Edition 2022
A Wired Society

On several occasions, we have heard the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. And there is no better example than the behavior of societies, which cannot be described only considering the behavior of each individual. As every individual is wired, directly or indirectly, to millions of others forming networks, the largest difficulty relies on explaining effectively what this network is and how it behaves. What is it that connects us? Which variables act upon our behavior? How can we describe collective behaviors through these connections?

We can model society as a set of nodes, where each node represents one individual which can then connect to any other node. How do these nodes add value to these networks? It is certainly not something that solely depends on the individuals themselves, but the quality of the connections that they are capable of establishing. The contribution of several contributors amplifies results obtained in what is known as the network effect. However, this massive contribution drastically increases the variables in play, which gives these networks a rather chaotical nature. Which valuable opportunities arise in these ever-expanding networks? Which benefits can we find in such systems? Will we ever be able to build models that are sufficiently precise to predict to some extent the collective behavior?

Both the individual and collective bearings of societies morph continuously to adapt to a context distinguished by the effect of networks. How can we remain relevant in a system in which we merely are one more node in the net? Up to what extent can we maintain an unbiased perspective in a world in which connections shape our thoughts and behaviors? How will we organize socially and economically in light of rapid technological developments? Veiled in the answers that we give to these questions is the path that we will transit in the near future.

 

 


Subtopics

The following texts delve into the main ideas of each of the subtopics of this edition.

Avatarism

As time progresses, the limits between the digital and the real are becoming more diffuse. The distinction between virtual environments and what is commonly known as “real life” could be on the verge of becoming obsolete. The Internet and its networks of data and social connections are now far from being mere sites of entertainment or passive consumption of information. Each and every user is a creator, distributor and regulator of content. This process presents society with unique challenges, whether they are technical, psychological, legal or philosophical. Are we beginning to inhabit virtual worlds with the same intensity as reality? What will those worlds be like? What will we look like?

The term “avatarism” arose from online communities that were founded upon an open-source and humanist ethos. They believe freedom of form to be a basic human right. Freedom of form is, essentially, the right to choose one’s self-presentation, to determine how one is perceived and to construct one’s own personal narrative. Avatarism is based on unraveling the meaning of identity itself.

Strictly speaking, avatarism is the process of using technological means to manufacture a representation of a person. This process creates a duality of identities: on the one hand, the tangible, physical person, who lives offline, and on the other hand a virtual person, who exists solely in an inorganic medium, with carefully curated characteristics. Nonetheless, it is inevitable for both entities to maintain some semblance of connection. After all, aren’t avatars necessarily a reflection of real people? Since digital platforms are becoming even more widespread and abundant, each person could have a multiplicity of alter egos rather than just two. In turn, each one would be shaped by the medium it inhabits.

Avatarism relies heavily on the technological advancements that allow us to construct and inhabit virtual worlds in the first place. Self-expression is inevitably limited by the technological and social constraints of its medium. The architecture of each social network or digital platform determines what content is allowed, the maximum length of each post and the visibility of different types of media, for instance. Content and form are inextricably linked: the information each user can view will most likely mold their thoughts and, eventually, their social relations and behavior. In Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig writes “We can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to protect values that we believe are fundamental. Or we can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to allow those values to disappear.” How can we regulate the virtual worlds we inhabit? Will those decisions eventually seep into our regulations for physical worlds?

The Internet has democratized information to such a degree that our freedom of form is practically limitless. If a platform undermines our freedom of form in any way, it is likely that there is another competitor that will be suited to our needs. Technology imbues us with the power and responsibility to program virtual worlds that are complementary or even superior to reality. How would we look if we weren’t limited by the physical and social constraints of the real world? Why should or shouldn’t we modify ourselves and the spaces we dwell in? Is it preferable for avatars to emulate reality or to be something totally different, even fictitious? What happens when these virtual worlds are used as an escape from the mundanity of everyday life?

The meaning of the term “virtual” is twofold. It can refer to something that exists in or is simulated by a computer, or to anything that appears to be real but does not actually, really, physically exist. This begs the question of what we understand by reality. Up to now, it is generally assumed that by “real”, we refer to that which occurs in the physical world and can be perceived by the senses, without additional intermediaries. In that sense, all avatars are virtual, even the ones we create in our offline lives.

