This is an excerpt from the draft of my upcoming book on great founder theory. Learn more here.
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. Following the protocol will lead to predictable and desirable outcomes. Breaking the protocol will lead to inaccessible websites, or, perhaps, unwanted social awkwardness. Politeness, just like HTTP, can be documented and taught.
When we talk about “social technology”, we are not referring to social media platforms like Facebook or Reddit, which are properly material technologies made possible by the right arrangements of consumer electronics, server farms, and computer networks. We mean something analogous to the idea of social engineering, a concept that came about at the end of the 19th century that refers to the intentional design of specific social arrangements and ways of operating. The Reddit platform itself is not social technology, but its use of moderators is. Facebook is not a social technology, but the expectation that you will regularly post nice pictures on Facebook for mom is. Similarly, airplanes are not social technology, but people generally agreeing to tie you to your seat if you keep trying to open the service doors during a flight is. Social and material technologies often act symbiotically, but they are functionally distinct.
It’s important to note that all except the simplest social technologies are designed. Though many of our crucial social technologies seem like natural parts of reality today, this was not always so. At some point they required intentional construction and adoption. Many social technologies we take for granted, including the very idea of having such critical systems as currency, law, and government, were born from concerted human agency. It is for this reason that we call it social technology, rather than social “norms”, or take a more broad anthropological or philosophical approach. Much like material technology, social technology is designed, adopted, and scaled. It is proceduralized and documentable.
Social technology is a tool that directs people to knowingly or unknowingly take certain actions, and in so doing it has the ability to shape an extremely broad range of human action. It can be used to reduce coordination costs between people, causing them to work together more effectively towards a goal, but it can also be used to restrict collaboration and action.
In order to properly understand social technologies, we can examine them on an individual, institutional, and societal level.
On an Individual Level
Social technology makes it possible for individuals to operate in their environment. We are social creatures, after all, and rely on fellow humans for even the basics of survival. 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 for social self-consciousness and agency. We are constantly influenced by social technology and thus are frequently unaware of it. It’s difficult to understand social technology when it is inherited or when its purpose is intentionally concealed. Perhaps the best practice to overcome this difficulty is lighthearted fieldwork.
When you operate within an institution, be it a school, an office, or something even more dreadful like a prison, take some time to carefully observe those around you. Identify common behaviors that are so universally practiced they are entirely taken for granted: papers are turned in on time, informal dress codes observed, etc. Then think: what would happen if knowledge of these norms had to be learnt from the ground up by every new student or employee, or even re-invented with the establishment of every new institution? Needless to say, it would be difficult to get anything done at all. But none of these automated social practices have existed forever, and once upon a time, they were wholly new.
Furthermore, organizing people is very powerful— if you can direct people’s actions, you will have a much greater influence over the world. Creating new social technologies changes how you and others can organize, providing not only an—at times decisive—advantage, but also a possibly very long lived legacy.
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 assembling a team to reform a city government or build spaceships that can put people on Mars, 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 already motivated to pursue these goals, 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: we are born helpless into the world and must rely on others for survival. We need shared families to raise us, a shared language to communicate, shared tribes or states to maintain a peace we can live in, and so on. If there is no social technology, and thus 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 themselves from harm.
What does this matter to us, given that we all live in societies 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. Ancient Roman architecture 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, such as diversity and freedom of thought. Scandinavia is an example of a very homogeneous society, 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.
Social technology then forms much of everything from the simplest logistics of our lives in a household to the most complex of human arrangements mediated by markets and states Below, I’ll examine a few examples of how social technology surrounds us in spheres as diverse as politics, religion and private life:
Government, which is just a group of people that society has agreed it will listen to, is social technology. It is a direct actor — its many bureaucracies and allies can organize and fund building efforts, support the logistics of an advancing army, conduct scientific research, force or forbid the movement of whole populations, and so on. Governments can further change and impose laws, and such 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.
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 section below).
Law is a particularly clear example of social technology. It can be used to regulate disputes, define responsibilities, and set expectations and proceduralized bureaucratic action. Different legal systems can promote very different kinds of behavior and, in turn, reshape society. Compare ancient Roman and ancient Chinese family and inheritance laws. In both cases, your family has significant 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. Differing incentives lead to similar laws being applied in different circumstances and different conditions. An impoverished or disgraced parent wouldn’t necessarily have the means to enforce their claims in the Roman system, for example.
In modern states we tacitly assume that government directly enforces law, but law can be enforced in other ways. In Medieval Iceland, laws were interpreted by hereditary priests, but enforcement was left to individuals; meanwhile on the continent, the Catholic Church would at times imprison, release, or protect people on its own authority, independent from the Crown. In early modern Britain and its colonies, bounties were at times employed to track down criminals, and in ancient Rome, private individuals—tax-farmers—would collect owed taxes for profit, and keep a share as compensation. 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 elements of wider society.
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.
