The below is a transcript of my recent Pecha Kucha (20 slides, 20 seconds each) talk on “Social Cooling” – a disturbing phenomenon I think everyone should be aware of.
Personal data is said to be the new oil…not just because of the industry’s value, but because of its power. And, like big oil is blamed for global warming (or climate change), big data or the quantification of everything human, is leading to a different but equally concerning phenomenon that of Social Cooling…
Now, to understand Social Cooling, it helps to understand the concept of the Overton Window – The Overton Window basically refers to the increasingly narrow field of “politically acceptable narrative” – or the shrinking safe space of common ground between increasingly polarising opposing ideologies.
In our digitised, hyper-connected world, there are very real consequences for stepping out of that acceptable Overton Window – Such as the very public “cancelling” of (or social-mob-justice “Twitter lynchings”) of celebrities and online influencers when they don’t obey the narrative script society sets out for them.
Indeed, even ordinary. ‘un-famous’ people have discovered breaking the prevailing Group Think rules can result in their business being closed / their getting fired from their jobs, or losing friends too embarrassed to be associated with them after a public humiliation…
The fact of the matter is, as our online and offline lives blur, our data is turned into hundreds and thousands of breadcrumbs that follow us around the connected world and consolidate into “social credit scores” that have very real world effects on our access to opportunity and social status.
Indeed, in China social credit scores have been solidified into an official omniscient, omnipotent system that links individuals’ online, offline, political, religious, and financial behaviour into a score that controls citizens access to housing, education and even the right to leave the country…
In this world where digital reputation can limit your real life opportunities – or even jeopardise your very life – as we become aware that we are being watched, judged and rated, it’s no wonder that we begin change our our behaviour to secure ourselves a better ‘score’.
In other words, ubiquitous big data is breeding a society where self-censorship in thought, word and deed becomes the new normal… as people feel pressure to conform to the Overton Window of socially acceptable opinions. This self-censorship in exchange for social acceptance is known as Social Cooling.
Global Social Cooling is the cumulative long-term negative effect of living in the quantified, reputation economy – where our every action, thought, tweet, and like is recorded and scrutinised… and used to rank our place in society.
Furthermore, as our online and offline worlds blur, there is no escape from the big data drag net – our lives are always under scrutiny, from smart watches, city street cameras, Alexa, Siri and live-streaming social media services – We are ALWAYS on stage, on view, being judged – there is no more back stage or offstage…
The pressure to perform and maintain our online “face” offline is even leading young people the world over to invest in plastic surgery to make themselves look like the perfect, filtered selfies they post of themselves online – In this way the social mask is becoming a LITERAL mask too!
This unhealthy trajectory is leading to the homogenisation of society, not only in terms of what we say and how we behave, but even in terms of how we look – resulting in a world of human clones where everyone and acts and APPEARS to think alike in order to fit in with the role we are expected to play.
Group-think is entrenched by the online echo chambers that continually reinforce our confirmation biases -through the algorithms designed to feed us the most popular ideas to generate more clicks – resulting in a vicious cycle of “success to the apparently successful ideas” – leaving little room for free, original thought or dissenting opinions.
Of course, if everyone is exposed to the same ideas and conforming to the same ideals – how can we be sure that anyone is who they say they are, or that anyone really agres with the status quo? How can you trust anyone when everyone is wearing the same social mask for the same reasons?
This superficial social homogenisation has a significant cost – the pervasive culture of conformity stifles creativity and innovation as much as it does free speech – If no one is prepared to take a chance on a new idea that might end in failure or ridicule – the long term effect is to “cool-down” society’s growth and development.
In a society where no-one steps out of line – it becomes too costly not to follow the heard. But we need to resist this inertia – As we are monitored and nudged into complacency by technology that NEVER FORGETS or FORGIVES we need to fight for the right to be imperfect, make mistakes, take chances and stand out!
Then, to FORCE that Overton Window back open, we need to get comfortable with conflict – we need to argue more – if we are too frightened to disagree, we can’t learn – so engage with people you don’t agree with – and more importantly— FORGIVE mistakes instead of joining the mob and ganging on dissenting voices.
And, not only should we listen to the outliers, we also find the courage to speak up to our own TRUTH. Don’t stay silent and pretend to agree with mainstream narrative if it contradicts your personal values and vision! We need more colour, more shade, less binary, black and white narrative.
Maybe, if we all start to dance a little out of line, and sing a little out of tune, we can start to warm up the world again (in a good way, a human way – not the climate change way, of course!) Maybe then, we can thaw the chill social cooling is casting over our lives.