The Idea of Social Network Optimization

This is a non-technical account of my ideas, but I hope that it can still be quite precise. Those of you who would prefer to deal directly with a more technical treatment of these ideas, please click on this link.

Years ago I spent several months in Berkeley, near the UCB campus. I rather expected the old hotel I stayed in, less than a block from the Sather Gate to have a lot of graffiti on the walls of the communal bathrooms -- one per floor. But instead the bathroom on my floor had exactly one piece of graffiti, which said "If we had fewer choices we'd be happier". There is something paradoxical about this, which seems to contradict the more obvious conclusion that we all want to have a choice rather than facing compulsion.

After many years of thinking about this I've come to the conclusion that we do want choices, but we also need some kind of help in making good choices. People want a real choice of job, but simply having good choices may not be enough, as the graffiti above suggests -- it should be easy to make the right choice.

Let's start with a couple of simple questions:

The key word in both of those questions was "find".  It can be very difficult to find a good job, and it can be very difficult to find a truly compatible spouse or sexual partner.  At least part of the problem in finding a job or a spouse is similar to the problem of finding a book to read, doing research for a term paper, or obtaining a good computer program -- these are all problems in information retrieval.

This page is written for people who use a web-browser to look for interesting things on the World Wide Web, and looking for interesting things on the web is a form of information retrieval. Good browsers and good search engines like InfoSeek or HotBot can help make the retrieval of interesting information easy, and I believe they should also help us make good choices in other areas.

Most of the important social relationships in any person's life come from choices between a few discrete opportunities -- here is a short list of some of these relationships, which I collectively describe as a person's social environment:

I usually refer to this idea of providing some help for social choices as social network optimization, but that last word often causes trouble.

When I use the word optimization in this context people always seem to feel threatened, as if I am advocating that some government agency for 'Optimization' should 'Optimize Society' according to some criterion of what kind of society is 'Optimal', established perhaps by some government 'Bureau of Optimization'.

I am not advocating anything like that.

What I am advocating is the creation of tools that individual people can chose to use, or not to use, to decide for themselves what may or may not be a better (more-optimal) life, and that they may freely chose to use, or not to use, entirely at their own discretion, to have such a better life.

Very ordinary human problems, such as finding a job, finding a home, finding a mate, and finding friends, all depend upon the ability to make good connections, and thus on ability of the social network to supply useful information about possible connections.

It is possible to use mathematical methods to create tools for social network optimization which can be used by individuals without any knowledge of the underlying mathematics -- all the hard mathematics can remain hidden in the software.

Most social problems can be seen as optimization problems which are similar to problems mathematicians and computer scientists know how to solved.

However the most fundamental task in any optimization problem is defining what shall count as optimum -- and here the individual user must make these decisions, not the mathematician.

Once that hard part is done, the rest of the problem is a matter of computation, even though the computations might take quite a while.

If this interests you, you should look at The Idea of Social Technology or A Personal Narrative , neither of which is too technical.  The Video Store Example shows how similar technology can be used to solve a more easily understood problem of helping people to make good choices.

Copyright © 1998 Douglas P. Wilson      

Copyright © 2009   Douglas Pardoe Wilson

Other relevant content:

New: Social Technology through Diagrams

New: Social Techs novel online

New: Social Technology Blog

New: Social Technology Wiki

Please see these web pages:

The main Social Technology page.

Find Compatibles , the key page, with the real solution to all other problems explained

Technological Fantasies , a page about future technology

Social Tech a page about Social Technology, technology for social purposes.  I think I was the first person to use this phrase on the Internet, quite a long time ago.

Roughly corresponding to these web pages are the following blogs :

Social Technology the main blog, hosted on this site, with posts imported from the following blogs, which still exist and are useable.

Find Compatibles devoted to matching people with friends, lovers, jobs, places to live and so on, but doing so in ways that will actually work, using good math, good algorithms, good analysis.

Technological Fantasies devoted to future stuff, new ideas, things that might be invented or might happen, such as what is listed above and below.

Sex-Politics-Religion is a blog about these important topics, which I have been told should never be mentioned in polite conversation.  Alright that advice does seem a bit dated, but many people are still told not to bring up these subjects around the dinner table.

I believe I was the first person on the Internet to use the phrase Social Technology -- years before the Web existed.

Those were the good old days, when the number of people using the net exceeed the amount of content on it, so that it was easy to start a discussion about such an upopular topic.  Now things are different.  There are so many web pages that the chances of anyone finding this page are low, even with good search engines like Google.   Oh, well.

By Social Technology I mean the technology for organizing and maintaining human society.  The example I had most firmly in mind is the subject of  Find Compatibles , what I consider to be the key page, the one with the real solution to all other problems explained.

As I explained on my early mailing lists and later webpages, I find that social technology has hardly improved at all over the years.   We still use representative democracy, exactly the same as it was used in the 18th century.  By contrast, horse and buggy transporation has been replaced by automobiles and airplanes, enormous changes.

In the picture below you will see some 18th century technology, such as the ox-plow in the middle of the picture.  How things have changed since then in agricultural technology.  But we still use chance encounters, engagements and marriages to organize our home life and the raising of children.  

I claim that great advances in social technology are not only possible but inevitable.  I have written three novels about this, one preposterously long, 5000 pages, another merely very very long, 1500 pages.  The third is short enough at 340 pages to be published some day.  Maybe.  The topic is still not interesting to most people.   I will excerpt small parts of these novels on the web sometime, maybe even post the raw text for the larger two.

This site includes many pages dating from 1997 to 2008 which are quite out of date.  They are included here partly to show the development of these ideas and partly to cover things the newer pages do not.  There will be broken links where these pages referenced external sites.  I've tried to fix up or maiintain all internal links, but some will probably have been missed.   One may wish to look at an earlier version of this page , rather longer, and at an overview of most parts of what can be called a bigger project.

Type in this address to e-mail me.  The image is interesting.  See Status of Social Technology

Copyright © 2007, 2008, 2009, Douglas Pardoe Wilson

I have used a series of e-mail address over the years, each of which eventually became out of date because of a change of Internet services or became almost useless because of spam.  Eventually I stuck with a Yahoo address, but my inbox still fills up with spam and their spam filter still removes messages I wanted to see.  So I have switched to a new e-mail service.  Web spiders should not be able to find it, since it is hidden in a jpeg picture.   I have also made it difficult to reach me.  The picture is not a clickable link.  To send me e-mail you must want to do so badly enough to type this address in.  That is a nuisance, for which I do apologize, but I just don't want a lot of mail from people who do not care about what I have to say.


A Personal Narrative

Another Old Index Page

The Video Store Example

Copyright © 2009   Douglas Pardoe Wilson