Diplomacy is the practice of relations between sovereign states that has both formalized and customary dimensions. Rulers of a state send diplomats to represent them to the rulers of other states. This diplomatic representation is called an “embassy” and before modern times it consisted of a traveling ambassador’s entourage; today an embassy is a “permanent mission” to a foreign capital. While some of diplomacy’s rules are codified, much of diplomacy is governed by proper protocol and manners as much as by binding rules. The intricacies of diplomatic protocol can seem arcane—such as the requirement that a state hosting a foreign head of state fire its cannons 21 times in honor of the visiting foreign dignitary. This practice emerged from the days when a ship firing this many rounds was a signal of effective disarmament, but it continues today as a sign of respect and goodwill. Diplomatic protocol allows leaders from different cultures to meet on mutually-intelligible ground. It can prevent cultural differences from impeding the practical aspects of international relations, if not the substantive business of negotiation.
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.
If people know strategy, they can know whether actions are useful for the plan, and choose to take those actions. Therefore, 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.
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 into a legal construct; for example, it can be illegal to practice architecture, law, or medicine without the right degree.
Cities are one of the longest-lasting human social formations. The city of Xi’an in China has been continuously inhabited for over 3,000 years from the Bronze Age to the Nuclear Age. It has survived multiple dynasties and governing regimes. Cities often provide fertile ground for multiple different institutions over their lifespan. Rome’s empire rose and fell over a long millennium but then was replaced by the rise and—arguably—fall of the papacy, an unrelated institution, that brought Rome to its heights again in the 16th century. Cities allow increased coordination and a common market for labor and other resources. Cities also condition their inhabitants—through de facto initiation or “hazing”—towards a particular culture and outlook. This allows cities to have more shared culture than even most nations.
The institution of healthcare exists to maintain individual health in a bounded and specialized medical environment, offloading the burden of healthcare from society as a whole. This provides a legible and socially agreed-upon solution to the problem of physical health.
The collective offering of a valuable object to a higher power can have a strong effect in coordinating group behavior. Arguably, sacrifice began as a form of sacred violence, where a scapegoat would be selected by a community to act as a lightning rod for collective violence in order to prevent that violence from turning inward and destroying the group, with the victim being sanctified after the fact. We can see many examples of this historically, for example human sacrifice as demonstrated by the Carthaginians’ sacrifice of infants or the Aztecs’ sacrifice of captured prisoners, or animal sacrifice as practiced by the Ancient Greeks and the Jews before the destruction of the Second Temple. Some theorize that the modern Christian practice of taking communion—consuming the blood and body of Christ—is a sublimated form of historical sacrifice.
Ritual in the broadest sense is a way of codifying and standardizing rote human action, and in a group setting it can act as a powerful imitative coordinating mechanism. Debates have long raged over the actual social utility of ritual—see the ancient Chinese Mohists excoriating the state for wasting scarce resources on lavish funerary rites and the Confucians rejoining that such rituals, in their packaging and transmission of abstract systems of meaning, are indispensable for social order—but regardless, the intergenerational stickiness of ritual proves its undeniable importance in human affairs.
Psychotherapy is a recent social technology that places individuals in prolonged contact with therapists, usually in a one-on-one setting, in order to apply psychological methods to improve the patient’s mental health. This is usually done towards the end of helping individuals to better negotiate social life. It invites natural comparison to the benefits of the Catholic rite of confession.
The practice of giving awards and honors allows an individual, such as a king, or an institution, such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to regulate status within a society, organization, or industry. Rather than regulating all behavior by all people at all times, an award sets the bar for what is the highest status behavior or achievement and, by virtue of its public nature, allows everyone else to figure out for themselves how they should aspire to behave as well.
You might build the best product in a market, but it won’t matter if nobody knows about it. The practice of marketing is key to matching consumers and buyers to the right products and sellers in the most efficient way. Advanced marketing practices are arguably even good enough to sell consumers on products that they don’t need, or that are selling not only a product, but an ideology as well. Without marketing, it would not be possible to quickly scale a new venture and discover if it is viable or not. The tempo of innovation would be much slower.
Marriage formalizes relationships between people and prescribes roles that come with a particular set of social expectations. Historically, marriage, both monogamous and polygamous, has served as a social technology to manage many forms of human organization, from child rearing to division of labor to property law to romantic love.
Familial relations are almost always some of the most important relations in life. Being part of a family is a biological fact, but it also gives you access to a full stack of social technologies that will regulate your life from birth to death, closely tied to the biological reality.
Adoption legitimates and makes legible the entrance into a family of an additional person, usually a child, under the custody of the heads of that family. It allows the adoptee to take on the social role of child and the adopter(s) to take on the social role of parent, thus smoothing over the social distinction between an adoptive family and a biological family and allowing for the adoptive family to integrate seamlessly into external society.
Whether the contemporary practice of adopting a child, or the ancient Roman practice of adult adoption to secure succession, the trick of overruling biology with social technology is very useful.
The key power of dynasties rests in the transfer of informal ties as well as formal ones. Entering office, whether in politics or business, without the right personal connections and relying solely on the powers of the office is to be almost impotent. A child born to powerful parents can be trained from birth to follow in his or her parent’s footsteps. Families are also one of the few social technologies where social credit is transferred from person to person. A dear friendship with a person’s father or mother can easily transfer into affinity for their child. The ability to transfer affinities across generations allows families to accumulate power social capital. While there are often conflicts within powerful families—be they the Ottoman sultans or the modern House of Saud—dynasties also align the family’s incentives to a great extent. The external expectation of family loyalty—with high social costs for betrayal or defection—also reinforces cooperation.