Monday, December 01, 2008

Engineering Social Capital

Social capital is the network of personal relationships—memberships in associations, personal friendships, even people you say hi to at the grocery store—without which a society becomes just a collection of isolated individuals. Of course, even a highly dysfunctional society has some social capital, unless everyone is living as a hermit or a Robinson Crusoe with no human interaction of any kind. But social capital is at least as important to a society's well-being as the more familiar financial and physical kinds. In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Harvard professor of public policy Robert D. Putnam showed the vital importance of social capital for all sorts of things, ranging from personal health to national prosperity. He also exhibited tons of evidence that the U. S. has suffered a long-term decline in social capital beginning around the 1960s and progressing through the rest of the twentieth century.

As I read Bowling Alone, I kept finding little pieces of my life being explained here and there, and I'm sure nearly everyone who reads it will as well. That Junior League thing that my mother belonged to—social capital. Those bridge games and backyard barbecues my parents were always having—social capital. (Did you know that in 1958, one of every three adults were bridge players?) The stubborn decline in the percentage of eligible U. S. engineers who belong to professional societies such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers over the last twenty years—social capital again.

Much of the change is generational. It turns out that the baby-boomer-parent generation which came of age in the 1940s and 50s also participated in a peak in social capital, as measured by everything from memberships in voluntary organizations, to voting and political action, to union membership and writing letters to newspapers. Those who came afterwards do less of all these things. In a series of state-by-state studies that compare the degree of social capital with public health, efficiency in government, economic strength, and so on, Putnam shows that the right kinds of social capital (there are bad kinds, it turns out) benefit these other socially desirable factors as well. In other words, if you live in a state with higher social capital, you're likely to make more money, live longer, and even be happier with your life, on average. So the fact that social capital in the U. S. is sinking is cause for concern.

What has this got to do with engineering? Only nearly everything. Many of the sources of the decline Putnam describes have their roots in technological changes: the rise of television in the late 1940s, the increased urbanization (and suburbanization) of America, even (although he doesn't mention it) technologies like air conditioning, that makes staying inside with the windows closed on really hot days a viable option. Although the Internet was just gathering steam as Putnam finished his tome, I'm sure he'd have a lot to say today about the rise of computer-mediated relationships at the expense of face-to-face encounters.

Far from being a technology-is-bad Luddite, Putnam acknowledges that technology has helped to increase social capital in some ways. The automobile made travelling for social reasons easier, especially for young people. Having online relationships is better than no relationships at all. His main point is that many technologies have externalities—unintended consequences, basically—that often adversely affect social capital. When your choice of what to do in the evening was to go to a movie with friends or play a pickup basketball game, both activities involved you with other people. But now the options might be between watching your latest Netflix CD or trying out your new videogame—typically both solitary pursuits.

Every engineer whose work affects the way people spend their time or money—which is nearly every engineer—should read this book. It's a big book, some 400 pages and notes, but it's easy to read, entertaining in spots, and toward the end Putnam goes on a little Sherlock Holmes quest to find the "culprits" responsible for the decline of social capital. Technology isn't the only one—the shift of women into the workplace, urbanization and sprawl, and several others helped as well—but it is a major enough player to justify the attention of any engineer whose product or service might tend either to bring people together or to isolate them from others.

A good example of a newly engineered product that potentially leads to beneficial social capital is Nintendo's Wii video game console. Unlike other games which require only rapid finger movements, the Wii console encourages the use of games that involve the player's whole body and can more easily involve two players at once. I haven't tried it myself, but if the reports are true, a video game that encourages two people to be playing the same game in the same room produces more social capital than otherwise.

So the next time you stop what you're doing and think about the social consequences of your work, try thinking along the lines of social capital: Will this product bring people together? Or will it be one more reason for a guy to sit alone in his room with his machinery? It's not the only factor, but it is a factor that engineers seldom consider. And Bowling Alone makes it clear that something needs to be done soon.

Sources: Robert D. Putnam's Bowling Alone was published by Simon & Schuster in 2000. For an explanation of externalities, see my blog "The Ethics of Externalities" on Nov. 3, 2008.

1 comment:

  1. I have been thinking about this myself recently. I am not a religious person, and yet I envy those that are, mostly for the instant and relatively portable social network benefits. I have watched our society become increasingly divided and boxed, with people functioning less as a community and more as individuals, and it saddens me. I have made it a major goal for next year to get out of my box, and really invest in "acquisition of social capital" - or to put it another way - making friends and connections. Thanks for the interesting post. I'll check back soon!