Can Social Networks stop Ignorance (and Stupidity)?

Two days ago, the picture above was posted on Facebook by Tom Martindale –

Two things are immediately obvious:

  1. The ‘planet’ to the right is actually the moon with the United States stretched all over it;
  2. About two thousand people thought it was important enough to share this obvious hoax to their friends.

So – are there indeed two thousand people ignorant enough to share this message without realizing just how ridiculous it is? Isn’t that a reason to be worried about the state of the nation, about people’s education, and also to bemoan the tendency of social media to spread rumors far and wide without any criticism?

Not necessarily.

About two days ago, when the image was still fresh on Facebook and only gathered 500 shares, I took the liberty of going through all the “shares” of the picture that Facebook felt fit to show me. Altogether, I browsed through 86 “shares” – barely a fifth of the full number of people who shared the picture, but still a significant amount. I divided the shares into three categories-

  1. Identified the hoax: Shares by people who recognized the hoax, or that their friends explained to them about the hoax in their replies.
  2. Fooled by the hoax: Shares by people who explicitly mentioned that we were destroying the Earth, which I’m assuming means they thought the picture is authentic.
  3. Unknown: Shares by people who didn’t write anything about the picture, and whose friends did not reply either. We can’t know whether they shared the picture because they believe it is authentic, or because they wanted to have a good laugh about the hoax with their friends.

Care to guess how many people fell for the hoax?

The results are pretty clear. Out of the 86 shares, only one treated the picture explicitly as if it symbolized the destruction of the Earth. Of the other 85 shares, 40 dismissed the picture outright or had it dismissed for them by their friends, while the rest are unknown – they didn’t write anything about the picture in their share.

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That’s actually very impressive. If we assume that the “shares” I counted reflect the overall distribution of shares, it means that for every person who fell victim to the hoax, we have forty people who identified it outright as a hoax, or had it explained to them immediately by their friends.

What can we learn from this (admittedly small) piece of data?

First, just because a certain image gets shared around the social networks, it doesn’t automatically mean that the sharers actually believe it is true or even worth reading. Many may be sharing it simply to ridicule others. I know this isn’t really a newsflash for all of you reading this post, but with everyone being so gloomy about the state of the nation’s ignorance and gullibility, it’s a good thing to keep in mind.

Second, while social networks are often rightly accused of spreading rumors, lies and misperceptions, it’s impossible to ignore their positive effects. Ignorant people can be found in every crowd, but they often don’t even know how ignorant they actually are. In the social network, it can be difficult to remain ignorant unless you’re doing so by choice. Whatever you share is open to debate, to criticism, to ridicule and to corrections by people who often know more and care more for the subject than you do.

Obviously, that’s not the end of the issue by far. Social networks can also be used to spread untruths of many kinds. In many issues, the loudest and most rabid voices are the most heard. If an alien from outer space would’ve logged into Facebook today, he would’ve figured that GMOs are hazardous to your health, vaccines cause autism, and marijuana cures cancer. At least two of the above are clearly and demonstrably false, and yet each conspiracy theory has gathered a large crowd of believers who will defend it online to their dying breath from any rational argument.

So: social networks – are they good or bad for public knowledge and understanding? That’s obviously a false dichotomy. Social networks work just like the agora – the gathering place where all the Greek citizens came together to discuss matters. They bring the agora to us, which means we’re going to get approached by many charlatans peddling their wares and beliefs, and also by the skeptics who are trying to warn us off. Social networks take away the loneliness of the individual, and turn us into a crowd – for good AND for bad at the same time.

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Failures in Foresight: The Failure of Segregation

In this post we’ll embark on a journey back in time, to the year 2000, when you were young and eager students. You’re sitting in a lecture given by a bald and handsome futurist. He’s promising to you that within 15 years, i.e. in the year 2015, the exponential growth in computational capabilities will ensure that you will be able to hold a super-computer in your hands.

“Yeah, right,” a smart-looking student sniggers loudly, “and what will we do with it?”

The futurist explains that the future you will watch movies, and hear music with that tiny computer. You exchange bewildered looks with your friends. You all find that difficult to believe in – how can you store large movies on such a small computer? The futurist explains that another trend – that of exponential growth in data storage – will mean that your hand-held super-computer will also store tens of thousands of megabytes.

