One Weird Trick and You’ll Understand Social Change

Information Flow, Society, and the Last 400 Years

Joe Edelman
Apr 6, 2017 · 9 min read

In thinking about society—about today’s issues or the future—I’m a fan of this particular approach.

It’s behind all my favorite works: In sociology, it’s behind James Scott’s Seeing Like a State. In economics, it’s behind Nobel-prize winning work by Friedrich Hayek, Amartya Sen, and George Stigler. It sheds light on many social issues: on climate change, on voter suppression, on isolation of the elderly. It’s even a great way to look at history.

I’ll call it information sociology. In 8 minutes, I’ll show how it works. I’ll start by diagramming information flow in a small business, then apply those diagrams to social issues. Finally, I’ll reframe social change in the last 400 years as a story of rescued information, and peer into the future of social change.

Let’s go!

Information Sociology

What information travels through society? In particular, what travels through different institutions, through types of organizations, or communication media.

Let me grab a part of society and ask: what information needs to flow around for this part to do its work?

I could use any part of societyany institution, organization, or medium. I could use the market, television, government bureaucracy, an NGO, a social network, a representative democracy… anything!

But to start easy, I’ll analyze a small business.


So, picture a small businesses trying to meet customer needs.

For this to happen, what information must flow around? Obviously the customer needs have got to go from the customer, into the business, and back.

Here’s a more complete list:

  1. Customers express their needs through purchases and prices.
  2. The business collects a fuller specification of the need, either by talking to customers or through differential sales, or through another channel.
  3. The need-information moves around inside the organization, so those inside it can address needs in an informed way. Internal information circulates up and down in quarterly reports or meetings.
  4. Finally, information about the need and its addressability finds its way to new customers via advertising or word-of-mouth.

Put this all together, and we get a diagram that shows customer needs getting encoded in various formats:

A simple business. An economy is millions of these, all connected. This diagram doesn’t show advertising or internal communications.

Here are some of the encodings in the diagram: there are purchase decisions and prices, there are product specifications, various types of conversation between customers and employees, internal employee knowledge, delivered products, and there is word of mouth between customers.

Each of these formats captures only some information. If the formats don’t capture a type of information, the business won’t be able to respond to it.


Zooming out:

  1. Needs are just one type of information about individual experience. Institutions might also pass around opportunities, situations, values, valuations, threats, feelings, theories, etc. Any institution — markets, bureaucracies, NGOs, social networks, representative democracies — has some types it’s built to pass around, while others are secondary or are ignored.
  2. As information is passed, it’s re-encoded in various formats: price signals, quarterly reports, meetings, votes, polls, cries for help, lack of consensus, etc. Each format is good for only some types. For instance, quarterly reports can’t carry information about the personal lives and ambitions of customers, and purchases don’t carry much information about customers’ beliefs or theories about the product. For an institution to work, information must flow across several formats.
  3. Each encoding makes for lost information. This is by design: losing information allows institutions to highlight and act on what’s important, what’s widespread, or what’s urgent. Voting systems, for instance, lose information about what’s important to only a few people. Court systems are more sensitive to that, but less to public preferences. Markets lose information about whatever people wouldn’t or can’t allocate a budget for.

So, in general, an institution is characterized by the type of information it carries, the formats through which that information travels, and the information loss that happens, moving from format to format.

For a society to respond to some information, it must find a route through institutions, organizations, or media. If a person’s needs aren’t served by business, they could still find a route through voting systems, through court cases, through community assessments by NGOs, through networks of social workers, through church meetings, and so on. Needs can flow through many institutions in a society.

Social Issues and Information Loss

Information loss needs to happen. But it also causes problems. Sometimes vital information is lost: information people need to live well.

Social issues can be viewed as information losses:

  • Climate change is when businesses and consumers lose information about carbon costs.
  • Poverty, when information is lost about the aptitudes, the hopes, and the potential mentors and employers of the poor.
  • Voter suppression is a direct loss of political preference.
  • The decay of family structures or rural communities indicates a loss of information about the value of those structures and communities to the people in them.
  • When the elderly are isolated, it’s lost information about the stories they have to tell, about ways of living that would incorporate them, or who might want to care for them.

And so on.

These problems are of two types:

  • Some are distortion problems. Often, the right type of information is circulated, and the formats are good, but there’s distortion or bias as to which information is collected or circulated. In the examples above, that’s how it is with voter suppression, with poverty, and with climate change. The institutions don’t collect all preferences equally, don’t recognize all employability equally, and don’t recognize equally all the costs of making products.
  • Others are category problems. It may be that institutions aren’t biased—but that there’s an important type of information that’s not collected or transmitted at all, by any institution. Periodically, we discover that a new type of information is important. In the 20th century, this happened with feelings and with oppressions. New institutions—like psychotherapy and unions and civil rights laws—became prominent as we acknowledged the importance of the missing information.

Our institutions are certainly biased, but that’s not the whole story: there are also category problems. What could they be? There might be clues in the examples above: it’s not clear what the bias would be for the issues about family structures, decay in rural communities, or isolation of the elderly.