Avatars have long predated the Internet. They have been useful for wide ranging purposes, including maintaining privacy, practicing religion and artistic expression. Human beings create avatars as projections of the self, but those inventions end up affecting and reinventing identities in return. Is it possible to have different avatars for different contexts, whether they be digital or physical? What is the real version of a person? Are avatars the most authentic representation, considering that they are created deliberately and freely?

In general, we still agree that the Internet is somehow distinct from “real life.” We have always needed a certain degree of suspension of disbelief to remain immersed in online worlds, but it is undeniable that behind every user is a real person using real technologies. Do we consider digital environments to be fictitious because there are no real-world consequences for our actions? Will this hold true indefinitely? Is anonymity the ultimate avatar? It is still unclear if avatarism can promote greater honesty and authenticity in human interactions. Despite the problems avatars and anonymity may present, they have shown to be particularly useful for fostering political dissent and a plurality of voices. Oscar Wilde once said that “man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he'll tell you the truth.”

Avatarism is now far from being a new instrument. Rather, it is an ages-old concept that is adopting a new meaning through the lens of up-and-coming technologies. It is a challenge of our times to effectively measure its consequences, especially because we are already experiencing them. As members of a global community, we are faced with the task of analyzing our role in the changes our digital and physical environments are undergoing thanks to avatarism. As Mark Stefik puts it,“Different versions of [cyberspace] support different kinds of dreams. We choose, wisely or not.”

 

 

The Paradox of Connection

It is a well-known fact that globalization has driven a sudden advancement in telecommunications that drastically changed the ways in which we interact and communicate with one another. Nowadays, life in society would be impossible without a mobile phone, a device that was a groundbreaking novelty less than thirty years ago. The subsequent arrival of social media appeared to be the ideal avenue for globalization.  For the first time in history, there was an environment where (almost) everyone could be both a producer and a consumer of narratives. However, due to their uncontrolled massification, something paradoxical occurs. In the absolute pinnacle of human interconnectivity, nationalism and isolationism have started to regain relevance.  Why is it that in the era of mass communication the most pressing problems we face arise from the impossibility of connecting with each other?

According to historian Y. N. Harari, “it is a dangerous mistake to imagine that without nationalism we would all be living in a liberal paradise. More likely, we would be living in tribal chaos.” The problem arises when these benign nationalist feelings get exacerbated by simplistic approaches that frame every problem within a nation as an issue that was imported from abroad. What is the point of equilibrium between globalism and nationalism?  Are these stances as opposite as we think they are?

Physical borders between countries are one of the things that define modern times. Even though technology may seem to shorten distances and tear down physical and geographical barriers, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, many developed countries have actually tightened their immigration policies with the advance of globalization, rather than loosening them. As flows of information and goods increase, flows of people (mainly from developing countries) are being obstructed. Is it logical that we promote the free flow of information while closing borders?

At first glance, megacities may seem as obvious counterexamples to what was previously stated. They are cosmopolitan and therefore subject to influence from all around the world. However, megacities also bring marginality, and the active segregation of certain populations. For instance, Skid Row, a neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles is home to the largest stable population of homeless people. Is it not also paradoxical that the emblems of a connected world have invisible walls within them? Is it fair for rights and opportunities to be so dependent on the geographical location in which we are born? Which tools do we have to face this problem?

Carr and Hayes define social media as “internet-based channels that allow users to opportunistically interact and selectively self-present, either in real-time or asynchronously, with both broad and narrow audiences who derive value from user-generated content and the perception of interaction with others”. This definition could innocently lead us to believe that interaction with broad and diverse audiences would allow us to cross geographical boundaries and enable us to enrich ourselves from ideological differences through dialogue. However, human psychology indicates the opposite.

The infamous confirmation bias pushes us to accept evidence that supports our previously formulated hypotheses. If we add that social media algorithms tend to connect us to people who already think similarly, social media creates echo chambers that reproduce and amplify only what aligns with our previous point of view, narrowing the margin for exchanging ideas and reversing our opinions about a certain topic. In such environments, how can we make sure that our stance is authentic and justified if we are only willing to listen to what we want to believe? Or, more generally, how can we contribute to creating networks that reward the exchange of ideas?

