Social Machine Project after COVID

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The pan­de­mic sli­gl­tly shi­fted the focus of “social machi­ne” pro­ject towards the­ore­ti­cal ana­ly­sis. This afor­ded more deta­iled defi­ni­tion of main the­mes and goals for the rama­in­der of the pro­ject. The­re are four main direc­tion in the “social machi­ne” endgame:

Blockchains as social machines

This is the expo­si­tion of the main argu­ment of the pro­ject. It is a pro­po­si­tion that block­cha­in tech­no­lo­gies are the exam­ples of “applied, expe­ri­men­tal socio­lo­gy”, the clo­sest appro­xi­ma­tion of labo­ra­to­ries social scien­ces can get, with the obvio­us pro­blem that they are not being cre­ated by socio­lo­gist or socio­lo­gy as a disci­pli­ne in general.

The major upda­te sin­ce I for­mu­la­ted this area of rese­arch at the begin­ning of the pro­ject is the the addi­tion of the deta­iled descrip­tion of how the con­struc­tion of block­cha­in social machi­ne actu­al­ly looks like. I hum­bly call this pro­cess “digi­tal cap­tu­re of social onto­lo­gy”. It is a fra­me­work of how “pri­mi­ti­ves” of social scien­ces (in case of block­cha­in – “con­sen­sus” and rela­ted con­cepts) are being embo­died in and enac­ted by modern technology.

It seems like this fra­me­work can be used to descri­be other social machi­nes as well – name­ly “social networ­king” and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gen­ce, as it enga­ges more uni­ver­sal pro­blem of what actu­al­ly digi­ta­li­sa­tion is. To answers this question requ­ires get­ting acqu­ain­ted with con­fu­sing as much as inte­re­sting are­as of phi­lo­so­phy of com­pu­ta­tion, meta­phy­sic and engi­ne­ering, and so the deta­iled descrip­tion of what “digi­tal cap­tu­re of social onto­lo­gy is” (espe­cial­ly in the are­as of social networ­king and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gen­ce) will pro­ba­bly be sub­ject of sepa­ra­ra­te pro­ject. The actu­al paper on block­cha­ins never­the­less is sha­ping up to inc­lu­de a deta­iled descrip­tion of what the “cap­tu­re” in case of block­cha­ins looks like.

The niche-regime dynamics of blockchain transition

One of the main rese­arch are­as I’ve defi­ned at the very begin­ning is the pro­cess of “mutu­al acco­mo­da­tion” of block­cha­in eco­sys­tem and the the world of lega­cy insti­tu­tions. It appe­ars the­re is a the­ore­ti­cal fra­me­work descri­bing such pro­ces­ses alre­ady esta­bli­shed in social scien­ces. It is cal­led “Trans­i­tion stu­dies”, and deals with plot­ting the tra­jec­to­ries of inno­va­tions in the pro­sen­ce of two for­ces: the disrup­ti­ve chan­ge the “inno­va­ti­vve niche” intro­du­ces and the iner­tia and insti­tu­tio­nal power of exi­sting social and tech­no­lo­gi­cal “regi­me”.

The fra­me­work con­si­ders a num­ber of sce­na­rios of reso­lu­tions of such con­flicts, for exam­ple revo­lu­tio­na­ry, disrup­ti­ve over­th­row of the exi­sting regi­me, or quiet assi­mi­la­tion of inno­va­ti­ve ide­as into esta­bli­shed sys­tems. This the­ore­ti­cal appro­ach is applied to pro­ces­ses such as the “gre­en trans­i­tion”, but it is obvio­usly per­fect tool for describ­tion what is cur­ren­tly going on with the adop­tion of block­cha­in tech­no­lo­gies, espe­cial­ly in its insti­tu­tio­nal and regu­la­to­ry aspect, with sta­tes and supra-natio­nal orga­ni­sa­tions scram­bling to under­stand this new tech­nol­gy and figu­re out how it fits (or thre­tens) the way they ope­ra­te, whi­le block­cha­in eco­sys­tem keeps evo­lving at bre­ath­ta­king pace. This pro­cess for sure dese­rves a deta­iled ana­ly­sis and desctiption.

The limits of algorithmical governance

Ano­ther well defi­ned and inte­re­sting area has to do with the last sta­ge of “digi­tal cap­tu­re”, when the con­cepts we’ve cap­tu­red and revi­ved in digi­tal realm (such as “con­sen­sus”) are map­ped back onto ana­log realm of social world. Do they still work as inten­ded, or do they distort the reali­ty they are applied to? (aga­in, social networks/media and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gen­ce come to mind).

