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From Earth to Solaria and Back The evolution of social interactions in the Internet era


From Earth to Solaria and Back The evolution of social interactions in the Internet era Fabio Sabatini Sapienza University of Rome Department of Economics and Law – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: From Earth to Solaria and Back The evolution of social interactions in the Internet era

From Earth to Solaria and BackThe evolution of
social interactions in the Internet era
  • Fabio Sabatini
  • Sapienza University of RomeDepartment of
    Economics and Law

Congresso Iberoamericano de Sistemas de
Conhecimento Vale dos Vinhedos - Bento Gonçalves,
Brasil October 27, 2011
Social Capital Gatewayhttp//www.socialcapitalgat
you can download my papers from
This presentation will be largely devoted to the
role of the Internet in the accumulation of
social capital. All references can be retrieved
(and freely downloaded) at the url
  • Solaria is a fictional planet Isaac Asimov
    described in the Foundation and Robot series.
  • It was the last of the fifty worlds to be
    colonized by the so-called Spacers, a line of
    space colonists.
  • After centuries of sustained economic growth
    boosted by an unbounded technical progress,
    Solaria developed the most eccentric culture of
    the colonies.

  • Originally, there were about 20,000 people living
    alone in vast estates.
  • Solarians lives were marked by technology
    citizens never had to meet, save for sexual
    contact for reproductive purposes.
  • All other contact was accomplished by
    sophisticated holographic viewing systems, with
    most Solarians exhibiting a strong phobia towards
    actual contact, or even being in the same room as
    another human.
  • All work was done by robots there were indeed
    thousands of robots for every Solarian.

  • As centuries went by, economic growth and
    technical progress made Solaria become even more
    rigidly and obsessively isolationist. The planet
    cut off all contact with the rest of the Galaxy
    (although continuing to monitor hyperspatial
  • Its inhabitants genetically altered themselves to
    be hermaphroditic in order to avoid sexual
  • At the final stage of Solarian civilization, the
    human inhabitants disappeared, giving the
    impression that they had died out (although they
    had in fact withdrawn underground). Their estates
    continued to be worked by millions of robots.

Growth, technology and the risk of
  • Asimov draws on the Solaria metaphor to warn
    against the risks of dehumanization that may be
    caused by excessive growth and technical
  • In the 1950s, Asimovs novel well embodied the
    common fear according to which technology would
    have progressively destroyed social interaction.

Today, October 27, 2011
  • Today, our lives are marked by technology almost
    as those of Solarians, and despite the
    spreading of some criticism - growth is still
    the policy makers pole star.
  • The widespread diffusion of broadband, the
    internet revolution, and the true explosion of
    online networks like Facebook, Twitter, and
    Flickr create growing worries about the risk of
    relational poverty.
  • The folk wisdom pointing to technology as one of
    the major responsible of the widespread social
    isolation of our time has get stronger and
    stronger, walking at the same pace of
    technological advance.

What is happening to social interactions?
  • According to the earlier sociological literature
    on the Internet, communication technologies may
    lower the probability of having face-to-face
    contacts with family, neighbours, or friends in
    ones home.
  • Wellman et al. (2006) note that internet usage
    may even interfere with communication in the
    home, creating a post-familial family where
    family members spend time interacting with
    computers, rather than with each other.

The supposed decline in social capital
  • Robert Putnam (1995 2000) has documented how
    most indicators of social capital followed an
    inverted U path in the United States during the
    twentieth century.
  • During the first two thirds of the century
    Americans took a more and more active role in
    the social and political life of their
    communities, and they behaved in an increasingly
    trustworthy way toward one another (2000, p.
  • Then, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s and
    accelerating in the 1980s and 1990s, an erosion
    of the stock of American social capital started.

