Stewardship of Global Collective Behavior

Communication technology radically reshapes our global social network. How do we ensure these changes will lead towards a sustainable, equitable and healthy world?

We have built and adopted technology that alters behavior at global scales without a theory of what will happen or a coherent strategy for reducing harm. Much of my research focuses on understanding the emergent consequences of digital communication technology and identifying strategies to minimize harm.

Trained as an ecologist, I spent the early years of my Ph.D. surrounded by researchers studying our natural world. Although they worked on systems ranging in scale from viruses to global climate, much of the work shared a common theme of understanding the impact of human activity on once-stable complex systems. Our natural world now exists in a precarious state that requires an urgent, evidence-based response through technological innovation and subsequent over-exploitation.

My research takes this framing and applies it to human social behavior. Over the past 12,000 years, we’ve gone from solving local problems vocally to being faced with global challenges and communicating through smartphones. Much like our natural systems, digital communication technology has been primarily developed to mine our attention for profit. There is no reason to believe that these changes will bring about a healthy, equitable, and sustainable world. Along with co-authors across the natural, physical, and social sciences, we published a paper in PNAS arguing that our global collective behavior is in urgent need of stewardship.

This project emerged from a workshop hosted in 2017 on Princeton’s campus and remains ongoing. Since that time it has broadened out to involve researchers at over a dozen institutions. We recently brougt this group of researchers together with experts in tech and policy for a <a workshop hosted by the Institute for for rebooting social media at Harvard University. You can read more about that workshop here.

Related Work

  • Stewardship of Global Collective Behavior PNAS
  • Combining interventions to reduce the spread of viral misinformation SocArXiV
  • The Ignorance of the Crowd Scientific American
  • Why Did Donald Trump Get Elected? Ask the Bees Wired
  • Selected Media Coverage

  • As Climate Change Fries the World, Social Media Is Frying Our Brains, Bloomberg
  • Why some biologists and ecologists think social media is a risk to humanity, Vox
  • ¿Y si las redes sociales fueran un peligro para la humanidad? Un grupo de expertos alerta sobre una hipótesis cada vez menos descabellada, Univision
  • Recode