The block­cha­in for­mu­la­tion of this pro­blem would be: can social coor­di­na­tio­in sys­tems based exc­lu­si­ve­ly on (digi­tal­ly media­ted) incen­ti­vi­sa­tions be sta­ble and thri­ve? Eco­no­mist Samu­el Bow­les, cla­ims that, in gene­ral, sys­tems rely­ing sole­ly on gaming the human vices, try­ing to make them work for col­lec­ti­ve good, are fun­da­men­tal­ly fla­wed. The indi­vi­du­als, citi­zens, mem­bers of socie­ty, need to be guided by genu­ine valu­es, not just incen­ti­ves, in order to main­ta­ined a sta­ble sys­tem. Block­cha­in eco­sys­tems alre­dy have a histo­ry of the­ir incen­ti­ve sys­tems mis­be­ha­ving, so it would be inte­re­sting to see how Bow­les argu­ment fits here.

Howe­ver, even more impor­tan­tly, the­re is a cul­tu­ral lay­er of block­cha­in eco­sys­tem alre­ady in pla­ce which seems to serve as an immu­ne sys­tem aga­inst mali­cio­us ano­ma­lies of on-cha­in eco­no­mics of incen­ti­ves, a cor­rec­ti­ve mecha­nism based on valu­es of the cryp­to-spa­ce. The task here, then, would be, to descri­be the inter­fa­ce betwe­en tho­se two sub-sys­tems (incen­ti­ve- and value-based), and find out how can they be model­led as one sys­te­mic entity.

The social analysis of on-chain data

The last point of inte­rest has to do with the abo­un­dan­ce of block­cha­in data – open, mostly trans­pa­rent, mostly free. The pro­blem with this data seems to be that most of it is eco­no­mic in natu­re, it descri­bes trans­ac­tions, the exa­cu­tion of con­tracts. In addi­tion, the iden­ti­ties are sudo­no­mo­us, the adres­ses do not reflect indi­vi­du­als but acco­unts that can be sha­red betwe­en “real world” enti­ties or can be one of many in posse­sion of a sin­gu­lar indi­viu­al. So whi­le the eco­no­mic ana­ly­st­sts have lots of fun with this kind of data, it is a bit ackward to try to use block­cha­in data for social ana­ly­sis. The data of DAOs seems to be pro­mi­sing ave­nue of social data ana­ly­tics on block­cha­ins and the­re are alre­ady servi­ces pro­vi­ding some aggre­aga­tions and idi­ces in this area.

The­re is a gene­ral metho­do­lo­gi­cal question to be answe­red, howe­ver here. What is it that we see in block­cha­ins. If we were to go hard­co­re social machi­ne (social con­struc­tion) way, we would say that, well, the eco­no­mic data, the trans­ac­tions and con­tract exe­cu­tions, hoar­ding of NFTs, majo­ri­ty voting, is all the­re is, the enti­re­ty of social life enac­ted by social machi­ne. But may­be the­re is some­thing more in this data, some hid­den social dimen­sion, that needs to be bro­ught up. Or may­be some impor­tant dimen­sion of social life of block­cha­in sys­tems is mis­sing from ever-lasting led­ger data and needs to be acqu­ired else­whe­re and per­haps mer­ge with the tech­ni­cal and eco­no­mic data land­sca­pe for more com­ple­te outlo­ok. Cer­ta­in­ly, the the­sis of “block­cha­in cul­tu­ral incom­ple­te­ness” would sup­port this way of thinking.

Any­ways, the­se questions can be answe­red only by expe­ri­man­ta­tion with what kind of infor­ma­tion can be extrac­ted from cha­in data, what kind of meaning can be deri­ved from it, how can it be signi­fi­cant in the con­text of con­cre­te cul­tu­res and com­mu­ni­ties living off- and on block­cha­ins. This would be the clo­ses to social machi­ne tin­ke­ring the “Social machi­ne” pro­ject would actu­al­ly get.

So then, the­se are the four poten­tial out­put are­as of the pro­ject. The work on two first are advan­ced, whi­le the last ones are still in the ide­ation pha­ses; the­se might not be reali­zed in the time left in the pro­ject, but if so, they will be deve­lo­ped in other contexts.

Pro­ject author: Łukasz Jonak

Pro­ject fun­ded by the „Dia­lo­gue” pro­gram of the Mini­stry of Scien­ce and Higher Education

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