The supposed decline in social capital
1) Pressure on time and money2) Mobility and
sprawlThese phenomena have been considered in
the economic literature as channels through which
economic growth can cause a reduction in social
Putnam discusses 3 main explanations for this
inverted-U trend
3) Technology and mass mediaTechnology has made
news and entertainment increasingly
individualized. Electronic technology allows us
to consume hand-tailored entertainment in
private, even utterly alone the time allocation
of Americans massively shifted toward home-based
activities (especially watching TV) and away from
socializing outside the home (2000, pp. 216-217
and 238).
The negative social externalities of growth
  • It is possible to argue that the pressure on time
    exerted by economic growth acts as a factor
    hampering the consolidation of social ties,
    thereby leading to an erosion of the stock of
    social capital.
  • Routledge and von Amsberg (JME, 2003) show that
    the technical change and innovation generally
    associated to growth influence social capital by
    rising labour mobility higher levels of turnover
    may hamper the consolidation of social ties, both
    inside and outside the workplace.
  • Moreover, the uncertainty of future incomes
    related to increased mobility affects any form of
    long-term planning of life activities such as
    marriage and procreation.

The negative social externalities of growth
  • An early account of this process is given by Fred
    Hirsch (Social Limits to Growth, 1976) As the
    subjective cost of time rises, pressure for
    specific balancing of personal advantage in
    social relationships will increase ... Perception
    of the time spent in social relationships as a
    cost is itself a product of privatized affluence.
  • The effect is to whittle down the amount of
    friendship and social contact ... The huge
    increase in personal mobility in modern economies
    adds to the problem by making sociability more of
    a public and less of a private good.

The negative social externalities of technology
  • Conventional wisdom suggests that growths
    perverse effects on social cohesion are bound to
    be exacerbated by technical progress (Solaria
  • In an interview to the New York Times, Robert
    Putnam stated that The distinctive effect of
    technology has been to enable us to get
    entertainment and information while remaining
    entirely alone.
  • Its fundamentally bad because the lack of social
    contact means that we dont share information and
    values and outlook that we should.

Why should economists care about social capital?
  • One of the more intriguing theses standing from
    the debate is that trust and social capital are
    key factors for making the economy work in the
    right way.
  • The economys ability of reproducing itself,
    thereby experiencing sustainable growth, depends
    also on its ability to foster - or, at least, to
    preserve - its endowments of social capital.
  • A summary of the mechanism
  • a) a social environment rich of participation
    opportunities is a fertile ground for nurturing
    trust and shared values, where repeated
    interactions foster the diffusion of information
    and raise reputations relevance.
  • b) The higher opportunity cost of free-riding in
    prisoners dilemma kind of situations makes the
    agents behaviour more foreseeable causing an
    overall reduction of uncertainty.
  • c) Therefore, an increase in trust-based
    relations reduce monitoring costs and, more in
    general, the average cost of transactions,
    specially the highly trust-sensitive ones (e.g.
    those ones taking place in the financial market).
  • d) In the long run, such a mechanism may boost
    growth and development.

Why should economists care about social capital?
  • The reverse effect that growth and development
    exert on the accumulation of social capital is a
    surprisingly (and guiltily) neglected topic in
    the economic debate ().
  • It is logical to argue that the mechanism works
    along two directions not only social capital
    feeds growth and development growth and
    development create, shape, destroy social capital
    as well. In other words, the mechanism is
  • This presentation will try to provide some hints
    on the conditions under which such a social
    capital-fed development can be sustainable in the
    long run or, in other terms, when the social
    capital ? trust ? development cycle may be able
    to self-feed.

Why should economists care about social capital?
  • Sustainable development can be defined as a
    process for improving the range of opportunities
    that will enable individual human beings and
    communities to achieve their aspirations and full
    potential over a sustained period of time (i.e.
    in the long run), while maintaining the
    resilience of economic, social and environmental
  • We could adapt this definition of sustainable
    development to our framework by stating that
    development is sustainable as far as it does not
    erode the stock of social capital of the economy.

