This post is from Steve Devijver who is the author of A Strategy of Constant Change, available as a free ebook at endesha.
Q from Ed: From your perspective, what is a social object? How do we identify them? And more importantly, how do we nurture them so that they provide a basis for a sustainable relationship over time?
Ed, thanks for your latest answer, I'm not sure I understood all of it but it certainly made me think. I guess you'll have to elaborate some more on social contexts later on.
Social objects are very dear to me because I believe they hold the key to what it is to be a human being. Examples of social objects are pictures, videos, articles, cameras, cars, ... . Social objects are also elusive, because we don't really understand them all that well. I think the most interesting thing about social objects is that they're young: they've only been "discovered" in 2001, and after that they've been picked up and further developed by people involved in social networks, like Jyri Engeström and Hugh MacLeod.
So social objects are defined by a little bit of academic context and a lot of lore. Social objects are not physical things: they exist in our mind. According to the academic description social objects are internal articulations of real-world objects that make further exploration possible. They are meaning producing and practice generating.
Play comes to mind when I think about social objects. You know, to play with something we need to have an internal articulation of what we're playing with and the play itself is further exploration. Also, social objects are not limited to internal articulations of real-world objects. They can be internal articulations of objects in any world. I'm thinking about the online game World of Warcraft. This is not a real world, but players do need an understanding of the objects in that world in order to function properly as players.
Like with anything related to our brain, everybody in every culture uses social objects all of the time, but that doesn't mean everybody will immediately understand what social objects are. Just as it's not easy to understand what emotions are although we're driven by them all of the time. Social objects are abstract: they're more elusive than the things they describe. This means that social objects are there, but we don't have to understand them to use them. Our brain deals with social objects on auto-pilot, without our cognitive intervention.
But once we understand social objects are there, what they are, and how we can benefit from them an entire new world opens. This started to happen over the last couple of years. The easier part to understand about social objects is the first part of its academic description: we can understand what internal articulations are, and we can understand how they might allow for further exploration. Give a child a tennis ball and a racket and the child will figure things out. That's the easy part.
The social in social object is much more elusive to understand. This refers to social objects as meaning producing and practice generating which is the second part of the academic description. It took me a long time to figure this out, but here it is: memes and social objects are closely related. Memes are ideas or behavior that travel been brains through communication. The meme as a concept is closely related to the gene, where genes travel between living organisms through reproduction.
The gene needs living organisms to reproduce in order for the gene to continue to exist. The meme similarly needs brains to communicate in order for the meme to continue to exist. Just like living organisms are created by genes, social objects inside our individual brains are created by memes. So there's a social object inside our brain for every object we know: every book, every movie, every picture we've ever seen, every car we've ever driven, every dish we've ever eaten, even trail we've ever walked on, every beach town we've ever visited and so on.
Media are special because they allow us to exchange social objects much more effectively than ever before. This explains why science is in so much trouble today. Let me elaborate.
When Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439 it set about a printing spree of ideas, which ultimately led to the creation of the Royal Society in London in 1660. The people gathered in the Royal Society had enough of the wild claims by just about everybody about the universe, human nature, God, ... . They set up a simple rule that you can come before the Royal Society and talk about anything you want as long as you can prove your claims through experiments on stage. This led to development of the scientific method, but not without the help of Immanuel Kant.
Kant claimed - which is now widely accepted - there is no way of knowing whether what we experience through our senses is real or not. We cannot validate the information we perceive. I mean, this is what the movie The Matrix is about, right? Scientist's response to this has been that only empirical information is valid proof for scientific experiments: you boil water, and you notice on the thermometer the boiling starts at 100 degree Celcius. You publish your findings along with your method of doing your experiment. This allows other people to repeat your experiment and verify whether their results are as described or as predicted. What's important here is that this experiment is based on empirical evidence: the reading of the thermometer gauge, the description of the boiling water, the description of setting up the experiment. Everything about scientific experiments is empirical, thought experiments are not accepted as proof.
What's required to maintain this empirical foundation of scientific experiments is constant validation through peer review, and the intention and motivation to keep the scientific movement alive. That went pretty well, until the Gutenberg revolution ended.
In the post-Gutenberg revolution anybody can publish anything, and entire movements that don't agree with the scientific method can just as easily take hold, and for example force the teaching of intelligent design in schools. The reason this is possible is because people own the media today through social networks, and the Internet more generally. They can organize themselves to spread ideas that before could never have spread. And as these ideas spread social objects spread too. I have a social object on intelligent design in my head! How could that have happened? Because we don't control the creation of social objects, reading a critique on intelligent design is enough to create that social object.
The scientific method is a potent and consistent set of rules that are valuable, but social objects are value-free: there's probably no consistent bias for Good social objects or against Bad social objects. So the scientific method today no longer has the upper hand and has to share the social object space with all those ideas scientists have fought against for centuries. What social media have done is open the floodgates, and I can imagine why some people believe this is a bad thing. However, things will not return to how they were before unless somebody shuts down the Internet.
It's fascinating how easily social objects travel, seemingly without constraint. As I've indicated before though, it's not because I have a social object on intelligent design in my head I'm suddenly converted despite my will. That's not how social objects work. They're more subtle. As we do further exploration we're depending on our convictions of how the world works and on our morality to act true to ourselves.
The reason why Internet scams reportedly work so well is because a tiny amount of people is unable to filter out the scams from the genuine offers, and what sets this filter failure in motion is their initial exploration of this social object they found in their mailbox. The failure is in the filters, but if the filters are destined to fail then the point of no return is the initial exploration of the social object behind the scam.
Ever since I've discovered social object theory I've become fascinated to discover a larger mechanistic view of human beings that is actually human-being-friendly. By that I mean, my view on social objects does not diminish human nature to a source of evil. What it does is enrich our view on human nature, without judging.
I can talk much more about this, but I think that's enough for now. As you can imagine social objects can be conductive for building relationships, but they can also obstruct relationships. In the end I believe is all depends how the meeting of our individual filters, morality, and views on human nature work out.
So here's a question for you Ed:
Q: You describe an organizational setting as a social context. I see an organization as a network of relationships. I'm still not sure if you believe we're talking about the same thing, or whether we're talking about different levels. Can you elaborate on your internal articulation of the social context? How does it define an organization? And how can personal relationships transcend the social context?