Sunday, October 28, 2012

A New Kind of Social Science for the 21st Century

This is the title of an interview on the Edge web site with Nicholas Christakis, a “Physician and Social Scientists” at Harvard. He hails the “biological hurricane approaching the social sciences” and “the era of computational social science.” He believes that by pooling all the relevant data “we” (or, rather, clear-sighted scientists like him) will soon achieve a clear understanding of previously murky aspects of human behavior – for example, of how “humans aggregate to form collective entities.” These new causal models will then allow for effective “interventions” at different societal levels.

To illustrate this new approach, Christakis points to a study he and others did on the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer population spread thinly on the Kenyan savannah. They created “a kind of Facebook for the Hadza” mapping the totality of their social connections. The result was quite surprising. As it it turned out, modern telecommunications and urbanization have absolutely no effect on the “structure of human social networks.“ In Christakis’s words, “Hadza social networks look just like ours. In every kind of way we could study these networks, mathematically, they didn't differ from ours.

Now you may think that there must be noteworthy differences between the social networks pervading a hunter-gatherer community and a modern society – even if these have no clear mathematical manifestation or fail the common test for statistical “significance.” This would only demonstrate that you are a semi-retarded reactionary calling out for some kind of cognitive intervention.

I have to say, though, Prof. Christakis and others of his ilk (for example, David Bornstein, the former systems analysts who recently proclaimed on his New-York-Times-hosted blog the coming of a new “age of enlightenment” in efforts to find “fixes” for all sorts of social problems) remind me of a different kind of “engineers of the human soul” – the Soviet central planners interviewed in Adam Curtis’s documentary, Pandora’s Box. Who knows, iff those undeniably intelligent cadres had had at their fingertips all that computational power back in the 1980s, the Soviet Union might have survived and prospered? This question is now moot, but it’s curious that the same intellectual species has remained at the center of Curtis’s oeuvre – up to and including his All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.