A new vocabulary for the 21st Century: Socialstructing

Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future (IFTF), recently released her new book entitled The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World. According to the IFTF website, the book “offers an inspiring portrayal of how new technologies are giving individuals so much power to connect and share resources that networks of individuals—not big organizations—will solve a host of problems by reinventing business, education, medicine, banking, government, and scientific research.” In her review in the New York Journal of Books, Geri Spieler argues that, when focusing on the book’s central premise, Gorbis “breaks through to the reader as to what is important here: the future of a citizen-created world.”

In many ways, the book joins the growing literature on swarms, wikinomics, commons-based and peer-to-peer production methods enabled by advances made in technology:

“Empowered by computing and communication technologies that have been steadily building village-like networks on a global scale, we are infusing more and more of our economic transactions with social connectedness….The new technologies are inherently social and personal. They help us create communities around interests, identities, and common personal challenges. They allow us to gain direct access to a worldwide community of others. And they take anonymity out of our economic transactions.”

Marina Gorbis subsequently describes the impact of these technologies on how we operate as “socialstructing”:

“We are moving away from the dominance of the depersonalized world of institutional production and creating a new economy around social connections and social rewards—a process I call socialstructing. … Not only is this new social economy bringing with it an unprecedented level of familiarity and connectedness to both our global and our local economic exchanges, but it is also changing every domain of our lives, from finance to education and health. It is rapidly ushering in a vast array of new opportunities for us to pursue our passions, create new types of businesses and charitable organizations, redefine the nature of work, and address a wide range of problems that the prevailing formal economy has neglected, if not caused.

Socialstructing is in fact enabling not only a new kind of global economy but a new kind of society, in which amplified individuals—individuals empowered with technologies and the collective intelligence of others in their social network—can take on many functions that previously only large organizations could perform, often more efficiently, at lower cost or no cost at all, and with much greater ease.”

Following a brief intro describing the social and technical drivers behind socialstructing the book describes its manifestation in finance, education, governance, science , and health.  In the chapter “governance beyond government”  the author advocates the creation of a revised “agora” modeled on the ancient Greek concept of participatory democracy. Of particular interest, the chapter describes and explains the legitimacy deficit of present-day political institutions and governmental structures:

“Political institutions are shaped by the social realities of their time and reflect the prevailing technological infrastructure, levels of knowledge, and citizen values. In ancient Athens, a small democratic state, it was possible to gather most citizens in an assembly or on a hill to practice a direct form of democracy, but in a country with millions of people this is nearly impossible. The US Constitution and governance structure emerged in the eighteenth century and were products of a Newtonian view of the universe….But while this framework of government  and society as machines worked reasonably well for several centuries, it is increasingly out of sync with today’s reality and level of knowledge.”

Building upon the deliberative polling process developed by Professor James Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, the author proposes and develops four key elements behind the so-called socialstructed governance:

–          Rich and open data for making informed decisions (referencing the open data movement within the US and elsewhere);

–          Sophisticated decision-support tools and use of algorithms for exploring alternatives and uncovering complex interdependencies (reflecting on the big data potential for decision making);

–          Engagement  platforms for wide citizen involvement and deliberation (comparing various “architectures of participation” such as the State Department’s Opinion Space); and

–          Microparticipation of regular citizens in government decisions and the delivery of public services (pointing to the San Ramon Valley’s CPR app and other tools for networked collaboration developed by, for instance, Citizen Logistics).

The chapter provides for an interesting introduction of the kind of new governance arrangements made feasible by increased computing power and the use of collaborative platforms. As with most literature on the subject, little attention however is paid to evidence on whether these new platforms contribute to a more legitimate and effective outcomes – a necessary next step to move away from “faith-based” discussions to more evidence based interventions.



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