Yesterday, I was doing a dress rehearsal for a webinar that will be live tomorrow. I was talking with Fred McClimans, Geoffrey Colon, and Alan Dickenson about the future of cloud computing and how that intersects with big data. This morning something occurred to me regarding the application of social data in the future.
Imagine that the workings of human social networks are finally figured out by crunching real data from really large social networks. And at the same time, the the deep forces of social influence are revealed, and the mathematics lurking below our interactions is cracked. And in parallel, imagine that continued research into cognitive science has led to more understanding of how social interaction is linked to brain chemistry, and for the first time, effective techniques are developed to make the sad happy, and the lonely loved.
Ok, I know, but let me finish the thought experiment.
So, imagine that researchers are able to create algorithms that can actually — with real success — influence our behaviors. Through a society-spanning combination of content marketing, social media, and targeted social network strategies, researchers are able to decrease cigarette smoking, or increase bike riding. And the unscrupulous or avaricious would be able to get people to chew one kind of gum, or watch a particular TV series.
Alright, let me add the last ‘what if’ to the scenario, although it is starting to sound like a chapter of Daniel Suarez’s Daemon. So, imagine that some global non-profit, like the Gates Foundation, builds a software system that leverages all this new-found knowledge about social influence and social cognition, and sets about changing us.
This system — let’s call it Grace — has access to the world’s major datasets, which contain millions of petabytes of social data in this hypothetical future. Grace would work surreptitiously and guardedly, applying social math to each of our private social contexts, convincing us to brush more often, to read to our kids, to help others in need. Grace would reward us at the physiological level, by convincing one person to touch another, unleashing oxytocin and building trust where none existed before. Teams would work more efficiently. Friends would make that extra effort, families would settle old differences. Politicians would reach out to their opponents to find common cause and to put aside partisan division. Warring factions in dusty far-away lands would lay down their AK-47s and make peace where there had been decades or millennia of war.
Cue the harps.
And the reason I called this system Grace is a nod to Richard Brautigan’s All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace:
I'd like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
In my version, Grace is operating behind the scenes, without our knowledge, nudging us to do good and make nice, an animatronic Jimminy Cricket, the invisible conscience we need to become more humane.
And the question is, if we could make such a thing happen, should we? There is no doubt that marketers will attempt to take our growing knowledge of social connection and neuroeconomics to try to sell baby food and sports cars. And dictators might use such mechanisms as mind control and hyper-efficient propaganda engines. But what if such tools could be used to make the world a better place?
Should we? Is it immoral to surreptitiously influence humanity, even if the result is a better place? Ultimately, the question becomes who gets to decide what better means, and so in my it-could-almost-be-a-novel scenario, it would likely be the choice of a solitary genius, as in Daemon, following personal convictions rather than some plebiscite.
What if it would only work if it was secret? What if the world could be bettered, famines averted, wars ended, climate change reversed, but only if the mechanism to do so was completely unknown to the world?
In my early morning musing, in the twilight stage between sleeping and waking, I envisioned Grace moving the world from exploitative, growth-at-all-costs hyper-capitalism toward a steady-state, sustainable economy and social compact, where we’d ramp down the population to a few billions over the next few decades, provide meaningful and interesting work rewilding the planet, building livable and beautiful cities, and growing healthy food and a smaller number of better-loved and better-fed babies.
But I was dreaming, obviously.