You see some people in the audience rolling their eyes – promises, promises! Yet you are willing to keep on listening. Of course, the futurist then completely jumps off the cliff of rationality, and promises that in 15 years, everyone will enjoy wireless connectivity almost everywhere, at a speed of tens of megabytes per second.

“That makes no sense.” The smart student laughs again. “Who will ever need such a wireless network? Almost nobody has laptop computers anyway!”

The futurist reminds you that everyone is going to carry super-computers on their bodies in the future. The heckler laughs again, loudly.

 

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The smartphone: a result of several trends coming into fruition together. Source: Pixabay.

 

The Failure of Segregation

I assume you realize the point by now. The failure demonstrated in this exchange is what I call The Failure of Segregation. It is an incredibly common failure, stemming from our need to focus on only a single trend, and missing the combined and cumulative impacts of two, three or even ten trends at the same time.

In the example above, the forecast made by the futurist would not have been reasonable if only one trend was analyzed. Who needs a superfast Wi-Fi if there aren’t advanced laptops and smartphones to use it? Almost nobody. So from a rational point of view, there’s no reason to invest in such a wireless network. It is only when you consider three trends together – exponential growth in computational capabilities, data storage and wireless network – that you can understand the future.

Every product we enjoy today, is the result of several trends coming into fruition together. Facebook, for example, would not have been nearly as successful if not for these trends –

  1. Exponential growth in computational capabilities, so that nearly everyone has a personal computer.
  2. Miniaturization and mobilization of computers into smartphones.
  3. Exponential improvement of digital cameras, so that every smartphone has a camera today.
  4. Cable internet everywhere.
  5. Wireless internet (Wi-Fi) everywhere.
  6. Cellular internet connections provided by the cellular phone companies.
  7. GPS receiver in every smartphone.
  8. The social trend of people using online social networks.

These are only eight trends, but I’m sure there are many others standing behind Facebook’s success. Only by looking at all eight trends could we have hoped to forecast the future accurately.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to look into all the possible trends at the same time.

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Facebook: another result of the aggregation of several trends together. Source: LimeTree Online

A Problem of Complexity

Let’s say that you are now aware of the Failure of Segregation, and so you try to contemplate all of the technological trends together, to obtain a more accurate image of the future. If you try to consider just three technological trends (A, B and C) and the ways they could work together to create new products, you would have four possible results: AB, AC, BC and ABC. That’s not so bad, is it?

However, if you add just one more technological trend to the mix, you’ll find yourself with eleven possible results. Do the calculations yourself if you don’t believe me. The formula is relatively simple, with N being the number of trends you’re considering, and X being the number of possible combinations of trends –

equation2

It’s obvious that for just ten technological trends, there are about a thousand different ways to combine them together. Considering twenty trends will cause you a major headache, and will bring the number of possible combinations up to one million. Add just ten more trends, and you get a billion possible combinations.

To give you an understanding of the complexity of the task on hand, the international consulting firm Gartner has taken the effort to map 37 of the most highly expected technological trends in their Gartner’s 2015 Hype Cycle. I’ll let you do the calculations yourself for the number of combinations stemming from all of these trends.

The problem, of course, becomes even more complicated once you realize you can combine the same two, three or ten technologies to achieve different results. Smart robots (trend A) enjoying machine learning capabilities (trend B) could be used as autonomous cars, or they could be used to teach pupils in class. And of course, throughout this process we pretend to know that said trends will be continue just the way we expect them to – and trends rarely do that.

What you should be realizing by now is that the opposite of the Failure of Segregation is the Failure of Over-Aggregation: trying to look at tens of trends at the same time, even though the human brain cannot hold such an immense variety of resultant combinations and solutions.

So what can we do?

 

Dancing between Failures

Sadly, there’s no golden rule or a simple solution to these failures. The important thing is to be aware of their existence, so that discussions about the future cannot be oversimplified into considering just one trend, detached from the others.

Professional futurists use a variety of methods, including scenario development, general morphological analysis and causal layered analysis to analyze the different trends and attempt to recombine them into different solutions for the future. These methodologies all have their place, and I’ll explain them and their use in other posts in the future. However, for now it should be clear that the incredibly large number of possible solutions makes it impossible to consider only one future with any kind of certainty.

In some of the future posts in this series, I’ll delve deeper into the various methodologies designed to counter the two failures. It’s going to be interesting!