The missing social technology sector

There’s a thing that I’ve been puzzled about for a while. There’s an entire sector of industry that, as far as I can tell, does not exist and should. For want of a better term I’m going to call the thing that sector would do social technology1

It’s entirely possible that the answer is that this sector does exist but I’m not in the normal target market. If you’d like to come along and shout “You idiot tech bro. X, you’ve invented X.” then honestly this time I’d be delighted because I legitimately have tried to solve for X and failed.

What is social technology?

Social technology is “technology” built out of groups of people following rules, maybe with assistance from simple props, rather than software, machinery, etc2.

What does that look like? Well, let me give you a free sample. Here’s how to have a great high level conversation with someone (a friend, coworker, etc).

  1. Find yourself a five minute sand timer (you can use a phone timer if you like, but I find the soft limit of having it be visual is helpful rather than a loud beep).
  2. Place the timer in front of one of you. That person picks a topic they’d like to talk about. Maybe write down a sentence about what it is if you like.
  3. Now set the timer going and talk about that topic, trying to stay more or less on focus.
  4. When the timer runs out, the person who it is not in front of can either turn it over and leave it where it is to continue discussing the topic, or claim it. They now get to set the topic as above. Often what they will say is “I’d like to focus on X that we were talking about” or “What you said about Y reminded me about Z that I’d like to discuss” but that’s not required.

This is from a discussion system I’m vaguely tinkering with called TickTalk. I’ve only run this two player version once, but it seems to work very well, and results in great conversations of a particular sort. Certainly the multiplayer version has been a great success.

What makes something like TickTalk a technology?

It’s a technology because it has to be invented and developed like a technology, and it has results like a technology: Someone had to come up with the idea, the idea and practice had to be refined through use, and it provides us with capabilities greater than what we had prior to its invention.

Sure, TickTalk is just a system of rules, it doesn’t feel like a thing per se, but software is also just a system of rules, and we consider that technology to the point that “tech” is almost treated as synonymous with software these days (although it shouldn’t be).

What’s interesting about social technology?

Social technology has several key interesting features that I think distinguishes it from most other technologies.

Firstly, it is built on extremely powerful components. Humans are incredibly flexible compared to most things we build technology out of. They interpret, they adapt, they fill in the blank spots. If you study the literature around complex systems, essentially every complex system that works does so because of humans running around behind the scenes papering over the bits where it doesn’t work and filling in the details. If you imagine programming with a “do what I mean” construct, social technology development isn’t far off. Social technology lets us jump over all of the things we don’t know how to do with computers but do know how to do with people. We could have been building artificial superintelligences thousands of years ago, but have still mostly failed to do so.

Secondly, social technology as I have defined it is incredibly cheap. Although some of it (e.g. therapy) admits and requires a lot of deep expertise, many interesting social technologies can be written down on a page, understood with one run through, and implemented based on everyday household items.

Thirdly, social technology is incredibly adaptable. Because humans are flexible and social technology is cheap, it’s essentially free to take pieces of social technology apart and put them together again in new configurations.

Finally, I think social technology is interesting because we can use it to solve real and pervasive problems with our lives. The fact that it’s cheap and adaptable means that we can start to deploy it everywhere almost immediately by looking at areas of our lives that could use improving and finding a way to slot it in. TickTalk has been immeasurably helpful in improving my life over the last year because of some of the conversations it has afforded, and I think there are many more opportunities like that available to people and currently not being taken.

Why do we need a social technology sector?

Social technology exists today. It’s certainly not a thing I’ve invented. What I find puzzling is that it does not seem to exist as any sort of unified field, and does not seem to have a substantial amount of industry associated with developing it.

There are a number of areas which are essentially social technology subfields. For example:

  1. Liberating Structures are a type of social technology for management and business.
  2. Social Choice Theory is a weird thing in that it is an elaborate theoretical study of how social technology for decision making might work but largely skips out on actually doing the work to go from science to technology (e.g. there’s no user experience work). Voting Systems are very much a social technology.
  3. Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games are an entire thriving social technology games sector that is largely disconnected from any broader practice. Maybe this will change with the rise of the professional dungeon master, who knows?
  4. Many methodologies (agile, lean, etc.) are arguably a type of social technology3.
  5. Bureaucracies are enterprise social technology deployments.
  6. A lot of social sciences can be kinda regarded as studying the social technology we implicitly build.
  7. Therapy is a social technology (or, really, a large family of social technologies).