As a final comment, it is worth noting that most of the greatest challenges that we face as a species are global in nature. Whether it is global warming, migratory crises, or technological disruptions that may turn the labor market upside down, they all demand at least some level of international cooperation. An approach that might be useful is collaboration and collective intelligence. Scientist researcher Peter A. Gloor defines the term COIN (Collaborative Innovation Network) as a cyber-team of self-motivated people that collaborate towards a common goal. Understanding the potential social media has to power these teams, how can we navigate the chaos of social networks to create collaborative, superior solutions? Can we create groups of intrinsically motivated people through digital platforms? Is collective intelligence the key to solving our most urgent problems?

Human beings are characterized by their ability to communicate, and the current context is a double-edged sword that both promotes and hinders our options to transmit ideas and collaborate with others. Can we master the tools that we have to build a better future? Or are we doomed to be at their mercy?

 

Towards Decentralization

Since the dawn of time, human beings have adapted to live in groups, communities, civilizations, and eventually global societies. The defining characteristic of these social systems is that they are regulated by entities that ensure that each individual carries out specific roles. The objective, of course, is to maintain order to guarantee the flow of information, money, and goods. Centralized systems aim to organize the governance of flows. This begs the question: if centralization promises order, does decentralization inevitably lead to chaos? Could it threaten to slow down the progress humanity has achieved in recent history?

In light of the innovations of decades past, decentralized systems are starting to make their way across the globe while promising progress and benefits. What paradigms does the future of decentralization depend on?

One such paradigm is effective communication. How can we communicate efficiently when we are being hindered by intermediaries that possess the power to manipulate or censor what we want to say? History provides many examples of attempts to achieve and optimize the centralization of communications: Gutenberg’s printing press, messages through radiofrequency during World War I, or even the more primitive versions of the internet. Without intermediaries, information would not be able to travel far. Information is a key factor for decision-making, thus increasing the number of those interested in manipulating it to achieve their own personal objectives. How do we avoid deliberate distortions in the flow of information?

During the last few decades, the blockchain arose as an answer to the necessity of guaranteeing privacy, security, and immutability of transactions. The principle of its operation is based on the replacement of centralized servers—where all the user’s information is stored—for a chain of blocks where each user works as a server, eliminating the need for intermediaries. Simultaneously, each transaction that is made through the network is registered in it, acting as a huge ledger. In which ways does the blockchain complement or outperform conventional financial systems? Are its potential liabilities enough of a drawback to jeopardize its long-term and large-scale viability? 

Blockchain technology gave rise to a new range of possibilities in economic matters, cryptocurrencies being one of the most interesting of them. Even while operating in a traceable environment, the unregulated nature of cryptocurrencies may facilitate the development of illegal activities. Is it sensible to apply regulations in order to avoid this? Are they even possible to regulate? The blockchain is aimed to promote decentralization, but how to use it without clearing the way for wrong-doers is not at all obvious. Is it possible to find alternatives that privilege freedom and privacy while not helping criminals?

Complementarily, it is worth studying how decentralized systems interact with the production of manufactured goods. One of the most evident examples of organized and decentralized production at a large scale is the new international division of labor. Global-scale industrial production is centralized in regions with higher population densities. In such places, labor costs are lower than the global standard. As a consequence, virtually every country in the world had to adapt its industry to the requirements of the global market. Do the benefits of this new global economy structure outweigh its detriments? Which sectors will take advantage, and which will stay far behind? How feasible is it to find alternatives that aim to reduce the production scales to local or even personal levels?

We have developed tools that allow us to reduce the centralization of production, but they are still incipient and cannot compete directly with mass production. 3D printing, for example, is one of the most acclaimed technologies of the last decade, which allows for a new range of possibilities due to its portability and relatively lower costs. Will such technologies be massively accessible in the near future? Could they be the key towards decentralized production?

Analyzing the opportunities that decentralized systems bring both locally and globally, to what extent it is possible to march towards a fully decentralized society in the future? Is the path to decentralization the one we should choose?

 

 

Note: The opinions and ideas presented in these texts were written as triggers to facilitate writing the discussion needed to apply to the SABF. They must not be taken as an undeniable truth. In case of disagreeing with some of the ideas, applicants are encouraged to express it in their texts.