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
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Information Sociology

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


  1. The business collects a fuller specification of the need, either by talking to customers or through differential sales, or through another channel.
  2. 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.
  3. Finally, information about the need and its addressability finds its way to new customers via advertising or word-of-mouth.

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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.

  • 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.
  • 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.

A History of Category Problems

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

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The types of information in bold seemed newly important.

What’s Next?

What are the category problems now, in 2017?

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.

Nothing to Be Done?

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

  • At a higher level, they also fail to recognize the social spaces and practices which help us explore, develop, and refine our values.
  • In Five Days with the Devil, I sketch how our modern institutions misrepresent values as goals, preferences, or beliefs.

If you liked this post, click the ❤️ button. And send me your ideas, here or on Twitter.


Further Reading

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

  1. 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.
  2. Neil Postman. Chapter 7 of Technopoly is a groundbreaking, far-reaching info-soc analysis of business metrics, quarterly reports, and experts.
  3. Mel Conway. Conway’s Law is a great example of an info-soc argument.
  1. 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!)
  2. George Stigler is another founder of info econ. His classic paper takes on advertising and branding as information flow.
  3. 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…

Thanks to Jordan Hall

Joe Edelman

Written by

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]

Joe Edelman

Written by

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]

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