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Engineering societies in the digital age

By

Skip Derra

Humans for centuries have been trying to “engineer” better societies, but with widespread use of digital technology and social media we may actually be on the cusp of doing just that, suggests Manfred Laubichler, an Arizona State University President’s Professor and Jessica Flack of the Santa Fe Institute. They recently published “Engineered Societies” in the Christian Science Monitor that discusses the role of digital technology in engineered societies.

In the piece, the two say that with its vast ability to monitor social interactions of people, all the way down to the individual’s level, and to correlate that data up to larger patterns of behavior, digital technologies could be a boon to engineering better societies. And the process has begun.

“Google and Facebook are storehouses of detailed data on the minutia of human behavior, and they certainly are experimenting with new kinds of social engineering, for better or for worse,” the two write. “In a controversial 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists, in collaboration with Facebook, manipulated user feeds to study how negative and positive emotion spreads over social networks. In 2012, in a study published in the journal Nature, Facebook studied the effect of its political mobilization messages on real-world voting.”

What is now needed is the ability to infer results from these huge amounts of data. With modern techniques of machine learning approaching this level, what will be needed is an understanding of what the “regularities” in the data are saying.

“With an understanding of these regularities in hand, we will be in a position to infer the rules and strategies that humans use to guide their decision-making, and with this information build testable, predictive simulations of social outcomes at the societal level,” they state.