Decoding the Social World: Data Science and the Unintended Consequences of Communication

Decoding the Social World: Data Science and the Unintended Consequences of Communication


In this book I tell two stories: one is a
story of change and progress and the other is a story of recurrence. The story of progress is about how our current
communication technologies improve our understanding of social life and help us decode its logic
— including the many paradoxes that we create, unaware, as we interact with each other. For instance: our individual actions often
lead to unintended consequences on a societal level that we can only uncover when we analyze
the way in which those actions are interrelated. The story of recurrence, on the other hand,
is a story of how we have been using the same metaphors, over and over, to react to different
waves of technological development. For instance, both the telegraph and the internet
have been described by commentators and observers as the lifeblood of nations. These two stories come together in the book. On the one hand, we continue to use those
same metaphors. It’s actually interesting to see how little
they have changed over the years. But on the other hand, we are now, for the
first time, in a position to understand what’s going on behind the analogies. And we can do that because of the large amounts
of data and computational tools that digital technologies have made available. One of the metaphors that we have used and
abused over the centuries encourages us to think about communication networks – like
the telegraph two centuries ago, or the internet today – as a global nervous system. And this of course suggests that societies
are like living organisms, with a brain or an operations room where all these signals
are being processed. But this metaphor also suggests that societies
are susceptible to processes of contagion, much as living organisms are. When social scientists, back in the 19th century,
first thought about phenomena like fads, or riots, or the spread of rumors they usually
employed this metaphor of contagion to get a sense of why things could diffuse or scale
up so quickly. And yet that’s all they were: they were
just metaphors or very impressionistic depictions of a reality that social scientists could
observe but not decode. Today we are much better at understanding
how communication networks mediate those contagion processes. Networks are the reason why our actions are
interrelated. And networks help us understand the chain
reactions that result in, say, massive mobilizations or that turn unknown hashtags into trending
topics in a matter of hours. Another prominent metaphor that I discuss
in the book is this idea of an invisible hand aligning individual motives with collective
outcomes that are beneficial for all involved even when individuals are not necessarily
pursuing those outcomes. And this is an interesting metaphor because
it relates to the puzzle of unintended consequences – that is, the fact that we often trigger
events with our actions that we did not intend or even envision. This paradox, or the lack of correspondence
between intentions and outcomes, that has captured the imagination of social scientists
for decades. And it’s important because it often challenges
the success of many policy interventions, for example strategies to stop the spread
of fake news, or to encourage collective action. Communication networks hold the key to understanding
why unintended effects are so pervasive, and, often, so perverse. One example that I discuss in the book, inspired
by my past research on protest mobilization and social media, is the emergence of hierarchies
in online visibility. Even though digital social movements tend
to be leaderless and horizontal, the communication structures that they form online as they try
to coordinate their actions are very hierarchical, with a minority of actors generating most
of the information. This inequality is both good and bad: it is
good because hierarchical networks are more efficient; but it is bad because they create
inequality in the distribution of visibility, even if no single actor is responsible for
the emergence of that inequality. So, overall, what the book argues is that
digital technologies, and the range of data sources and tools that they make available,
are helping us tame the power of unintended consequences – if only because we can now
understand the mechanisms that underlie this paradox so much better that we could ever
do before. At the same time, it is also true that digital
technologies are creating new challenges that have no clear precedent in previous technological
revolutions, and the book also pays attention to those, hopefully triggering as many questions
in the mind of the reader as it tries to answer, because in the end, we are just getting started
in our attempts to decode social life through the lens of digital data.

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