Maybe there’s a missing type of information.

A History of Category Problems

I’ve written about category problems before, but I didn’t name them as such.

In my post Nothing To Be Done, I showed that social change fits a pattern: big social changes arrive right after the public develops a new view of human nature.

As information sociologists, we know precisely how this happens: each new view of human nature reveals a category problem in existing institutions. The new view names a type of information that isn’t being collected or transmitted.

Here it is in detail:

Once the existence and importance of the new information is accepted, everyone scrambles towards new institutions, new formats, and new kinds of information loss.

Newly recognized types of information spark new formats and new institutions:

The types of information in bold seemed newly important.

Social change is when we rescue information that was hidden by category problems.

What’s Next?

What are the category problems now, in 2017?

Here’s a clue:

Markets, voting systems, and social networks all seem blind to our needs for adventurous lives, for community, for meaning, and for love.

The economic fact is that people would pay a lot for adventure, or for love. In chasing these values, people make costly moves: they’ll move to foreign countries, they’ll end relationships, they’ll distance themselves from their parents.

And people do spend a lot in attempting to buy these things—via adventure vacations, rugged clothing, and dating sites.

But neither markets, nor voting systems, nor social networks can deliver on love, adventure, community, or meaning. People would love to pay, but businesses can’t deliver real responses to these needs. Neither can governments: everyone would vote for love, adventure, community, and meaning, but they’re not on the ballot. Other institutions do just as poorly.

Why is this?

Perhaps the information required to fit love or adventure to a human life isn’t captured in existing formats.

To make blue jeans, haircuts, or window-glass fittings, you need to know certain things about your customers: their waist size, style preference, car model, and so on. This kind of information manages to circulate inside businesses.

But perhaps, to understand someone’s desire for adventure, or how they could express it, you’d need information that doesn’t circulate; that doesn’t fit in quarterly reports, or votes.

Why are these needs so different than those for window glass, or for a stylish haircut? Where exactly is this information lost? Is it more in the prices or more in the quarterly reports?

And what type of information is being lost?

Is there a kind of meeting or quarterly report that could transmit this information? Is there a kind of voting system? Or court system? Or community organization?

Nothing to Be Done?

To answer these questions will take more than a post. But I’ll give you my hypothesis.

Our 20th century institutions are blind to two types of information:

  • At the lower level, our current institutions can’t transit information about values — what’s expressively important to each of us.
  • At a higher level, they also fail to recognize the social spaces and practices which help us explore, develop, and refine our values.

So our current institutions can’t recognize human values or the social spaces where we thrive. This information loss is crushing us. It’s making our technology, our consumerism, and our governments into more of a burden and less of a help.

This information can’t be encoded in price signals, quarterly reports, votes, operating system menus, and so on. So new institutions and new technological approaches are necessary.

How will we get there?

We must recognize the importance of values and social spaces:

  • In When Wisdom Comes, I show how an awareness of values comes from feeling feelings and from grappling with conflicts.
  • In Five Days with the Devil, I sketch how our modern institutions misrepresent values as goals, preferences, or beliefs.

We must also locate the information loss in existing systems, and find new systems that do better:

  • In Is Anything Worth Maximizing, I redesign economic and organizational success metrics, so as to recognize the values of the customers, users, or clients.

But these are small steps. Follow What to Build as I sketch more of the path. And use information sociology yourself to invent the institutions we need.


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Further Reading

Information sociology is sadly undeveloped, but here’s a tour of prior work:

By Sociologists, Media Theorists, and Organizational Psychologists

  1. James Scott. In Seeing Like a State, he studies information loss in large modernist projects. (See book summaries by Scott Alexander and Venkat Rao)
  2. Lev Vygotsky and Alexei Leontiev. Their activity theory was an inspiration for the information flow diagram in this post. It’s not quite information sociology, but it’s close.
  3. Neil Postman. Chapter 7 of Technopoly is a groundbreaking, far-reaching info-soc analysis of business metrics, quarterly reports, and experts.
  4. Mel Conway. Conway’s Law is a great example of an info-soc argument.

By Economists

  1. Amartya Sen examined preferences-as-information-flow. Notable are his analyses of freedom as something besides preference, and of non-goal values in choice.
  2. Joseph Stiglitz. In his classic paper on screening, he launched the subfield of information economics. (Perhaps it’s more a part of information sociology than of economics!)
  3. George Stigler is another founder of info econ. His classic paper takes on advertising and branding as information flow.
  4. Both build on Hayek’s classic on prices as information, The Use of Knowledge in Society.

Human Systems

A textbook and guide to repairing the social fabric by understanding values, practices, norms, and so on. Stay in touch! tinyletter.com/humsys [emails], twitter.com/humsys [tweets], tiny.cc/onlineClass [face to face]

Thanks to Jordan Hall.

Joe Edelman

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Stay in touch! human-systems.org

Human Systems

A textbook and guide to repairing the social fabric by understanding values, practices, norms, and so on. Stay in touch! tinyletter.com/humsys [emails], twitter.com/humsys [tweets], tiny.cc/onlineClass [face to face]