Three Skills of Social Technologists

There are three key skills needed by social technologists, or what we might call founders. That is, people who are actually going to go out and build and operate institutions: Power, Leadership, and Institutional Engineering:

  1. Power. The first skill of the founder is to be able to outmaneuver competitors for control of social space and existing institutions, build an empire, and exclude competitors’ influence from that empire. This is generally considered to be a distasteful business, but it’s the reality underpinning all institutions; if one central power doesn’t have secure control, nothing is possible but fighting. This consists of gathering intel, knowing who has what loyalties, making moves to disrupt the enemy’s systems and protect your own, planning tactical maneuvers, crushing your enemies, solidifying your allies, and generally modelling and manipulating power. This is the essence of politics.

  2. Leadership. The second skill, given power, is to be able to put people where you need them, in the arrangement that you want them, and get them to do what you need them to. This is a well-appreciated activity, but of course depends on strong power hegemony. Leadership consists of persuading people to defer to your plans, giving orders and suggestions, subtly massaging people, helping people through tough points, developing people, and making and executing plans for getting the result you want. It’s the complex craft of knowing a social system in enough detail, knowing how it differs from what you want, and knowing how to push it into the configuration you want.

  3. Institutional Engineering. The third skill is knowing how to arrange people into useful configurations. Being able to put your resources where you want them is no use if you don’t know what to do with them, or what to build. This largely consists, as far as I know, of knowing how social phenomena work, which phenomena are stable and what they do, knowing how to create any given phenomenon, knowing how to combine phenomena into more complex machinery, having a labrary of known solutions and social technologies you know how to build, and of course having a clear idea of your goal and how social technology could help solve that problem.

Each of these is useful for the others: how will you persuade people to follow if you don’t know what you are doing? How will you impose your will on social territory if you can’t build effective social systems?

If we compare to more familiar material technology: Power corresponds to capital: the money, material, human resources, and legal ownership thereof. Leadership is manufacturing, craftsmanship, and maintenence: the ability to shape your materials into the desired shape efficiently, and keep them there. Institutional Engineering is like material engineering: ability to understand and design what kind of shape you want to put your resources in to accomplish your goals.

We need to get better at all of these. As a society, and especially as social technologists and founders, we need to be better at getting and negotiating power (ideally non-destructively), at leading people, and at understanding and designing effective social systems, especially in a scientifically-grounded manner.

One missing factor is the factor of cooperation: how should powerful social technologists compose themselves into even more powerful joint empires? This can technically be folded into the other skills, but since formulating this model I’ve become convinced of the first class centrality of placing yourself as a good subordinate within larger social systems. Pulling it out to first class may in turn change how we think of the others. But I’ll leave that for now as an exercise for the future.