A Personal Narrative
Elsewhere I have described the acronymic language theory which dominated my thinking for many years. After several years studying linguistics as an undergraduate, I began to consider the role of the social network as a context in which people use language.
My central interest at the time was in a linear model of the human mind considered as a node in the social network, and especially the possibility that a person could use deconvolution to undo the distortions of neighbouring nodes. I guess this will require a bit of explanation!
Consider the large horn used in old phonographs to couple the vibrations of the needle to the surrounding air mass — prior to the invention of vacuum tube amplifiers this was the only way of making the sound loud enough to hear. Such horns were also used in reverse to concentrate the sound of voice or instruments so that the resulting vibrations could move the needle over the wax cylinder.
But as any pipe-organ enthusiast could tell you, the shape of a pipe or horn has an enormous impact on the sound it produces, and so the information recorded on those early phonograph cylinders has a strange characteristic: it always sounds a bit horny, if you’ll pardon the expression. And that is where deconvolution comes in. Modern sound engineers are often able to remove the distortion that was imposed by the horn of the recording equipment, so that the resulting sound is much more like the actual sounds produced by the performer.
Another example: the Hubble space telescope was somewhat out of focus, and had to be repaired. But before the astronauts installed the necessary corrections, the telescope could still by used, and the pictures could be somewhat deblurred by image processing software which performed a deconvolution to remove the characteristic blurriness. So, if some piece of equipment distorts the sound or light passing through it in a regular predictable way, the distortion can be removed.
My model of the human social network incorporated this as an ability of human beings: if you had long term friendships between people, each person could eventually learn that their friends were not unbiased observers or perfect communications channels but actually distorted the information they transmitted. Then by recognizing that propensity for distortion and compensating for it, each person could to some extent see the reality behind what their friends described.
I will go into this theory much more on another page, but for now only one thing is relevant: for this to work friendships (or other social relationships) had to be long lasting. If there is any truth to this theory, it could only be if people were able to form mental models of their friends — before each person could factor out the other’s propensity for distortion, that propensity had to be understood, which would require a lot of shared experience.
I wrote about this theory in the first draft of my master’s thesis, but was later persuaded to remove it, which was probably wise! Nevertheless, I have clung to the idea, which still fascinates me, though I recognize it might be completely wrong. But while I was writing about it for the first time, I got embroiled in a discussion of 18th century intellectual history with my old friend Robert Neville, who at that time was specializing in that area. Our discussion centered on Diderot’s story, Rameau’s Nephew , and particularly on the notion that acting, or taking on the appearance of another person, threatened the very fabric or structure of society because it led people to judge others by what they appear to be rather than what they actually are.
These days we take it for granted that people are not what they seem to be, and that you can’t trust appearances, but apparently this was a dangerous new idea in the 18th century, or so I understood at the time. I can still remember standing on the sidewalk on the corner of Pandora and Hastings in Burnaby (a suburb of Vancouver, Canada), and suddenly realizing that my deconvolution theory of the social network also depended on people being what they seemed to be, and that my theory also predicted that the structure of society could collapse if this was not usually so.
At precisely that moment an idea occurred to me, which I have been trying to explain to people ever since but have never quite managed to get across. One reason I have so much trouble explaining this idea is that it is such a very large idea, incorporating so many smaller ones. I remember it as a single flash of insight, but these days when I try to summarize it in a list of its component ideas, it seems to require to twenty or so items.
At the time this idea first occurred to me I encapsulated it in a certain three word phrase, but one of those words has always caused problems since as soon as they hear it other people immediately get the wrong idea. So forewarned, I hope you will be careful about leaping to conclusions. The key phrase is ‘social network optimization’, and the offending word is ‘optimization’, which always seems to make people think of efficiency experts and conjures up an image of some government ‘bureau of optimization’ which would impose its own views of what is optimum on a downtrodden population.
That depressing vision is almost the exact opposite of what I intended by the phrase.
These day when I think about that original flash of insight I am most often reminded of a small gray cylinder I used to play with as a kid. I have always been fascinated by technology, and when I was growing up, I used to spend a lot of time in the basement playing with old vacuum tube radio equipment. All of the old radio sets I had managed to acquire had loudspeakers, but none of them had microphones, which therefore were rather hard to come by.
From a very young age I recall being aware that a loudspeaker could also work ‘backwards’ as a microphone, turning a sound into an electrical signal instead of turning an electrical signal into sound. But all my attempts to do this failed until I came across the small gray cylinder. If I hooked up a loudspeaker to the input of my most sensitive amplifier and shouted into directly into it, all I got was a very small signal, too small for any practical use. I had more or less concluded that yes, in theory, a loudspeaker could act as a microphone, but it could only be a very poor one. Then, perhaps at my father’s suggestion, I connected a certain small gray cylinder between the loudspeaker and the amplifier and instantly discovered that I now had a very good microphone which would respond to the tiniest whisper.
The small device I had used was, of course, a matching transformer, matching the 8 ohm impedance of the loudspeaker to the several hundred thousand ohm impedance of the amplifier. The point here is that I was making a value judgment about the suitability of a loudspeaker for a particular function before I had discovered the right way to interface the loudspeaker to the rest of the equipment.
Our society often makes value judgments about people, who are described as good or bad, are hired or fired, married or divorced, and most of these value judgments do not take into account the question of interface. Though I probably misunderstood Mr. Neville’s account of the issues raised by Rameau’s Nephew , the central idea to me seemed to be the message that people should dress and behave as who they are, never acting any role, because this and only this would allow other people to trust their social connections: only if such understanding and trust prevailed in society could its structure stand.