So there’s certainly no absence of social technology in the wild, but it mostly seems to be very ad hoc and without any sort of unifying work or principle. You’re not going to find much if any unifying work between social choice theory, therapy, and liberating structures.

This matters because it means we’re not taking the active development of social technology seriously. This shows in a couple of ways:

  1. There is very little cross-pollination between these sectors because nobody realises they’re doing the same things. RPG developers know a lot about how to manage unruly players sitting around a table, but this knowledge rarely makes it into meeting design.
  2. There is a huge amount of low hanging fruit available to be picked.
  3. Where we develop social technology we do not do it with the understanding that it is a technology (with the partial exception of the games sector).

In particular because we do not deliberately design social technology, most social technology is very poorly designed.

Have you noticed how many startups pivot? One major reason for that is that it’s really hard to build the right thing. When building new technology you will run into at least one and usually several of the following:

  • You misunderstood what the users wanted
  • You misunderstood what the users needed
  • You misunderstood what the users were willing to pay for
  • You failed to predict how people would use your technology
  • The solution you imagined doesn’t actually work
  • You ran into a hard problem that you couldn’t have anticipated

And many more. If you just build something and hand it to users, the results will rarely go very well. To build something that works you need to prototype, playtest, and iterate. Anything else is doomed to failure or, worse, mediocrity.

Almost none of our widely deployed social technology is designed in this way, and it shows. The best we can hope for is that because it’s easy to adapt and copied widely it’s subject to a certain amount of evolution over time, so the worst of the rough edges are knocked off and some of the best ideas are preserved, but often what happens instead is that we take something that doesn’t work very well and lock it in as a cultural tradition, with all its flaws intact.

Take my example of TickTalk. TickTalk comes from me taking Lean Coffee and playtesting it a bit, deciding it wasn’t very good4, fixing the bits I didn’t like and then playtesting it some more until we’d refined it down to a system that worked well.

Another thing that the lack of deliberate design means is that we often do not make good theory informed choices of social structures. Take for example my suggestions in Democracy for Lunch that you should use random ballot or approval voting for most group meal decisions. This is an example of providing a piece of social technology (a voting system) for a commonly encountered problem. This happens fairly rarely. To the degree that most people use social technology to decide on lunch options, it tends to be a mix of dictatorial (suboptimal: Does not involve whole group), plurality (the worst voting system) and consensus forming (comparatively high effort for a comparatively low importance option).

Because we don’t take the problems of social technology seriously, we end up in a situation where we often lack basic social technologies, or the ones we have and use are not very good.

Having an actual social technology sector would help fix this by making development of social technologies deliberate. The key benefits of this are:

  1. It turns the creation of social technology a problem that we can work at getting better at rather than something happens by accident.
  2. It would provide resources that are lacking for intensive play testing of new social technologies, providing us with more refined systems.

Why don’t we have a social technology sector?

Generally the key reason any given thing doesn’t exist is just that nobody has made it yet, but I think there are a couple of major factors that mean that it’s a bit tricky to develop such a sector.

The first is that it falls into an annoying middle ground area where it’s hard to make money out of, because once developed social technologies are cheap to copy and hard to prevent copying, and hard to do academic research on, because discovering universal truths about human nature is not an easy problem. As a result, it’s hard for there to be a sector per se, because industry and academia will both struggle to create it.

One way to make money out of it is basically management consultancy and writing books. The problem with doing this is that for the most part it doesn’t seem to matter if the social technology you’re developing actually works, because people will turn it into an ideology and make money off it either way. As a result you’re better off investing money into marketing than technology development even if you work with social technology5.

Academic research on the other hand struggles because running experiments on people is hard. A good example of this is the research on brain storming vs brain writing (the difference is basically how much you use speaking vs writing). You can come to some tentative conclusions, but really it should have just been a bunch of play testing sessions. These wouldn’t come to Truth in the same way, but that’s ok – we’re not really interested in truth, we’re interested in constructing technology that more or less works.

