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An Introduction to Cyber-Social Systems

Our societal systems are strongly tied to cyber technologies

It’s hard to believe now that there were ever naysayers about the scope of the internet. Even as late as 1994, the New York Times ran a story [1] cautioning that there may only be a few million users of the internet with, somehow, only about a million connected machines. Times have changed. Even a task as formerly simple and feasible to accomplish without computers as driving from Stanford to Berkeley now heavily involves cyber technology: an app on my phone gives me directions and warns me of hazards on the road reported by other drivers, my toll pass syncs with a receiver at the toll booth to debit my online account, and traffic flow sensors under the pavement wirelessly transmit data on how many cars are passing over them and how quickly. There are other auxiliary cyber capabilities involved in my drive, like my ability to stream internet radio in my car, or the communications systems used by the highway patrol to communicate between patrol vehicles. Many networked systems and devices are communicating, storing, and syncing data; some work well together, and others don’t even need to be aware of one another. Meanwhile, humans are operating within this system, driving the cars that produce the data, curating incoming data to dispatch the highway patrol, or gathering data on traffic congestion to decide when to leave work. What can we call this interconnected system?

We have decided to organize the Cyber Initiative around the study of “cyber-social systems,” in which cyber technologies interact with existing social systems. Social systems comprise the various organizations of human activity, including markets (e.g., consumer, health, education), political arenas (e.g. election campaigns), and other communities (e.g., the workplace). Cyber technologies encompass networked digital technologies – notably, the internet – and extend, for instance, to infrastructure control systems and wireless biomedical devices. Thus, cyber-social systems, both large and small, use embedded digital structures and devices to facilitate, enhance and scale human endeavors. Today one can advertise, sell, buy, bank, play, meet friends, share confidences, turn on appliances, argue, steal, and even engage in warfare in cyberspace.

Cyber-social systems encompass more than cybersecurity, including transformations of our ways of life

One of the biggest changes accompanying the transition to a cyber world is our awareness and conceptualization of security. Entire news cycles have been devoted to recent, widely publicized breaches of private and proprietary information, and these high-profile threats extend beyond the security of information to that of our critical physical systems (such as power grids and public transportation). Yet, the urgent call for solutions to these threats should not lead us to neglect the more diffuse, gradual and fundamental ways in which our ways of life are being transformed. We need to collect, organize and share quantitative and qualitative data to understand these changes.

Some digital technologies have been introduced into markets without fully understanding their short- or long-term social ramifications. In some cases, there is an optimistic premise that market forces or government action will correct for unforeseen problems. The prospect of path dependencies and externalities from market-driven adoption of technologies, however, raise large and complex questions as to their largely unintended impact on social welfare. Moreover, the accretion of technological change over time fundamentally changes who we are and how we interact with each other, whether at work or leisure.

The Stanford Cyber Initiative brings together experts in technology and societal systems to produce research, inform policy, and guide education

This brings us to the heart of the Stanford Cyber Initiative: the imperative to build new bridges across which technology experts and societal system experts can communicate and collaborate to better address the needs of 21st century societies. Our social systems predate the digital revolution, and understanding their long-standing values and goals is essential to assessing the impact and prospects of digital technologies. This approach anticipates the interaction of technology and human behavior, providing the opportunity to both avoid emergent flaws and enhance the social gains from technical innovation.


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