Complexity science, and especially the dream to deeply understand social systems and build concrete predictive models (such as Asimov’s “psychohistory”), raise some slippery ethical questions. If we do develop this area of science and technology, allowing us to predict, and consequently also to purposefully leverage and manipulate our society, who gets to be at the controls? Democracy can no longer work, even conceptually, because mass opinions become merely a reflection of these control algorithms. Though individual and oligarchical leadership becomes similarly subject to such controls — though perhaps with larger uncertainty, being less predictable as per law of large numbers. Whoever is at the controls is also being controlled by the very same system — creating a feedback loop, which is not so different from how our society is already functioning.

Let’s unpack this a bit. First let’s admit that we already are, and always have been, strongly influenced by external factors. Our opinions are some fusion of the cultural trends, mass-media influencers, our family upbringing, all filtered through some inherent (genetic?) predisposition to care more about some issues than others. If we really try to dig deep, it becomes quite hard to find anything that can really be identified as “my true individual opinion.” This is similarly true of the president’s opinions, as well as that of any dictator. In this sense, there can never be some “external independent free will that controls or influences the society” — such a will is always a product of that same society, thus somehow reflecting its needs and values.

One could argue that historically, this process of formation of individuals’ opinions, and the subsequence exercise of the formed will, happens somehow “naturally” and is not consciously manipulated by anyone. Developing a predictive science that allows to engineer social behaviors would force us to make conscious choices as to how we use it. This basically amounts to someone having to take responsibility for such choices, which are presently left up to chance. And of course, with responsibility come all sorts of moral and ethical questions of how such choices “should be” made (cf. “with great power comes great responsibility”).

One specific point that bothers me is that all such reasoning comes from within our current paradigm of viewing the world: that of competition for scarce resources. From such perspective, this technology is indeed seen as a powerful tool to manipulate societies for personal gain, and a weapon to compete with other rulers. This view is not surprising, as manipulating each other is deeply embedded in our daily practice. Indeed, even when we smile at strangers on the street, most times we do it with the intention to manipulate them into liking us, in the hope of safeguarding us from possible aggression.

However, the development of a scientific understanding of social behaviors and consequences may start to shift this deeply ingrained paradigm itself. We may realize, with precise mathematical certainty, that the world is not a zero-sum game: rather than competing for a scarce resource, we can cooperate to create more of it. This way, using such technology of social engineering for maximizing personal gains may naturally lead to strategies that contribute to the common good as a side-effect. We could thus see the competition of any kind becoming fundamentally and objectively counter-productive, both for individuals and for nations.

Just as our modern social norms teach us to maximize personal gains, the ability to manipulate these norms may force us to ask what it is that we really want to “maximize.” Lacking an externally-imposed objective, we would have to face the hard problem of identifying our deeper personal motives to be alive. Thus, curiously, this power for control may guide us away from trying to control each other entirely—showing us that the true challenge lies in identifying meaningful control objectives. What would you want, if you could have anything? Facing up to that challenge, we may discover that it is honesty and transparency, rather than manipulation, that are the only tools effective at penetrating our own deepest desires. 

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:04 PM

I recommend reading The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. The book explores pretty much this idea! I think it should be required reading.

In the traditional view a person is free. He is autonomous in the sense that his behavior is uncaused.

That view, together with its associated practices, must be re-examined when a scientific analysis reveals unexpected controlling relations between behavior and environment.  By questioning the control exercised by autonomous man and demonstrating the control exercised by the environment, a science of behavior also seems to question dignity or worth.  

A person is responsible for his behavior, not only in the sense that he may be justly blamed or punished when he behaves badly, but also in the sense that he is to be given credit and admired for his achievements.  

A scientific analysis shifts the credit as well as the blame to the environment, and traditional practices can then no longer be justified.  (These are sweeping changes, and those who are committed to traditional theories and practices naturally resist them.)

As the emphasis shifts to the environment, the individual seems to be exposed to a new kind of danger: who is to construct the controlling environment, and to what end?  

Autonomous man presumably controls himself in accordance with a built-in set of values; he works for what he finds "good".  But what will the putative controller find "good", and will it be good for those he controls?

-- B.F. Skinner, 1971


You might enjoy this portion of a video I made about the videogame The Witness, where I analyze the above quote in the context of themes of free will and how we should think about ideally structuring society, knowing about the systems of social control and prediction that you describe.  In the portion of the video I linked, I first discuss a contrasting quote by Douglas Hofstadter, then I play the above Skinner quote, and then I try to analyze the conflict between an individual-centered versus top-down social-theory-centered view of the world.  But ultimately, there must be a way of merging both views, since we know that societal influences are powerful but we also know that individuals are capable of making thoughtful choices based on reasoned deliberation and moral principles.