Bibliographical references on the relationship
between social capital and economic growth are
available at the url http//www.socialcapitalgatew
A model Antoci, Sabatini and Sodini (2011, JEBO)
  • We assume that, in each instant of time t, the
    well-being of the individual depends on the
    consumption of two goods a private (or material)
    good, Ci(t), and a socially provided (or
    relational) good, Bi(t).
  • Even if private and relational goods satisfy
    different needs, the private good can be consumed
    as a substitute for the relational one.
  • For example, when the social environment is poor,
    people may be constrained to replace human
    interactions, e.g. joining the meetings of a
    cultural circle or playing football with friends,
    with private consumption, e.g. staying at home
    and watching TV or playing a virtual match
    against the computer.

Definition of relational goods
  • Relational goods are a distinctive type of good
    that can only be enjoyed if shared with others.
    They are different from private goods, which are
    enjoyed alone (Uhlaner 1989). Following Coleman
    (1988, 1990), we assume that social participation
    (i.e. the production/consumption of relational
    goods) generates social capital as a by-product.

Model Private vs. relational goods
  • We assume that Bi(t) is produced through the
    joint action of the time devoted to social
    activities, the average social participation, and
    the stock of social capital
  • The time agent i does not spend for social
    participation, is used as an input in the
    production of the private good. Moreover, we
    model the claims of the empirical literature by
    assuming that SC plays a role in private

Model Private vs. relational goods
  • The instantaneous utility of the representative
    agent is represented by the following CES
  • i.e. agents well-being depends on private and
    relational goods.
  • We assume that private goods can satisfy both
    private and social needs. On the contrary,
    relational goods cannot satisfy primary needs
    such as food, security, clothing, and shelter.

Model Private vs. relational goods
  • As we state in the introduction, these goods
    serve different needs. However, we introduce the
    possibility that private goods substitute for
    relational ones in the satisfaction of social
    needs, or, at least, for compensating the
    deprivation of human interactions. For example, a
    material, highly technology intensive, good like
    a playstation can (partially) console for the
    unavailability of 21 friends to play football on
    a sport field.
  • The extent to which such a substitution process
    can take place is given by
    measuring the (constant) elasticity of
    substitution between B and C. We will address
    two cases
  • Low substitutability between B and C (? gt 0). In
    this situation, material and relational goods are
  • High substitutability between material and
    relational goods (? gt 0). We will refer to this
    case by saying that B and C are substitutes.

Model accumulation of social capital
  • Following hints from rational choice sociology,
    we assume that most of the times the creation of
    social ties does not depend on rational
    investment decisions. Social capital is
    accumulated as a by-product of social
  • Following hints from political science, we assume
    that the production of private goods exerts a
    positive spillover on social capitals
  • Since human relations need care to be preserved,
    we introduce a positive SCs depreciation rate ?
    to account for their possible cooling over time

Model accumulation of social capital
  • The resulting stock is a public resource, which
    enters as an argument in every agents utility
    function due to its ability to contribute to the
    production of both private and relational goods.

Model the agents problem
  • Letting r be the discounting rate of future
    utility, the i-agents maximization problem is
  • Under the constraint
  • Since agents are a continuum, i takes the average
    values of s, B, and Y as given.
  • Please refer to the paper if you want to learn
    more about the exact functional forms.

Model exogenous technological progress
  • In this framework, we introduce an exogenous
    technological progress.
  • We assume that technological progress raises
    productivity in the production of both private
    and relational goods.
  • The assumption is based on the observation that
    technology can help the production of relational
    goods in a variety of ways.
  • where T represents technological progress,
    growing at the exogenous rate µ.

  • If the following assumptions hold
  • There is positive substitutability between B and
  • and Ks gives a significant contribution to the
    production of private goods.
  • and technological progress contributes to the
    production of material goods more than to the
    production of relational goods
  • Then the stock of social capital may exhibit a
    growth followed by a decline, so that its
    relationship with technological progress is
    described by an inverted U-shaped curve.

