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 How little we know about the dangers.

We can discover, “Like,” click on, and share information faster than ever before, guided by algorithms most of us don’t quite understand.

Some social scientists, journalists, and activists have been raising concerns about how this is affecting our democracy, mental health, and relationships, we haven’t seen biologists and ecologists weighing in as much.

That’s changed with a new paper published in the prestigious science journal PNAS earlier this month, titled “Stewardship of global collective behavior.

Seventeen researchers who specialize in widely different fields, from climate science to philosophy, make the case that academics should treat the study of technology’s large-scale impact on society as a “crisis discipline.”

The authors warn that if left misunderstood and unchecked, we could see unintended consequences of new technology contributing to phenomena such as “election tampering, disease, violent extremism, famine, racism, and war.”

Human collective dynamics are critical to the wellbeing of people and ecosystems in the present and will set the stage for how we face global challenges with impacts that will last centuries .There is no reason to suppose natural selection will have endowed us with dynamics that are intrinsically conducive to human wellbeing or sustainability. The same is true of communication technology, which has largely been developed to solve the needs of individuals or single organizations. Such technology, combined with human population growth, has created a global social network that is larger, denser, and able to transmit higher-fidelity information at greater speed. With the rise of the digital age, this social network is increasingly coupled to algorithms that create unprecedented feedback effects.

Insight from across academic disciplines demonstrates that past and present changes to our social networks will have functional consequences across scales of organization. Given that the impacts of communication technology will transcend disciplinary lines, the scientific response must do so as well. Unsafe adoption of technology has the potential to both threaten wellbeing in the present and have lasting consequences for sustainability. Mitigating risk to ourselves and posterity requires a consolidated, crisis-focused study of human collective behavior.

Collective behavior provides a framework for understanding how the actions and properties of groups emerge from the way individuals generate and share information. In humans, information flows were initially shaped by natural selection yet are increasingly structured by emerging communication technologies. Our larger, more complex social networks now transfer high-fidelity information over vast distances at low cost. The digital age and the rise of social media have accelerated changes to our social systems, with poorly understood functional consequences. This gap in our knowledge represents a principal challenge to scientific progress, democracy, and actions to address global crises. We argue that the study of collective behavior must rise to a “crisis discipline” just as medicine, conservation, and climate science have, with a focus on providing actionable insight to policymakers and regulators for the stewardship of social systems.


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