Evolution of Socio-Technological System Levels and the Emergence of the Free-Goodness Model of Human Interaction

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  • Article: The social environment model: Small heroes and the evolution of human society. by Brian Whitworth and Alex P. Whitworth. First Monday, Volume 15, Number 11 - 1 November 2010

URL = http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/3173/2647


Excerpts 1


"Given no “invisible hand” of profit incentivizing individuals to contribute to online communities, nor any central governance coercing or motivating them, why then do people choose to upload, share, blog, help and cooperate in increasing numbers? A theory is needed to explain the socio–technical phenomenon, to explain why less–for–profit systems are flourishing.

The “rational” decision–making of game theory doesn’t explain how humanity crossed the non–zero barrier to achieve the massive social synergies of civilization today. That we are socially where we are is only possible if Homo sociologicus exists in us alongside Homo economicus. While one seems “bad” and the other “good”, in the social environment model both are equally critical to human evolution."

Socio-Technological System Levels

"Today technology designers must recognize four system levels (Whitworth, 2009):

  1. Hardware systems, based on physical energy exchanges.
  2. Software systems, based on information data exchanges.
  3. Human–computer interaction systems, based on personal semantic exchanges.
  4. Socio–technical systems, based on community–wide exchanges.

In this framework, engineering, computing, psychology and sociology are just overlapping “views” of the same system (Figure 1).

Software depends on hardware, but reducing software to hardware voltages would be like describing World War II in terms of atomic events, both difficult and pointless. Software concepts not only better describe computer systems, they also offer better ways to design them, e.g., software cache prediction concepts revolutionized chip design. Each level emerges from the previous: physical exchanges create information, information exchanges create meaning and human meaning exchanges create communities. Each higher level naturally invokes new performance requirements that flow down from higher to lower levels, allowing the entire system to perform better.

In the following, a socio–technical system is a social system that emerges from a technical base, as opposed to a socio–physical system, that arises from a physical one. Both are social systems, but with a different architectural origin. Technology advances mean that socio–technical systems are now equivalent to physical ones, e.g., the over five hundred million person membership of Facebook exceeds that of many countries." (http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/3173/2647)

Current Technological support for free–goodness

The conflict between individual selfishness and public good morals has been around as long as humanity itself, but modern technology magnifies the issues.

In this model, human evolution occurs when social and technical advances go hand–in–hand. Technical inventions like printing helped spread social inventions like democracy which then enabled technical innovations like the Internet which today allow further social invention. It is the combination of social and technical evolution that is succeeding today. A new generation of online technologies is allowing the social innovation of open access at sites like SourceForge and Wikipedia. These “socio–technologies” are a new social form, as well as a new technical one.

As online citizens come and go at will, engaging synergy becomes as important as defenses against anti–social acts. This changes the social lens, from people as selfish, ignorant primitives to be bribed or controlled by the arbiters of society (Rules 1 and 2), to people as free citizens whose competence and kindness need only to be activated (Rule 3). Indeed if users were purely selfish, systems like Wikipedia or SourceForge could not succeed, as no one would give away their work to others for no profit.

Hence the Internet has led to new business models based on public service. Yet research on trust still largely frames the business problem as how to manipulate customers to trust and buy. Even if this were possible, customers would lose money buying foolish things. Such customers die out, economically speaking, and their business dies with them. Seeking propaganda to create stupid customers is neither desirable, sensible, nor sustainable.

Community–based business models change the goal from tricking customers out of their money to working with them to create sustainable synergy. Instead of customers being sheep to be herded and fleeced, they are invited into the business house, as partners in joint value creation. In systems like eBay and Amazon, reputation, review and feedback systems generate customer value. Google illustrates the power of this approach, as what began as a free public service now rivals Microsoft in influence. The Google motto, “Don’t be evil”, clearly works. However, communities are not built as bridges are, by putting parts together, but emerge naturally from social interactions and growing trust and social health. One should not “manage” citizens by manipulating them,

A feature of today’s online communities is the willingness of individuals to help others they have never met before and may never meet again, e.g., experts helping others with hardware problems on online boards or people reviewing movies for others on Netflix. No selfish rule alone can explain this. Yet it is common in physical society too; urban dwellers will give lost visitors directions even though they will probably not see these strangers again. That people willingly help others for no reward is distinct from Smith’s argument that people seeking selfish rewards in markets unconsciously help society. Here even if individual rewards are not available, a positive urge for social value remains. In BitTorrent, users help each other download files yet they could just download and leave. In open source initiatives like FLOSS (free, libre, open source software) and community sites like SourceForge, people freely give their work to others (synergy) provided they don’t copyright or sell it (defect).

