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Our world has been transformed by a recent wave of technological and social change.  The technological wave began with a succession of ever more powerful computers that ushered in the “information age.”  It grew bigger with the introduction of the digital networks — notably the Internet and the World Wide Web — and associated browsers that permitted computer users to visit millions of websites around the world in a matter of seconds.  Over the last several years, mobile and wearable devices, cloud storage and countless software applications have invited us to leverage the power of networked information and move a rapidly growing portion of our activities from the three-dimensional, physical world into cyberspace. Today one can, for example, advertise, sell, buy, bank, play, meet friends, share confidences, turn on appliances, argue, steal, and even engage in warfare in cyberspace, with the online activity experienced through the two-dimensional screen of one’s networked digital device.

As a result of recent, widely publicized breaches of private and proprietary information, we have become well aware of looming vulnerabilities that result from this shift to cyberspace.  These high-profile threats, that now extend beyond the security of information to our critical physical systems (such as power grids and public transportation), are the focus of frenzied public and private discussion in industry, government and policy circles.  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.

Digital technologies have been produced and introduced into markets with little consideration of 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 adoption of digital tools, for example, structure thought and action, just as a spoken language influences how one organizes one’s experiences.  Our laws, norms and conventions are forced to adapt to each wave of new cyber technology without consciously considering – by protecting or reframing – the respective core values and goals of these social systems.



The “Cyber-Social Systems” Approach



The future cannot be built by technological creators alone, and that awareness 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. Many of the societal stresses we experience today illustrate that, to date, such collaborations have been more the exception than the rule.  “Cybersecurity” research, for example, has generally been interpreted as correcting the technical flaws and vulnerabilities in digital technologies – flaws and vulnerabilities that have been revealed through use or misuse by humans, of course, but the focus of the research has been more on the technical specifications for the technologies than on the thoughtful, strategic understanding of the interactions between human behavior and the structures of social systems in which the technologies are embedded.


Although the realm of human interaction can be divided in many different ways into social systems, a few illustrative examples may be helpful.  At a high level of abstraction, one might think of the market, the democratic state and civil society as systems.  More finely partitioned systems involve education, payment mechanisms, insurance, health care, transportation, energy, philanthropy, the workplace, or even the production of knowledge itself. 


These 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.  Generally, each system relies on a set of structures and mechanisms that promote stability, fairness, efficiency, reliability and trustworthiness.  Ensuring that these values are protected and enhanced during or through the adoption and integration of new technologies requires open, balanced and respectful collaborations between those who build digital products and infrastructures and the social scientists, humanists, educators and legal, medical and management experts who deeply understand how human social systems have operated throughout the history of humankind.


Starting with such an informed view of the needs of a social system offers an opportunity to be more strategic and far-sighted in employing and advocating for effective digital products and structures within that system from the outset.  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. Addressing immediate technical flaws and vulnerabilities remains an important part of today’s research, but advocating for a broader, system-wide perspective will also offer longer-term solutions to current problems.