is claimed to have said that ‘the only thing necessary for evil triumph is for good men to do nothing’. Burke’s era is different to ours, but the essence of his and EB White’s advice holds true, our systems will not get better unless men and women engage with them and seek to create change for the better. That will not be by applying one quick fix, but by creating an ongoing and growing community of action and change.