  • If there is no substitutability between B and C
  • Or if
  • Ks contributes to the production of relational
    goods more than to the production of material
  • and technological progress supports productivity
    more in the production of relational goods than
    in the production of material goods
  • Then, the stock of social capital can unboundedly

Interpretation of results
  • The role of technology in social interactions.
  • When can technological progress support the
    production of relational goods more than the
    production of material goods?
  • In our view, this is the case for online
    networking, i.e. participation to social
    networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Interpretation of results
  • In the rest of the presentation, we will show
  • A) how, in a world characterized by a rising
    pressure on time, the evolution of human
    interaction implies a partial shift from
    face-to-face interactions to Internet-mediated
  • B) Why we do not have to worry about this

An evolutionary model (Antoci et al. 2011c and
  • We model a society composed by a continuum of
    identical individuals. In each instant of time
    they choose how to allocate their leisure time,
    p, which is exogenously given, between two kinds
    of social interaction.
  • We assume that, in each instant of time t
  • 1) A share x(t) of agents embrace a social
    networking strategy SN, i.e. their social
    participation relies both on online networks and
    face to face interaction.
  • 2) The remaining share of the population 1
    x(t) adopts a face-to-face strategy FF they do
    not interact online and thus develop all their
    relationships through face to face encounters.

  • The payoff of the FF strategydepends on x(t) and
    on the share of time devoted to social
    interaction, p.
  • The payoff of the SN strategy depends on the
    share of the population adopting it, x(t), on the
    time agents devote to social participation, p,
    and on the wealth of ties - or, in other words,
    the stock of social capital - of online networks
    at time t, Kn(t)

The Internet social capital as a public good
  • The stock Kn(t) is a public good, in that it
    potentially benefits whoever is connected to the
    Web and adopts the SN strategy.
  • A peculiarity of Kn(t) is that it allows
    asynchronous interactions which may help people
    to reconcile working activities and pervasive
    busyness with the need to take care of social
    relationships. When individuals cannot meet in
    person due to time differences (think, for
    example, of people working on a night shift, or
    of friends living in different hemispheres), the
    Internet social capital offers the possibility of
    a quality though deferred interaction.
  • What happens here is NOT the replacement of
    actual encounters with deferred, more impersonal
    and less deep, contacts.
  • Rather, in this case the Internet social capital
    offers individuals the possibility to preserve
    relationships which would otherwise be unravelled
    by busyness, distance, and the pressure of time.

Payoffs further assumptions
  • We assume that the payoff of the FF strategy
    decreases as the share of the population adopting
    the SN strategy grows.
  • The payoff of the SN strategy increases as Kn,
    i.e. the stock of the internets social capital,
  • In other words, the more our friends join
    Facebook, the higher the utility of subscribing
    to the platform will be as well. On the other
    hand, being outside of the network (i.e.
    continuing to play the FF strategy) may imply an
    increasing relational cost.

Payoffs further assumptions (the role of p)
  • The more the time p available for social
    participation declines, the more the SN strategy
    becomes comparatively more profitable.
  • By contrast, a growth in the time p for leisure
    makes the FF strategy comparatively more
  • If agents are forced to be deeply immersed in
    their professional activities, the possibility to
    take care of human relationships in spare moments
    (e.g., while on the train, or at home before
    going to sleep) becomes a precious means for the
    preservation of social life.
  • SN can thus be interpreted also as a defensive
    strategy that individuals adopt to protect their
    social life from growing pressure on time.

Payoffs further assumptions (the role of p)
  • Please refer to the full papers for the
    development of the theoretical framework
  • - Antoci, A., Sabatini, F., Sodini, M. (2011b).
    See You on Facebook! A framework for analyzing
    the role of computer-mediated interaction in the
    evolution of social capital. Submitted.
  • - Antoci, A., Sabatini, F., Sodini, M. (2011c).
    Bowling alone but tweeting together the
    evolution of human interaction in the social
    networking Era. Submitted.

