Social Science Moves from Academia to the Corporation

This is the latest of a series of posts addressing questions regarding social technologies. Previous posts: The Evangelist Fallacy, Captivity of the Commons and The Digital Panopticon. These topics will be opened to live discussion in an upcoming webcast on May 27 with a special guest to be announced.

In order to control a thing you must first classify a thing — and we are seeing a massive classification of social behavior. While that classification falls under the guise of making life easier (targeted ads, locating a nearby pizza joint using your mobile), history tells us that we should be leery of motives and masters of our social data (see Captivity of the Commons).

Social sciences (behavioral psychology, sociology, organizational development), whose historical lack of data and scientific method left them open to ridicule from the “hard” sciences, finally have enough volume of data and analytics and processing power (see Big Data) to make “social” much more scientific. But this time social science is going to be coming to you not courtesy of Princeton, but courtesy of Google. Not through small studies on willing subjects, but through massive multivariate testing and optimization upon (largely) unknowing test subjects. The corporation, in other words, will hold the keys to social science at a level of precision only dreamed of by the academic and state institutions of yore.

This recent New York Times article highlights just how much social science, psychology, and personal data converge when a credit card company wants its debts repaid (via Andy Oram’s Radar post).

Should we be concerned about this shift from academia to the corporation?

I hold the current structure of government and corporations in equal regard in terms of how well they adhere to Google’s maxim, “Don’t be Evil.” So in some regard, I shouldn’t really be troubled that social science has moved from academia (which has often been a handmaiden of government) to the corporation (which really just wants to understand what moves you to click that “buy” button, or bump up your average order size by $10, etc.). Except…

Except if you believe that consumer culture is wreaking havoc upon the systems that support life and that the application of social science on behalf of the corporation is intended to simply turbo charge the status quo…

We find ourselves in 2009 facing deep, structural challenges — peak oil, environmental degradation, climate change, and financial meltdown.

That’s why the notion of social science in service of accelerating the existing system troubles me. Tim has spoken about the need to “Work on Stuff that Matters.” How might we apply social science toward “stuff that matters” instead of toward “buying more stuff that doesn’t matter?”

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