Applying mathematics to the formulation of physical phenomena has been the great success of physical sciences. It laid the foundations of formal science, and perhaps more significantly, it has fostered a great surge in all sorts of technological applications which range from energy production and distribution, to mechanical applications in transport or construction, to consumer electronics and computation, etc. Physical technologies have had and will continue to have a profound impact on our lives, transforming the way we live and behave, and shaping our society.
The failure of the so-called soft sciences to come up with a similarly rigorous formal foundation together with the practical difficulties of running social experiments, explains why progress in social sciences proceeds at a much slower pace, especially if we look at practical applications. However, now that social concepts such as friendship or privacy have entered into the realm of computer sciences, we might be ready to see a surge in social sciences theories and applications that will eventually transform our societies in perhaps radical new ways. Let me show you why.
Webster defines a friend as follows:
Friend: one attached to another by affection or esteem, an acquaintance, one that is not hostile, one that is of the same nation, party, or group; one that favours or promotes something (as a charity); or a favoured companion.
It sounds great but… what does it mean in practical terms? If I see you talking to someone in the street, I will not easily tell if he or she is your friend. Moreover, if I ask you, your answer will convey a meaning which is not universally accepted. For example, extrovert people tend to describe most of their acquaintances as friends, whereas introverts would reserve the name “friend” for closer relationships. So the webster-concept of friendship is a beautiful one for poetry perhaps, but hardly suitable for engineering. Enter Facebook and all other social networks and everything is beginning to change.
A Facebook friend is someone who is going to be fed with the stuff you hung on your wall or, as Robert Scobles suggests, one that wants to see your cat photos. The algorithms running social networking services do not doubt. They send or don’t send, post or don’t post, allow someone to comment or not. There is no doubt about friendship once you enter the algorithmic realm of social networking. Even more important: once there is no doubt about the actions to be derived from friendship, you are forced to think a bit more carefully about whether you want someone to be your friend or not. Did any of your relatives forbid you to be his/her friend anymore for obvious prying reasons?. C’est la vie. That concrete is the twitter-concept of friendship.
With the launch of the Google Plus Project (Google+), Google has done more to define privacy than philosophers all along the history of thought. It is pity that they have also created a fuss with the ban of pseudonyms, which is a different debate and, unfortunately, the one has been catching all the attention. Google+ circles allows you to specify in a reasonable way what you want to share with whom. Your choice of circles and shared content defines the map of your privacy, closely following its Webster definition:
Privacy: the quality or state of being apart from company or observation; freedom from unauthorized intrusion.
Facebook’s privacy mechanisms were akin to a cave man’s before Google+. Then realizing that social relationships lie in a wide range of nuances between no-relationship at all and full exhibitionism, it has quickly reacted to catch up and regain its leadership on social networking. Soon the rest will also have to wage this privacy war and adapt or die, which makes me think that in a few year’s time we’ll have forgotten about the good old days when privacy was an obscure abstract concept apt only for lawyers and lawsuits.
I do not think the outcome of this war is going to be the death of privacy as many people are now saying. Privacy is at the foundation of human being freedoms and a mechanism (information asymmetry) to introduce rich textures, strategies and complexity in our society and the economy. Only dictatorships and bad economists can long for the lack of privacy. Let’s knuckle down and do the maths.
It may sound frivolous to say that a link in a social network graph is the mathematical definition of friendship, or that the membership relationships established by Google+ circles and the associated sharing policy are the mathematical representation of privacy. But if you think twice, those definitions are not more stupid, naïve or frivolous than the definition of a point particle in classical Newtonian mechanics or the Wave Function that represent an electron in Quantum mechanics. Yet the incredible power of a mathematical formalism to make predictions that can then be rigorously tested by experiment, more than makes up for the potential weaknesses of these definitions.
We used to think that XXI century was going to be the century of bio, and perhaps the century of nano and the century of mind. But perhaps it will end up being the century of “social”. Given the current crisis in our societies, I think it would be worth having a try to make it so. Let’s cross our fingers, just in case.