Human alignment, the process of establishing shared understanding among individuals, is crucial for effective collaboration and organization. It is essential for civilizations to flourish.
Alignment establishes shared knowledge, values, and goals. It finds trade-offs and negotiates a shared truth. Shared goals allow people to work together toward those goals, rather than everyone pulling in different directions. People who rely on the same facts while accepting uncertainty can make the best decisions. Once aligned, a group of people can collectively act and reason as a unit, no matter how large. Imagine humanity acting and reasoning as a single unit to solve problems and shape its own future.
Alignment does not mean that everyone knows the exact same things and has the exact same opinions. It doesn’t lead to everyone being interested in the same subjects, having the same hobbies, or getting the same haircuts. No single individual has the capacity to have all the knowledge; individuals can only know a part of the whole. Rather, it means that an individual’s knowledge and opinions are compatible with those of others. They carry a common truth together, while diversity helps to expand it.
When alignment is not established, things get off track. Opinions and knowledge diverge and become incompatible. Without alignment around common goals, collaboration becomes difficult. Misalignment leads to confusion, poor decisions, and conflict. When those in power are misaligned with the rest of the population, entire civilizations fall apart.
Communication is the key to achieving alignment. Imagine a person receiving new information from another person through spoken word, written text, or a picture. In the right state of mind, they cannot help but integrate what they have understood into their own mental model of the world. Even if they disagree, they have learned something about each other’s beliefs. As soon as information is sent back, the other individual does the same. A continuous exchange of information over time synchronizes the mental models and world views of the two individuals and makes them more compatible. Communication aligns them. But it only works if there is a steady exchange in both directions.
How can thousands of people get aligned? They cannot all get in the same room and talk to each other. They cannot all have the same bidirectional exchange like two people. You may have experienced this problem with large video calls. Only one person can talk at a time while everyone else listens. The talk time per person is very short, and only limited exchange takes place. Fortunately, this isn’t the only way to communicate in groups. If we look at the evolution of communication technologies throughout human history, we can understand how they have shaped the alignment of groups of people. With that understanding, we can think about what a communication technology that aligns a large group of people might look like.
Communication technologies invented in human history include: spoken language, writing, books, the printing press, mail, telephone, radio, television, websites, search engines, internet forums, e-mail, instant messaging, Wikipedia, and social networking. Now take a moment to think about how each of these has changed the way people can communicate and how it has shaped alignment. Do people need to be physically close to each other to communicate? How many people can communicate with how many other people? How long does it take to get a response? Does information flow in both directions or only in one?
Consider books, radio, and television. With these technologies, information flows in only one direction: From a few senders to potentially many recipients. There’s no ongoing exchange between senders and receivers. The knowledge, values, and goals of the sender influence the worldview of the recipients, but not the other way around. The receivers become more aligned with the senders, while the senders don’t change their minds through this one-sided act of communication. One-sided communication can only create one-sided alignment.
With the internet, the possibilities have changed dramatically. It’s now easy to send information around the world in a fraction of a second. The internet is not just a single communication medium. It’s a platform on which arbitrary communication protocols can be built. It has opened up new modes of communication that would not have been possible without it. Wikipedia, for example, is a communication system that allows people to negotiate and align around shared truths. It represents a shared mental model of the world that anyone can access and contribute to.
How does social media align people? Communication and alignment are determined by the rules of the platform. Let’s consider an imaginary new social network with the goal of aligning people. Let’s also assume that this new network does not need to make money. In this social network, users can follow other users. Anyone can post information that is automatically displayed to all their followers. Users can give feedback in the form of clicking a like-button. In addition, everyone receives some posts from people they don’t follow, but are probably going to like based on their past liking behavior. These rules sound like a good set of choices, right?
In this imaginary social network, imagine a user who posts twice as much content per day as the average user. As a result, this user’s content is seen more often than the content of others. Therefore, this user has a higher chance of gaining new followers. And the next time they post content, it will be seen by even more users than before, giving them an even greater chance of gaining more followers. We can see a rich-get-richer phenomenon here. It can lead to users with more than 100k followers. These users have created an unbalanced, almost one-way communication channel between themselves and their audience. They will never be able to consume all of their followers’ posts. They have created a one-way alignment mechanism in a network that was designed to align people.
On this network, people often share their opinions. If you agree with an opinion expressed in a post, you might press the like-button. If you disagree, you probably won’t press it. Now that the social network is showing you posts you are probably going to like, it is showing you opinions you are probably going to agree with. This kind of content recommendation automatically brings together users who agree, while separating users who disagree. It groups users by their opinions and limits communication between those opinion groups. These patterns of communication translate into patterns of alignment. Opinion groups are internally aligned, while over time they become misaligned with other opinion groups. The very act of adding a recommendation system to the social network creates misalignment, the opposite of what was originally intended.
The internet allows us to experiment with these kinds of rules. We can create entirely new systems of communication and alignment that can connect vast numbers of people. But as shown, the choice of rules has a big impact on the flow of information between all users. The rules essentially determine how people get aligned.
In our open research group, Social Protocols, our mission is to find rules for large-scale human interaction and alignment. If you are interested in contributing, please get in touch.