Social Creatures in Need of Social Software
I was going to leave this as a comment on Luke‘s blog, but it got a little too long. Luke’s post “Stone age brains and the social web” is based on the “All In The Mind” podcast episode “Stone Age brains in 21st century skulls.” Luke’s blog provides some great insights on user experience, and the Australian “All In The Mind” podcast features interviews with a diverse range of Psychologists. This is a bit of a woven path, but it is interesting when it comes together. Hopefully you can see where this is going – If you can, hold on to the wheel.
The podcast makes a number of interesting points from the evolutionary psychology perspective. The whole reptile brain things doesn’t work for me, but many of the points can be made from other perspectives too, and they resonated with some of my recent observations about technology.
The general consensus is that we are adapted to living in small groups – 20-200 individuals – with lifelong interaction within those small groups. Today’s environment is dramatically different, for all sorts of reasons. The Internet enables us to interact with millions, if not thousands, of individuals – how meaningfully is another question. Communications technology has also made business more global and employees more mobile. Being born, living and dying in the same town is a very rare life journey these days (it would be interesting to have a good data source on this).
Brain chemistry has become the primary approach to mental health issues, by which point things are at a severe stage. I wonder if we are too focussed on treating symptoms, rather than causes (Bob Eckridge has some interesting thoughts in this area on his blog). Another approach is to assume that we are maladapted to our environment, and see what we can do to change in it, and ourselves.
Evolutionary psychology is a curious beast, and I think a fair few Psychs would debate the reptilian brain idea. However, there are other perspectives that help us understand what is going on. Social constructivism is a different psychological approach. It argues that we create our idea of who we are through our social interactions (identity is a rather complex issue), and that we also create knowledge that way. That starts to make a lot of sense out of social networking and software.
Thinking about identity as rooted in who we interact with, and how we interact with them, starts to enable the creation of some useful software applications. Creating interactions (on and offline) that enable people to express their identity is an essential part of building a community – just take a look at people’s facebook profile pictures, then get them to talk to you about them, and you’ll see what I mean.
We are, whichever psychological perspective you take, social beings. Isolation does us no good, at least not beyond short bursts. So far, technology has enabled us to be more ‘connected’, but actually resulted in us being more isolated (one-way media such as TV, physical social isolation such as Internet enabled remote working). Social software to the rescue, hopefully!
Interesting rejoinder. I don’t think I see social constructivism and evolutionary psychology as mutually contradictory if one takes them as partial views of a complex whole? In other words, we create our identities through our social interactions, but within the constraints of our biological selves. Or something.
From the papers I’ve read, in terms of the 3 Cs (complement, coexist or conflict), I’m with you that they don’t conflict. They do bump noses though! The interesting thing is how different perspectives lead to different frames of reference for solutions.
Evolutionary psychology might lead down the path of trying to design around our brain, or design for a tripartite brain. Social psychology might focus us on improving the quality and richness of interactions. We can learn from both approaches, but I think learn we must.
So much technology has been designed without the people who use it in mind – we did what we could rather than what we should. There is an opportunity to change that through better design
I strongly believe that technology can make the world a better place, but we are scoring a 4/10 so far… I there are some exciting years of positive progress ahead.
Very interesting post, Ben.
Perhaps we need to develop ways (either personally or technologically) of quantifying the quality of interaction, and factoring that into the way we interact online. Stats are great for mapping breadth or spread, but not so good at more nebulous concepts such as depth… maybe web 3.0 will actually be the humanising of the web, where we stop valuing everything based on a metric, and instead start to think about engagement, social development and how it allows us to make other people’s lives tangibly better, whether through a business interaction, an act of social justice, or just ‘being there’ for people in a way that the virtual world makes possible beyond anything we could have imagined 20 years ago…
Thank you, Steve. I think you are right – it might be one of those life long journeys… I started to think about it in looking at Dunbar‘s research. Friendships are very hard things to quantify aren’t they!
Although social networking apps mean that some things can be measured, you do end up saying “Hmmm… 5.1 on this scale and 4.3 on that one… Is that good or bad?”
I hope people don’t wake up in 20 years time to find a message on the phone saying “Based on your recent communication patterns we have observed that you are at risk of feeling a little down. Your local NHS trust will be auto-deploying some friends to lift your mood and protect your health.” Or some such!
One thing is for sure… Big changes ahead!