The Social Operating System

Mixed reality (see post on Mixed Reality) describes a form of social and cultural evolution that merges digital technology with all aspects of life such that houses, workplaces, offices, schools, universities, libraries, public buildings, hospitals, indeed, entire cities including the complex systems of transportation, energy, logistics, and communication they depend upon become interfaces, that is, one great complex, automated information and communication system. Building the associations, enrolling the actors, translating their programs, navigating, managing, coordinating, and making use of this heterogeneous, hybrid network of humans and non-humans is the job of what may be called the social operating system. An operating system, such as Windows, iOS, or Linux is the key software of a computer. It enables and controls input and output devices, coordinates functions, guides processes, and monitors the operation of all elements of the complex hardware and the various applications that run on it. It holds the entire system together. The idea of a social operating system was made popular with the rise of Web 2.0 and what is called “social media.” It refers to the increasing dependence of almost all activities on digital information and communication and to the integration of technological systems into work, play, learning, health care, etc.

As opposed to systemic and cybernetic approaches that are oriented toward prediction and control, the idea of the social operating system emphasizes the interdependence of automated systems and human participation and decision making. Above all, it refers to the emergence of a social order that is fundamentally bottom up, participatory, and self-organizing as opposed to hierarchical, top down model, with closed feedback loops directed to maximizing efficiency and functionality. What is social in the social operating system is that it operates in such a way that functionalized intermediaries and black boxes are transformed into actors and mediators. The concept of a social operation system is based on hermeneutics to the extent that it assumes the “autonomy” of the object as a carrier of meaning beyond the intentions of either authors or interpreters. It is based on actor-network theory to the extent that it assumes the irreduciblity of entities and the primacy of mediation over functionalism. It can be claimed that the directives, the guiding principles of the social operating system are the structuring principles of the network society, in so far that is, as the network society is not reduced to the dystopian vision of the perfectly functioning cybernetic machine in which freedom, contingency, serendipity, and the unexpected are sacrificed for functionality, efficiency, and security.

Just as the industrial society before it, the network society has its own structures and dynamic, its own principles and norms. On the basis of an empirical long-term study, Tapscott identified typical “norms” or “distinctive attitudinal and behavioral characteristics” of the so-called “Net-Generation.” Tapscott’s approach to understanding new media is based on investigating what the actors do with digital media and how the uses of new media influence what rules they follow in constructing their identities within the networks in which they live. We should follow Tapscott’s lead in attempting to identify the rules of the game of networking, that is, those forms of communicative action that construct, maintain, and transform networks. In keeping with the basic insights of philosophical hermeneutics and actor-network theory, the idea of norm should be extended to include not only human intentional actors. The results are “network norms” that may be understood as structural principles or normative guidelines of a network society. These are: connectivity, flow, communication, transparency, participation, authenticity, and flexibility. We will describe these network norms in future posts.


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  1. Pingback: If Facebook were a Nation | Interpreting Networks

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