Socio–technical systems succeed because people made free by the nature of online interaction, are still willing to be good citizens and contribute to social synergy. The socio–technical invitation to be a “small hero”, to do small acts of selfless service, is taken up. In this, the democratization of heroism, community citizens freely give their time and effort to help others (Rule 3b). If the free–good citizen rule was invalid, socio–technical systems could not succeed.

This then is new. We knew from history that enforced order enables synergy, as the pyramids of Egypt attest. We also know today that markets can incentivize synergy, given legal systems to prevent injustice. However it was not generally known, or even suspected, that people not coerced, controlled or enticed could freely synergize in a stable way. We knew that people could be forced to work together, brainwashed to follow social rules, or threatened or bribed to be a social unit, but not that they would freely act together to generate synergy. Yet the fact is that when systems like Wikipedia threw themselves upon the goodwill of online humanity, they didn’t just survive, they prospered."

The emergence of Free good citizens

"What then is the rationale behind this? It is proposed that as anchoring social good and invoking self–interest gave the free market successes of last century, so anchoring individual good and invoking community interest is giving us the socio–technical successes of today. If so, the latter is not just a technical change. That technology can support productive “virtue” is both an important technical discovery and also an important social discovery, with implications for all humanity (Benkler and Nissenbaum, 2006).

The implication is that modern socio–technology depends as much on social health as on technology. The democracies of today were not just unthinkable a thousand years ago, but also unworkable. Even if an all powerful being gave today’s freedoms to yesterday’s citizens, they would still probably not have succeeded. For example, the French Revolution’s “liberté, égalité, fraternité” soon reverted to the anarchy of Madame Guillotine, then the autocracy of Emperor Napoleon. Social growth can be neither given nor enforced, but is a fruit only possible if the people are “ripe”. Yet today, democracies work so well we find it hard to see why our predecessors ever settled for less.

The socio–technical systems that now transform the Web (Kolbitsch and Maurer, 2006) differ from physical society in being more open to everyone, more transparent in action, more freely participative, more democratic in control and more community focused. The members of these systems generally oppose all forms of social control, whether the denying of acts (repression), or the denying of ideas (censorship), or the imposing of acts (coercion), or the imposing of ideas (propaganda). They see themselves and others as adults, not children, who will act rightly if left alone to do so.

This is not capitalism, as value is given for free. It is not communism, as individuals can differ from the collective. It is not socialism, as competent individuals can take value and give nothing back. It is not anarchy, as anti–social defenses oppose disorder. It is not altruism, as no one must sacrifice for the community good. It is not liberalism, as citizens seek not freedom from society’s demands but to be part of a community. It is not progressivism, as no one dares to presume to change others, to make politically correct choices for them, or tell others how to live their life. Socio–technical systems, it is here argued, are a new technology–based social form."

What's next: adapting the model to society as a whole

"Autocratic social systems that coerce citizens are already seen as outdated, but capitalist systems that incentivize individuals may also be ending their dominance. While it is true that if one offers peanuts one gets monkeys, it is also true that if one offers honey, one gets wasps.

It is time to try something new. Instead of bribing or forcing individuals to virtue, let the incentive simply be that it manifestly works. Socio–technical systems do this by decentralizing control, making actions transparent to others, letting people freely participate, making the system open to all, supporting legitimate rights like privacy and encouraging the common good. Systems that everyone sees working have no need for propaganda. Systems that employ no rewards offer few temptations to steal or cheat. Systems that are not centrally controlled are harder to hijack. Systems where acts are transparent can name and shame the corrupt or inept in the court of community opinion. Systems that aim for the common good have an aim that everyone can agree on.

If such systems work online, can they work anywhere? As technology learns from society to be more social, can society learn from technology to be more open? Can a nation without reward tokens, run by no person or clique, open to all, defended by all, ever actually work? The Internet says yes, but the jury is still out on whether it is possible in the larger society, as it depends on both the social health and practical competence of its citizens, both to discern good and choose it.