Results of the analysis of the model
  • We show that two extreme stationary states are
  • 1) (Kn, x) (0, 0) all agents adopt the FF
  • 2) (Kn, x) (pß / ?), 1 the stock of the
    Internet social capital reaches its highest
    possible level and all agents embrace the social
    networking strategy.

Results of the analysis of the model
  • In the two cited papers we show that the basins
    of attraction of the stationary state where all
    agents chose the SN strategy (and the stock Kn
    representing the wealth of knowledge and ties of
    the Internet reaches its highest level) expands
    as the time p available for social participation
  • Internet-mediated interaction can be seen as a
    tool allowing individuals to manage their social
    relationships despite increasing time pressures
    and possible distance constraints.

The yellow line moves towards the left-bottom
part of the plane as p decreases
Empirical evidence
  • Early sociological studies on computer-mediated
    communication shared the fear that the Internet
    would cause a progressive reduction in social
    interactions, just as the activity of watching TV
  • The main argument shared by Internet skeptics was
    based on the presumption that the more time
    people spend using the Internet during leisure
    time, the more time has to be detracted from
    social activities (Katz et al. 2001 Nie et al.
    2002, Attewel et al. 2003 Gershuny 2003
    Robinson and Martin 2010).
  • However, studies emphasizing the negative
    correlation between Internet usage and
    sociability date back to just shortly before the
    explosion of online networking, and they could
    not differentiate between pure entertainment and
    social activities.
  • At that time, using the internet was
    predominantly an individual activity like
    watching TV or reading newspapers.

Pew Research Center on Internet American Life
  • Today, the use of the internet is strongly
    related to being connected to social networking
    sites, which in turn entails forms of engagement
    in social activities.
  • In the U.S. 73 of online teens (aged 12-17) and
    an equal number (72) of young adults (18-29) use
    social network sites.
  • In the U.S. in May 2011 fully 65 of online
    adults now use social networking sites.
  • This figure marks a dramatic increase from the
    first time the Project surveyed usage of social
    networking sites in February of 2005. At that
    time just 8 of internet users or 5 of all
    adults said they used SNSs.
  • In December 2010, U.S. Internet users were found
    to be more likely than others to be active in
    some kind of voluntary group or organization 80
    of American Internet users participate in groups,
    compared with 56 of non-Internet users.
  • Social media users are even more likely to be
    active 82 of social network users and 85 of
    Twitter users are group participants (Rainie et
    al. 2011).
  • This evolution makes any comparison between the
    internet and TV anachronistic!

Empirical evidence
  • Recent empirical evidence suggests that SNSs
  • a) support the strengthening of bonding and
    bridging social capital (Steinfield et al. 2008,
    Park et al. 2009 Pénard and Poussing 2010
    Bauernschuster et al. 2011)
  • b) allow the crystallization of weak or latent
    ties that might otherwise remain ephemeral
    (Haythornthwaite 2005, Ellison et al. 2007 2011
    Miyata and Kobayashi 2008)
  • c) facilitate the establishment of
    collaborations in the academic community (Matzat
  • d) support teenagers' self-esteem - encouraging
    them to relate to their peers (Ellison et al.
    2007 2011 Steinfield et al. 2008)
  • e) stimulate social learning (Burke et al. 2010)
  • f) enhance social trust (Matzat 2010), civic
    engagement (Stern and Adams 2010 Zhang et al.
    2010) and political participation (Gil de Zúñiga
    et al. 2011) ? SEE THE ARAB SPRING!
  • g) help the promotion of collective action
    (Landqvist and Teigland 2010).