The second is that I think people are resistant to the very idea. Social technology feels like something that we shouldn’t need, and a bit non-serious. All getting together to obey a system of rules in aid of some goal feels a bit game like to people, aren’t we past that?

The opposite of that is that people take their social technologies that they do adopt very seriously indeed. People who pick up social technologies and turn them into religions, investing thoroughly in every aspect of the technology. Listen to someone telling you about Kanban, or Lean, or Democracy (which always means the specific version of Democracy in their home country of course). They often struggle to conceive of it being legitimate to do things any other way, which impairs the development of these technologies.

How do we get to a social technology sector?

If you gave me a couple million pounds to bootstrap it, I’d put together a cross disciplinary team of a couple people (say, a management consultant, a role playing game designer, a couple of academics) and start trying to build a business going into companies and developing social technologies with them to try to streamline their workflows. This is not particularly my current plan, but hey if you have a couple million pounds you want to send me way I wouldn’t say no.

The more accessible route and the one that I hope we adopt is to be the social technology sector you want to see in the world.

Social technology is cheap, adaptable, and easy to copy. This makes it extremely amenable to grass roots experimentation and open source development.

Step one of this is to let go of the idea of it being weird. We can start to be more deliberate about the social structures in our lives, and from there we can start to experiment with them, and when we do, we can write about them and share them with the world. Other people can then take our technologies and experiment and build their own.

If you’re wondering where to get started, my recommendation would be to find a couple of interested friends and start a structured discussion with them. Either TickTalk or Conversation Cafe are good starting formats.

You could even go meta while doing that – start thinking about other areas in your life where you could take more a deliberate, explicit, approach and ask what technologies might enable that.

  1. This isn’t a great choice of term because it already means something else. I don’t mean that.
  2. I’m explicitly excluding things which can be implemented using just a single person following rules and with assistance, because I think that has a fundamentally different character, but I think there’s also an interesting missing sector there.
  3. Although many of them only in the sense that homeopathy is arguably a type of medicine.
  4. I am curious as to how much playtesting happened in the development of lean coffee. My suspicion is distressingly little.
  5. I do think there is probably a lot of very good social technology in the field of management consultancy and indeed in many other consultancies. It can just be very hard to figure out which are the good bits when there are so many bad bits
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One thought on “The missing social technology sector

  1. Noah Gibbs

    If I were going to answer your “You Idiot TechBro, You’ve Invented X” query, X would be something fairly poorly defined by rules… But probably heavily defined by teaching and by practice.

    For instance, you mention Scrum and Kanban, both clearly social technologies. The naturally-occurring alternatives to them won’t have names. Even “Getting Things Done” (the David Allen one) is a nod to this – ordinarily this tech exists but you don’t name it. This is partially because your very complex components (people) aren’t terribly amenable to simple rules, and simple rules tend to reduce their efficiency and impede many of their greatest advantages. You could name Bob’s way of getting things done and you could make notes about it, but you couldn’t reproduce it in Sam’s head from those notes.

    People perform best with loosely-defined tasks, shared goals, the ability to change interpretations and definitions (“lateral thinking”) in the pursuit of those goals, and a bare minimum of hard-and-fast rules. Breakable guidelines work better, for instance. As an example, military strategy that delegates heavily to field officers is all of these things – tell them to take the hill and what personnel and materiel they have to do it, don’t tell them how to do it. And you’ll notice the specific social tech I mention (military strategy that delegates heavily to field officers) *is* written up, but has very few hard-and-fast rules, making it hard to describe as a social technology. Though it clearly is one, as is most military training.

    However, training-and-practice technologies’ *strength* is that they produce few hard and fast rules. If you’re training artists, you give them a few guidelines, some ability to judge their work (or a teacher for same) and a huge amount of time and practice.

    So: if you’re looking for “stripped down” social tech — rule-based, intolerant of “natural” behavior, easy to judge and replicate — it exists, but it’s vastly outnumbered by the squishy kind that mostly trains people to do a thing without many rules about how they should do it. And that’s because the latter, as a rule, works better.

    Alternatively, there’s *huge* amounts of social tech for teaching, training and practice because your highest-performance components (people’s brains) are very trainable, but essentially impossible to just download a ruleset into. Thus, more training and fewer rulesets.

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