This model predicts the rise of independent voters, sitting between the traditional right and left wings of politics, and who already decide many elections. Traditional parties call them “swing voters”, but they are just free voters who decide each case on its merits. Members of this party of free choice accept no conventions, agree to no rules, follow no formats and believe in no final solutions or utopias. To them, every political vote should be a conscience vote, as they hold that:

a) I am free. I am not a slave to anyone else, however righteous or powerful.

b) I am good. I seek the benefit of others as well as myself.

c) I am a citizen. I am not alone, but part of a larger group.

Free–good citizens reject personal power, selfish profit and community control as evolutionary dead–ends that have been tried and failed. They hold that each person should freely do what they think is best, and let others also do so, as while some may err most will not. Simply put, they believe in “us”. When people openly talk and interact, as science should, it is felt that the truth will always win out in the end. Conversely, what harmful plan is so secret that someone somewhere does not know of it, and can tell others? If humanity can use technology to tap the social goodness of its many “small heroes”, whose lineage has already given us civilization, it can further transform itself. If freedom is the price of individual evolution, and goodness the price of social evolution, the socio–technical experiment suggests that humanity can have both. Beyond grand social schemes of domination and the anarchy of selfishness is the original human spirit of freely doing what is best." (http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3173/2647)

Excerpts 2: Details

Social Synergy

Brian Whitworth and Alex P. Whitworth:

"Let social synergy be the difference between what individuals produce working together and what they produce working individually, for any value. In the prisoner’s dilemma example, the synergy is the cooperation value (10 free years) less the defect value (two years), i.e., eight years. Synergy can be positive or negative, e.g., trade is a positive synergy and internal conflict a negative one. It pays people to join positive synergy communities but not negative ones, e.g., users leave Web sites plagued by conflicts. In competitive situations people receive benefits according to their own acts, but in social situations individuals benefit from the acts of others, e.g., roads, goods, electricity and entertainment come from the efforts of others.

Game theory recognizes this as the difference between zero–sum and non–zero–sum games. In zero–sum games, like poker, your loss is my gain, but in non–zero–sum games your loss can also be my loss. So if I destroy your roads, then I also lose the benefit of their use, i.e., diminishing the reward “pie” gives everyone a smaller share on average. Civilization can then be described as the growth of collective synergy, and conversely when a civilized society descends into chaos everyone becomes poor, as failed nations illustrate. Left to themselves, purely self–interested individuals following a zero–sum model return to what Hobbes called a “state of nature”, living lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” While non–zero–sumness is an unpleasant term, the argument that social synergy is the key to modern prosperity is a strong one (Wright, 2001).

A feature of synergy gains is that they increase disproportionately with group size. Competence gains depend on the person and so increase linearly with group size, but synergy gains arise from the social interactions which increase geometrically with group size. So synergy is especially important in very large groups. When the Internet allows millions to synergize, it becomes a critical success factor. As Shirky (2008) noted: “Here comes everybody.”

That the vast wealth of modern civilized society arises when citizens grow the common good is why even ordinary middle class individuals today have better food, health care and leisure than the richest aristocrats of the Middle Ages, and today’s “aristocrats” have more money than they can spend in a lifetime. The cause is simply the power of social synergy." (http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/3173/2647)

Rules for Social Behaviour

Brian Whitworth and Alex P. Whitworth:

  • Rule 1: Choose individual acts that give more value to oneself. (Homo Economicus rule)
  • Rule 2: Choose social acts that give more value to the community as a whole. (Homo Sociologicus rule)

"A rule merger is needed that both works and is feasible. We know that individuals making decisions often use heuristics — psychologically efficient versions of rational logic (Tversky and Kahneman, 1999), one of which is cognitive anchoring, fixing one rule then applying the other. Applying the logic of satisficing one rule while operating the other gives two workable strategies:

  • Rule 3.a. Choose acts that don’t hurt society significantly but benefit oneself.


  • Rule 3.b. Choose acts that don’t hurt oneself significantly but benefit society.

