Although people are relatively aware of the material technology that powers their lives, they are less aware of the non-material technology that influences them — namely, social technology. Just as HTTP is the operating protocol for the web, politeness is the operating protocol for our social interactions.
When people do talk about social technology, they are frequently referring to social software, like Reddit. In this essay we take social technology to mean social engineering, a meaning that came about at the end of the 19th century. So: Reddit itself is not social technology, but the use of moderators is. Similarly, rockets are not social technology, but people agreeing to throw you out of the rocket if you keep trying to open windows is social technology.
Social technology works by convincing people to knowingly or unknowingly take certain actions, and by directing people’s actions, it reduces coordination costs between people, causing them to work together more effectively towards a goal.
Let’s understand the impact and importance of social technology on an individual, institutional, and societal level.
On an Individual Level
Social technology makes it easier for individuals to operate in their environment. If there are high coordination costs, everything in life becomes harder. What would life be like, for example, if you couldn’t trust that people would follow through on contracts? What would life be like if there were no clear consequences for causing physical harm to others? Without coordination mechanisms to enforce these things, there are substantial psychological and logistical costs for individuals.
It is important to notice the existence of social technology and understand the ways it benefits yet controls you and other individuals — awareness of how you are being influenced is a prerequisite to choosing not to be influenced in that way. Admittedly, this can be hard; we are constantly influenced by social technology and thus are frequently unaware of it. It’s also hard to understand social technology in certain circumstances, e.g. when it is inherited or when its purpose is intentionally concealed.
Furthermore, it is powerful to be able to create social technology — if you can direct people’s actions, you will have a much greater influence over the world.
On an Institutional Level
Social technology makes it easier to scale institutions. The more advanced your social technology, and the more you can reduce coordination costs, the more effective your institution becomes. If you’re building a purpose-driven institution (that is, an institution that isn’t effectively a social club), then you will need advanced social technology to actually get your collaborators to hit the goal. Consider this: if you’re building a team to save the world, should you motivate them by paying them lots of money and penalizing them if they don’t show up? Or should you develop ways to find people who are intrinsically motivated to save the world, and equip them with the skills they need to figure out what to do? Which more effectively gets people to work towards the goal?
On a Societal Level
Social technology is required for society to exist: the default state of society is violence, not peace. If there is no social technology, if there is no coordination whatsoever, you will never know what to expect from others, and therefore must protect yourself — sometimes by hurting others. A society without any social technology is a society where institutions do not exist, where groups do not exist, where family does not exist. A society without social technology is a society where the only possible accomplishments are individual accomplishments, bounded by the psychological and logistical costs of the individual protecting him- or herself from harm. What does this matter to us, given that we all live in society, regulated by social technology? It matters because it renders certain criticisms invalid. For example, it does not make sense to say that certain norms in the Middle East, which may appear backwards to us, are destroying a peaceful default state. After all, the default state is not peaceful. Instead, it makes sense to understand these norms as very expensive ways of dealing with real problems — problems that we may not have to deal with because we live in a society where there is more, or more effective, social technology in place. It means that when we notice someone exhibiting extremely costly social behavior, we should ask: what coordination costs does this help to reduce?
We should be aware of the symbiotic relationship between social and material technology. That is, the failure of social technology can cause material technology to fail, and vice versa. This is because if the social technology fails, causing people to fail to coordinate, then people might not be able to coordinate effectively enough to produce material technology. The failure of social technology can cause technological dark ages. Rome is an example of this. Long story short: the Roman state lost tax revenue; large scale construction ceased; architecture of this kind fell out of use; engineers became worse and thus technological knowledge (e.g. how to build an arch) was lost.
It’s important to note that social technology comes with costs. In the process of building coordination mechanisms, you can also accidentally or intentionally reduce other things, like diversity and freedom of thought. Scandinavia, for example, is extremely homogenous, and this is in part because of the social technology that is employed there, such as the Law of Jante, a set of norms discouraging individual achievement and non-conformity.
If people know strategy, they can know whether actions are useful for the plan, and choose to take those actions. So, teaching people particular strategies can reduce coordination costs. We might expect, for example, that a country that teaches its people effective military and business strategy will out-compete other countries militarily and economically.
Political theory constitutes the engineering principles used to create government. So, political theory is social technology that allows people to build, monitor, and fix government — and organizations that function similarly (there is a thin line between creating countries and creating companies). Political theory can also function as an ideology; see below.
Government, which is just a group of people that society has agreed it will listen to, is social technology. It is a direct actor — it can change laws, and laws directly change society. It is also an indirect actor whose reach goes beyond laws. It can make public statements about what is or is not desirable; it can create spinoff institutions and invest directly into ventures. Government can grant legitimacy to ad hoc actions. It can also just act in illegal ways.
Law is a particularly clear example of social technology. Different legal systems can promote very different kinds of behavior. Take Roman versus Chinese laws. In both cases, your family has large rights over you. However, under the Roman system parents have to enforce those laws themselves, and under the Chinese system the courts help parents enforce them. This leads to differing incentives, and thus differing behavior. Law can be enforced in different ways. Under institutionalized codes of law, laws are enforced via punishment by the central institution. Under distributed codes of law, laws are enforced via punishment by wider society.
Ideology can take different forms — religion, social movement, political theory. If people believe an ideology, it will shape their actions. If a religion dictates that families have to read the word of God for themselves, for example, then adherents to that religion will have to learn how to read. In this way ideologies have notable effects on society, whether they are true or not. Max Weber notes that Protestant societies have higher literacy rates than Catholic ones.
Social norms are an often invisible form of social technology. It is a result of social norms that we wear clothing in public, wash our hands, and spend time with family. It is a result of social norms that we have certain expectations around what our work/life breakdown should be, and how members of each social class should act. Even the notion of being professional, or professionalism, is a social norm.
Education in the broad sense (i.e. state-sponsored systems and otherwise) is social technology. By delivering knowledge to other people, you can reduce coordination costs, or alter people’s value systems, which then reduces coordination costs.
Credentials are artificial markings that allow people to identify experts and sort others. An example of this is a college degree. A degree is something that allows you to get a job where you otherwise couldn’t have gotten hired. It is a social construct that is sometimes converted to a legal construct; for example, it can be illegal to practice architecture, law, or medicine without the right degree.