Social Cooling

5 mins read

Social cooling refers to the idea that if “you feel you are being watched, you change your behavior.” The massive amounts of data being collected, especially online, is exaggerating this effect. This may limit our desire to speak or think freely thus bring about “chilling effects” on society—or social cooling. It also refers to the long-term negative side effects of living in a reputation economy.

A culture of conformity

Have you ever hesitated to click on a link because you thought your visit might be logged, and it could look bad? More and more people feel this pressure, and they are starting to apply self-censorship.

A culture of risk-aversion

When doctors in New York were given scores this had unexpected results. Doctors that tried to help advanced cancer patients had a higher mortality rate, which translated into a lower score. Doctors that didn’t try to help were rewarded with high scores, even though their patients died prematurely. Rating systems can create unwanted incentives, and increase pressure to conform to a bureaucratic average. (This was amply highlighted in the book The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller)

Increased social rigidity

Digital reputation systems are limiting our ability and our will to protest injustice. In China each adult citizen is getting a government mandated “social credit score”. This represents how well behaved they are, and is based on crime records, what they say on social media, what they buy, and even the scores of their friends. If you have a low score you can’t get a government job, visa, cheap loan, or even a nice online date. Social pressure is the most powerful and most subtle form of control.

How it Works

  1. Your data is collected and scored. Then data brokers use algorithms to reveal thousands of private details about you—friends and acquaintances, religious and political beliefs, educational background, sexual orientation, reading habits, personality traits and flaws, economic stability, etc. This derived data is protected as corporate free speech
  2. Your digital reputation may affect your opportunities. Facebook posts may affect job chances of getting or losing a job, bad friends may affect the rate of your loan, etc. These effects are independent of whether the data is good or bad.
  3. People start changing their behavior to get better scores which have disparate outcomes. Social Cooling describes the negative side effects of trying to be reputable online. Some of the negative effects are like conformityrisk-aversion and social rigidity have been explained earlier.
  4. As your weaknesses are mapped, you become increasingly transparent. This leads to self-censorship, conformity, risk-aversion, and social rigidity becoming normal. No longer is data a matter of simple credit scores. All of this leads to questions like: When we become more well-behaved, do we also become less human? What does freedom mean in a world where surveillance is the dominant business model? Are we undermining our creative economy because people fear non-conformity? Can minority views still inform us?

Pollution of our social environment is invisible to most people, just like air pollution and climate change once were. So we begin by increasing awareness. But we should act quickly, as data mining and the secrets it reveals is increasing exponentially. We are becoming too transparent. This is breeding a society where self-censorship and risk-aversion are the new normal.

Data is not the new gold, it is the new oil, and it damages the social environment. Privacy is the right to be imperfect, even when judged by algorithms. Privacy is the right to be human.




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