This logic supports both social free acts and free social acts. In the first part (3a) individuals make lawful profits by legitimate opportunities, as defined by the society’s good conduct laws, i.e., compete fairly. This rule well describes the social invention we call free markets. In the second statement (3b) contented individuals help society as they can afford, i.e., satisfied citizens engage in public service volunteerism. This rule well describes the modern invention of socio–technology, as well as traditional concepts of philanthropy. Such anchored rules are more efficient than the selfish optimization of game theory and more effective than the utopian ideal of utilitarianism. While the growth of government public services were the social invention of the twentieth century, the growth of non–government public service is the social invention of ours.

Individuals who follow Rule 1 exclusively become criminals, willing to carry out acts that work against society. Those who follow Rule 2 exclusively become martyrs, willing sacrifice themselves for the good of society. Those who follow Rule 3, in either of its forms, are free-good citizens, who espouse neither crime nor altruism, but try to get ahead without harming others, and to help others without harming themselves. Applying Rules 3a and 3b to Table 3 gives the options of synergy, opportunity and service, but not anti–social crime or altruistic sacrifice. Hence people in social groups tend to respond as negatively to altruistic givers as to criminals, both being equally seen as deviant “rule breakers” (Parks and Stone, 2010).

If humanity only followed Rule 1, crime and anarchy would prevail and society would collapse, while if it only followed Rule 2 we would still be slaves of kings, emperors or pharaohs. Societies with absolute rulers, like Burma and North Korea, are today social anachronisms. They are inevitably poor, as their ruler’s personal agendas stifle not only individual creativity but also the natural competence needs of the larger world environment.


This paper argues that the best social evolutionary path of humanity is neither equity nor order, but the combination of individual freedom and community cooperation here called free–goodness. Free–good citizens pursue individual goals that don’t damage society and help others when they can."

Re-Interpreting the competition between capitalism and communism in the light of the social rules

Brian Whitworth and Alex P. Whitworth:

"In the political conflict between capitalism and communism, free competition (Rule 1) is the assumed opposite of enforced public good (Rule 2), but in this model they are not opposites at all, just the same logic applied to the individual and the social unit respectively. Indeed, is a group that produces little but shares it equally better than one that produces much but shares it unfairly? Capitalism vs. communism frames the choice as pairs of opposites, like wealthy inequality vs. poor equality, but this model espouses a middle way. If capitalism and communism are the same principle at different social levels, they can theoretically combine into a hybrid that allows the gains of both, i.e., wealthy equality. Indeed the slow process of human evolution illustrates the merging of individual and social evolutions for larger and larger social units (Diamond, 1998).

Adam Smith (1999) linked individual good to public good, by showing that the “invisible hand” of a market of individuals maximizing profits also increased value to the group. If competing individuals produce more individually, then so must the group whole of which they are part. However to see Smith’s argument for individual competition as an argument against social cooperation is to misunderstand it. Indeed “free” markets need common good rules to operate, as stock markets punish insider trading. Competitive environments, like playing fields, work best if they are level and reward good performance not cheating. So as economic sociologists have shown, successful competitive economies are always embedded in a larger social context (Granovetter, 1985).

It follows that Smith’s argument can be reversed, that the link between individual and social good also works the other way, as without public good agreements and social stability no market can succeed. In general, public good infrastructures benefit citizens by synergy and individual competitive efforts benefit the public by competence. In the social environment model, individual competition to achieve competence is as valid as social cooperation to achieve synergy. So a social environment must transmit to its citizens not only its own synergy needs, but also the demands of its environment, and markets illustrate one way to do this.

This merges the capitalist view of society, as self–interested but free individuals competing, with the communist view of society, as ant–like units cooperating, into a new vision of free–good citizens who help others because it seems like a good idea. This is neither pure capitalism (Rule 1), which requires rewards, nor pure communism (Rule 2), which requires order, but a hybrid. This merger can avoid both the inefficiency and conformity of communalism, and the corruption and profiteering of individualism. The model predicts that communist states will move to socialism with a business face, and that capitalist states will move to public good capitalism, until both meet in the middle and are virtually indistinguishable. Social performance requires the “invisible hand” of free competition to work alongside the “visible hand” of public good."

More Information

  1. Graphic at http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewFile/3173/2647/28318
  2. the Free-Goodness Model