Psychology Magazine

A Debate Over Stewardship of Global Collective Behavior

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds
In this post I'm going to pass on the abstract of a PNAS perspective piece by Bak-Coleman et al., a critique by Cheong and Jones and a reply to the critique by Bak-Coleman and Bergstrom. First the Bak-Coleman et al. abstract:
Collective behavior provides a framework for understanding how the actions and properties of groups emerge from the way individuals generate and share information. In humans, information flows were initially shaped by natural selection yet are increasingly structured by emerging communication technologies. Our larger, more complex social networks now transfer high-fidelity information over vast distances at low cost. The digital age and the rise of social media have accelerated changes to our social systems, with poorly understood functional consequences. This gap in our knowledge represents a principal challenge to scientific progress, democracy, and actions to address global crises. We argue that the study of collective behavior must rise to a “crisis discipline” just as medicine, conservation, and climate science have, with a focus on providing actionable insight to policymakers and regulators for the stewardship of social systems.
The critique by Cheong and Jones:
In vivid detail, Bak-Coleman et al. describe explosively multiplicative global pathologies of scale posing existential risk to humanity. They argue that the study of collective behavior in the age of digital social media must rise to a “crisis discipline” dedicated to averting global ruin through the adaptive manipulation of social dynamics and the emergent phenomenon of collective behavior. Their proposed remedy is a massive global, multidisciplinary coalition of scientific experts to discover how the “dispersed networks” of digital media can be expertly manipulated through “urgent, evidence-based research” to “steward” social dynamics into “rapid and effective collective behavioral responses,” analogous to “providing regulators with information” to guide the stewardship of ecosystems. They picture the enlightened harnessing of yet-to-be-discovered scale-dependent rules of internet-age social dynamics as a route to fostering the emergent phenomenon of adaptive swarm intelligence.
We wish to issue an urgent warning of our own: Responding to the self-evident fulminant, rampaging pathologies of scale ravaging the planet with yet another pathology of scale will, at best, be ineffective and, at worst, counterproductive. It is the same thing that got us here. The complex international coalition they propose would be like forming a new, ultramodern weather bureau to furnish consensus recommendations to policy makers while a megahurricane is already making landfall. This conjures images of foot dragging, floor fights, and consensus building while looking for actionable “mechanistic insight” into social dynamics on the deck of the Titanic. After lucidly spotlighting the urgent scale-dependent mechanistic nature of the crisis, Bak-Coleman et al. do not propose any immediate measures to reduce scale, but rather offer that there “is reason to be hopeful that well-designed systems can promote healthy collective action at scale...” Hope is neither a strategy nor an action.
Despite lofty goals, the coalition they propose does not match the urgency or promise a rapid and collective behavioral response to the existential threats they identify. Scale reduction may be “collective,” but achieving it will have to be local, authentic, and without delay—that is, a response conforming to the “all hands on deck” swarm intelligence phenomena that are well described in eusocial species already. When faced with the potential for imminent global ruin lurking ominously in the fat tail (5) of the future distribution, the precautionary principle dictates that we should respond with now-or-never urgency. This is a simple fact. A “weather bureau” for social dynamics would certainly be a valuable, if not indispensable, institution for future generations. But there is no reason that scientists around the world, acting as individuals within their own existing social networks and spheres of influence, observing what is already obvious with their own eyes, cannot immediately create a collective chorus to send this message through every digital channel instead of waiting for a green light from above. “Urgency” is euphemistic. It is now or never.
The Bak-Coleman and Bergstrom reply to the critique:
In our PNAS article “Stewardship of global collective behavior”, we describe the breakneck pace of recent innovations in information technology. This radical transformation has transpired not through a stewarded effort to improve information quality or to further human well-being. Rather, current technologies have been developed and deployed largely for the orthogonal purpose of keeping people engaged online. We cannot expect that an information ecology organized around ad sales will promote sustainability, equity, or global health. In the face of such impediments to rational democratic action, how can we hope to overcome threats such as global warming, habitat destruction, mass extinction, war, food security, and pandemic disease? We call for a concerted transdisciplinary response, analogous to other crisis disciplines such as conservation ecology and climate science.
In their letter, Cheong and Jones share our vision of the problem—but they express frustration at the absence of an immediately actionable solution to the enormity of challenges that we describe. They assert “swarm intelligence begins now or never” and advocate local, authentic, and immediate “scale reduction.” It’s an appealing thought: Let us counter pathologies of scale by somehow reversing course.
But it’s not clear what this would entail by way of practical, safe, ethical, and effective intervention. Have there ever been successful, voluntary, large-scale reductions in the scale of any aspect of human social life?
Nor is there reason to believe that an arbitrary, hasty, and heuristically decided large-scale restructuring of our social networks would reduce the long tail of existential risk. Rather, rapid shocks to complex systems are a canonical source of cascading failure. Moving fast and breaking things got us here. We can’t expect it to get us out.
Nor do we share the authors’ optimism about what scientists can accomplish with “a collective chorus … through every digital channel”. It is difficult to envision a louder, more vehement, and more cohesive scientific response than that to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet this unified call for basic public health measures—grounded in centuries of scientific knowledge—nonetheless failed to mobilize political leadership and popular opinion.
Our views do align when it comes to the “now-or-never urgency” that Cheong and Jones highlight. Indeed, this is a key feature of a crisis discipline: We must act without delay to steer a complex system—while still lacking a complete understanding of how that system operates.
As scholars, our job is to call attention to underappreciated threats and to provide the knowledge base for informed decision-making. Academics do not—and should not—engage in large-scale social engineering. Our grounded view of what science can and should do in a crisis must not be mistaken for lassitude or unconcern. Worldwide, the unprecedented restructuring of human communication is having an enormous impact on issues of social choice, often to our detriment. Our paper is intended to raise the alarm. Providing the definitive solution will be a task for a much broader community of scientists, policy makers, technologists, ethicists, and other voices from around the globe.

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