Objectivity is a fiction!
In my presentations on information abundance and social media I often say that ‘objectivity is a fiction, it really is multi-subjectivity’ and then go on to say that using social media is a good way of exposing yourself to a diverse enough multi-subjectivity to be able to detect patterns in what is going on around you.
But that’s just my subjective view, isn’t it?
Now when I say objectivity is a fiction, that can be easily challenged of course. That I am writing this in my hometown Enschede, or the existence of water in our world are objective facts (even if the words to describe them, such as hometown or water, aren’t).
Lucky for me I’ve never been challenged that way in my presentations.
Probably because they were smart and knew that I was talking about different kinds of objective facts.
During our vacation in the Austrian Alps I read Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate and he provided me with the two words to say more precisely where we need to replace the word objectivity with multi-subjectivity.
Those words are: social facts.
If objects of sociality (Jyri Engestrom’s term) are catalysts for human relationships, social facts provide core stability to groups of relationships.
That George Bush is the US President, or Beatrix of Orange-Nassau is the Queen of the Netherlands is a social fact not an objective one. It is something we merely generally agree upon to be true (even those opposing monarchy, or those thinking Bush never beat Al Gore). We all behave like it is true. If we would stop that, it would indeed cease to be true.
Money systems, number and measures systems, religious belief systems etc. are social facts too. They’re designed. They can be changed by groups simply stopping to accept them. Social facts are the emperor’s new clothes. Social facts are the product of multi-subjectivity. We pretend that social facts are objective facts.
Social facts provide stability
Social facts do serve a useful role of course. Social facts provide core stability to groups of relationships. It would be very inefficient if the US President would have to get all US citizens to agree to each of his actions now allowed by his role as US President. Transactions would dry up if we would need to make sure our money would be good elsewhere everytime. (And in financial crises they do dry up precisely because the ‘fact’ is coming undone.) Religion has been a corner stone of many cultures and still is. Social facts allow for more complex societal structures
Social facts however need to be seen I think as what they are: agreements.
Because sometimes we need to escape social facts. When they have become inefficient or ineffective. The American Revolution was the correction of the innefficiency of having to pay taxes without representation or self-decision. The Declaration of Independence changed the social fact of the British King having power over the American colonies. The ensuing violence was needed to convince the British to accept that changed ‘reality’.
Sometimes we need to be able to see social facts in a new light. When we can become more efficient or effective by doing so.
Sometimes we need to be able to see social facts as the agreements they are, because we’ll meet people that aren’t part of that agreement, or have their own agreements and we might need to understand their position.
Social media detects (emerging) social facts
By exposing yourself to the multi-subjective views of your social environment you detect patterns. What is important to them, what is irrelevant to them, what are they excited about, what binds them, what drives them apart? Or in other words: what are the existing and emerging social facts in that social environment? Social media are very good at exposing you to the views of your wider social environment, at showing you the patterns. If you treat your RSS-sources as a chorus of voices of individuals that is. I subscribe to bloggers, not to blogs, to people making pictures not to Flickr streams.
Culture is the Greatest Hits collection of social facts
Social facts I think overlap with cultural categories.
Pinker presents a culture as the sum of the individual psychologies of those in a culture. Social facts are agreements in groups of people. Cultural categories serve the same role.
Social facts remain true if it is efficient or effective to do so. When social facts change, cultural categories shift, culture changes. (My old posting on cultural monsters goes into shifting categories more)
What we call culture can be seen as a collection of old social facts we kept around. It’s the greatest hits of social facts. I think it also means culture can change faster than we think.
I feel there is also a similar connection between social facts, smart mobs, and how Wikipedia works because it is statistically right. But that’s something for later.