My own version of what I took to be the same idea was that only long-standing friendships could provide enough shared experience for use to successfully deconvolve other people’s tendency to distort the information they carried. Or to put it another way, we had to allow each other to grow successful interfaces to the social network over time — a rather conservative point of view, favouring long-standing relationships that had to be cultured over a long period of time.
My flash of insight was the sudden revelation that such a lengthy process was unnecessary. One did not need years of trial and error or adaptation to provide a suitable interface for matching a loudspeaker to an amplifier — input and output impedances can be calculated or measured. Indeed almost all of engineering can be seen as the careful interfacing of one piece of equipment to another, and the essence of high-technology is the ability to do this interfacing with powerful mathematical tools.
The theory I had been writing about in the first draft of my master’s thesis assumed that each person was connected to others either directly by friendship (or some other social relationship), or indirectly through other links in a chain of relationships — a very old idea. To this view I added the notion that each person you regularly communicate with is a kind of interface between you and the social network, and the idea that these interfaces had to be long-lasting to permit the deconvolutional removal of distortion is too narrow and too conservative a view, which ignored the possibility of measuring and calculating interface properties.
I still believe that longlasting relationships are good, but I no longer believe they have to be longlasting in order to function the way I described them. Had I ever used the phrase ‘social network optimization’ before the Rameau’s Nephew flash of insight, I would probably have described this as some long term process of growing good interfaces in very much the way nerve cells grow synapses, and indeed Mr. Neville and I had been talking about people in the social network as being analogous to neurons in the brain for many year previously.
The key idea which seemed like such an amazing insight was that we do not have to slowly grow such connections, we should be able to perform measurements and calculations and apply algorithms from combinatorial optimization theory to create good interfaces as needed. Well, actually the key idea was more than this, and I still need a list of twenty or so sub-ideas to express all the insight that seemed to arrive in an instant at that time, but this is a good beginning.
I still have some of those pointform summary lists near at hand, and though not entirely up-to-date, you might still like to look at them:
More information can be found in Acronymic Language , The Idea of Social Technology , The Idea of Social Network Optimization , or A Scale for Measuring Compatibility , all of which contain hints about the evolution of these ideas. I am very interested in intellectual history and especially the history of related ideas, so if you have any information about the history of related ideas, please let me know. See How You Can Help for more information.
Copyright © 1998 Douglas P. Wilson
Copyright © 2009 Douglas Pardoe Wilson
Other relevant content:
Please see these web pages:
The main Social Technology page.
Find Compatibles , the key page, with the real solution to all other problems explained
Technological Fantasies , a page about future technology
Social Tech a page about Social Technology, technology for social purposes. I think I was the first person to use this phrase on the Internet, quite a long time ago.
Roughly corresponding to these web pages are the following blogs :
Social Technology the main blog, hosted on this site, with posts imported from the following blogger.com blogs, which still exist and are useable.
Find Compatibles devoted to matching people with friends, lovers, jobs, places to live and so on, but doing so in ways that will actually work, using good math, good algorithms, good analysis.
Technological Fantasies devoted to future stuff, new ideas, things that might be invented or might happen, such as what is listed above and below.
Sex-Politics-Religion is a blog about these important topics, which I have been told should never be mentioned in polite conversation. Alright that advice does seem a bit dated, but many people are still told not to bring up these subjects around the dinner table.
I believe I was the first person on the Internet to use the phrase Social Technology — years before the Web existed.
Those were the good old days, when the number of people using the net exceeed the amount of content on it, so that it was easy to start a discussion about such an upopular topic. Now things are different. There are so many web pages that the chances of anyone finding this page are low, even with good search engines like Google. Oh, well.
By Social Technology I mean the technology for organizing and maintaining human society. The example I had most firmly in mind is the subject of Find Compatibles , what I consider to be the key page, the one with the real solution to all other problems explained.
As I explained on my early mailing lists and later webpages, I find that social technology has hardly improved at all over the years. We still use representative democracy, exactly the same as it was used in the 18th century. By contrast, horse and buggy transporation has been replaced by automobiles and airplanes, enormous changes.
In the picture below you will see some 18th century technology, such as the ox-plow in the middle of the picture. How things have changed since then in agricultural technology. But we still use chance encounters, engagements and marriages to organize our home life and the raising of children.
I claim that great advances in social technology are not only possible but inevitable. I have written three novels about this, one preposterously long, 5000 pages, another merely very very long, 1500 pages. The third is short enough at 340 pages to be published some day. Maybe. The topic is still not interesting to most people. I will excerpt small parts of these novels on the web sometime, maybe even post the raw text for the larger two.
This site includes many pages dating from 1997 to 2008 which are quite out of date. They are included here partly to show the development of these ideas and partly to cover things the newer pages do not. There will be broken links where these pages referenced external sites. I’ve tried to fix up or maiintain all internal links, but some will probably have been missed. One may wish to look at an earlier version of this page , rather longer, and at an overview of most parts of what can be called a bigger project.
Type in this address to e-mail me. The image is interesting. See Status of Social Technology
Copyright © 2007, 2008, 2009, Douglas Pardoe Wilson
I have used a series of e-mail address over the years, each of which eventually became out of date because of a change of Internet services or became almost useless because of spam. Eventually I stuck with a Yahoo address, but my inbox still fills up with spam and their spam filter still removes messages I wanted to see. So I have switched to a new e-mail service. Web spiders should not be able to find it, since it is hidden in a jpeg picture. I have also made it difficult to reach me. The picture is not a clickable link. To send me e-mail you must want to do so badly enough to type this address in. That is a nuisance, for which I do apologize, but I just don’t want a lot of mail from people who do not care about what I have to say.
Copyright © 2009 Douglas Pardoe Wilson