Ellison et al. (2007)
  • Drawing on survey data from a random sample of
    800 undergraduate students, Ellison et al. (2007)
    find that certain types of Facebook use can help
    individuals accumulate and maintain bridging
    social capital.
  • The authors suspect that the social network helps
    students to overcome the barriers to
    participation so that individuals who might
    otherwise shy away from initiating communication
    with others are encouraged to do so through the
    Facebook infrastructure.
  • In the authors' words, highly engaged users are
    using Facebook to crystallize relationships
    that might otherwise remain ephemeral (2007).
  • Haythornthwaite (2005) argues that social media
    create latent tie connectivity among group
    members that provides the technical means for
    activating weak ties (p. 125). Latent ties are
    those social network ties that are technically
    possible but not activated socially (p. 137)

The quality of Internet-mediated communication
  • Web-mediated asynchronous interactions are not
    necessarily of inferior quality compared to
    simultaneous, face-to-face, interactions.
  • Experiments found that the depth of a friendship
    can be significantly improved by
    computer-mediated communication. Apparently, by
    way of online relationships individuals become
    far better in expressing their true selves and
    feelings (Ellison et al. 2007 Park et al. 2009b
    Burke et al. 2010 Sheldon 2010 Burke and
    Settles 2011).
  • Interactions through the Internet can foster the
    social inclusion of individuals suffering from
    social anxiety, i.e. anxiety about social
    situations, interactions with others, and being
    evaluated by others (Caplan 2007 Steinfield et
    al. 2008).
  • Thanks to new tools such as Facebook messages and
    Flickr mails, many people have regained the habit
    of writing letters. Psychological studies claim
    this form of interaction can lead to an
    improvement in the quality of relationships.

Bauernschuster et al. (2011)
  • In a recent paper based on data drawn from the
    2008 section of the German Socio-Economic Panel
    and confidential data provided by Deutsche
    Telekom, Bauernschuster et al. (2011) find that
    having broadband Internet access at home has
    positive effects on the frequency of visiting
    theaters, the opera, and exhibitions and on the
    frequency of visiting friends, even after
    controlling for endogeneity through instrumental
    variables estimates and by accounting for county
    fixed effects.
  • Exploring a sub-sample of children aged 7 to 16
    living in the sampled households, the authors
    further find evidence that having broadband
    Internet access at home increases the number of
    children's out-of-school social activities, such
    as doing sports or ballet, taking music or
    painting lessons, or joining a youth club.

Internet, relational goods, and happiness
  • Since engagement in relational activities and
    social capital are positively correlated with
    happiness (Becchetti et al. 2008 Bruni and
    Stanca 2008 Gui 2010 Stanca 2010 Bartolini et
    al. 2011), Internet usage could also have a
    positive effect on individual well-being (see
    Pénard and Poussing 2011 and Sabatini 2011).
  • It thus seems reasonable to argue that Internet
    use can support well-being by counterbalancing
    some detrimental effects of the increasing
    pressure on time. From the policy point of view,
    this implies that the REDUCTION IN THE DIGITAL
    DIVIDE could be an effective measure to contain
    inequalities in the distribution of well-being.

  • Economic growth and technological progress can
    cause the disruption of social ties and the
    erosion of social capital ? SOLARIA SYNDROME.
  • The Solaria Syndrome can be avoided if and only
    if technological progress contributes to the
    production of relational goods at least as much
    as it contributes to the production of material

  • This condition would have been irrealistic at the
    beginning of the current decade.
  • Today, the explosion of online networking has
    brought a major change in the role of technology
    in the development of our social life.
  • When the social environment is poor in
    opportunities for participation and/or the
    pressure on time increases (for example due to
    the need to increase working hours, the social
    capital stored in the Internet can help
    individuals to defend their sociability.

  • In our view, the Internet is offering us a way
    back from Solaria to Earth.
  • The reduction in digital divide should be a major
    policy objective for the preservation of social
    cohesion (making growth more socially
    sustainable in the long run) and the reduction
    of inequalities in the distribution of
  • (Besides the obvious benefits for the economic

Bibliography of this presentation
  • All references can be retreived and downloaded
    free of charge at the url
  • http//
  • Photos have been taken from Flickr with a
    creative commons license.
  • Authors are Mitchell Joyce and Aldo Cavini

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