Social Machines

Wednesday, December 12th 2012

Social institutions are run by people, right? No, not really. As computerisation proceeds they turn into primitive information processing machines. Machines with people in them.

Social Machines, if you like.

Social Machines

Sensors and computation are increasing in power and scope. For example: congestion charges. They are made possible with sensors that can read number plates. The sensors make a new set of transactions possible. What was previously free - driving in certain areas - now costs something. As technology becomes more capable, more and more things will enter the market system.

As computation becomes more powerful, it will involve fewer and fewer people. And those people will be make decisions at abstract levels further and further away from the concrete realm.

As the Social Machines and the market system become more complex, more and more people will leave the market and the Social Machines because they are unable to understand or compete with the technology.

For instance, high frequency trades made by algorithms are taking over stock markets. They are programmed by computer scientists and mathematicians. Traditional stock brokers are leaving the market. The new decision makers are many steps removed from the businesses the stock market trades in.

Initially, this process makes a few big institutions - big Social Machines - much more powerful. (You can see this in concentration of wealth in fewer hands over the last few decades.)

But what is really happening is that more and more of life is being computed - recorded and then analysed algorithmically. And fewer and fewer people are involved in consciously deciding how that computation should work.

(I say consciously, because as sensors become more ubiquitous, machines will collect more information about what people say and do. So peoples' behaviour - in aggregate at least - will become more influential as the Social Machine's capacity to operate at high granularity increases).

So as the Social Machines increase in power, people will have Social Machines working on their behalf after a fashion. Initially those Social Machines will operate under the auspices of traditional institutions: government, corporations, and so on.

So those Social Machines will tend the absorb the structure of the institutions they gradually subsume; in this sense they perpetuate the institutions in the dematerialised world of data. Money, for instance, will remain in vestigial form for some time. So will the concept of separate organisations, nations, and so on.

But once processes are in the computed realm, the lack of concreteness means more flexibility and an increased pace of optimisation. What do the Social Machines optimise for? Initially they optimise to whatever rules the Social Machines absorbed from the institutions they subsumed, and to the hardware the Social Machines are running on.

At some point, most of the optimisation will be based on the activities of other systems in the digital realm. The cumulative effect of this will be alien to traditional human organisational structures.

In the virtual realm the evolutionary competition will be faster than in the concrete world. So most attempts to impose old institutions on the virtual realm of Social Machines will attempt bring the virtual into the concrete realm, to materialise the dematerialised. The canonical example: to impose national boundaries on the internet.

It is likely traditional power will clash with computation in this way. The urge to impose traditional systems of control on computation will be enormous. For a plutocracy, for example, the low information fungibility of capital is a Good Thing. It obscures financial shenanigans. Optimising for this will mean not optimising for things that clash with that imperative.

Another example:

"One problem with this is that publishers have divergent e-book lending policies. Macmillan and Simon & Schuster don’t allow e-book lending of their titles at all. HarperCollins provoked outrage from the library community by putting a limit of 26 “lends” on each title, apparently to mimic the shelf life of hardcopy books before they wear out."

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