Social Networks Built Ancient Mesoamerica

And they could define our future.

Feb 20 2015, 9:12pm

Image: Flickr/​Dennis Jarvis

​Social networks enabled ancient cities to thrive much like today's, according to new research, suggesting that offline social networks may be one of the core technologies of human civilization. But we need to harness their power to ensure that the future we get is the one we want.

After examining data from ancient Mesoamerican settlements collected by archaeologists in the '60s and '70s, before Mexico City's population exploded, researchers from the Santa Fe Institute discovered that those ancient cities experienced the same benefits of scale that modern cities do as their populations—and hence social networks—became more dense and interconnected. Explosions in the amount of goods and services available occurred, for example. Thus, the researchers conclude, social networks are a technology of organization that affords cities great powers of production and opportunity. Their work is described in a paper to be published today in Science Advances.

"The idea is to think of a city as a place, but also a process by which people can maintain close social contact with lots and lots of different people," said Luis Bettencourt, a professor of complex systems at the Santa Fe Institute who co-authored the paper. "We live in societies in cities where we benefit enormously from the knowledge of many others that we don't know very well. That's the way human societies are able to create knowledge and then value and quality of life."

Social networks exist online as well as off, and the line is frequently blurred

But if the core technology of city life—the social network—has indeed remained the same throughout history, how do we explain the vast differences in social order between a highly hierarchical ancient city and the freewheeling capitalist carnival of a modern American metropolis? There is a missing ingredient needed to understand and guide how cities form, and it's a question of how the power of social networks is leveraged and whom it benefits, according to anthropologist and co-author of the paper Scott Ortman.

"One of the issues is how ancient societies distributed the benefits of scale to the populace. It's pretty clear that ancient Mesoamerica wasn't especially good at that, but I would say that we're getting progressively worse at it, too," said Ortman. "There has to be another theory involved—other theories need to get involved in how these benefits get distributed."

"There have to be political and economic theories," Ortman continued. Of course, inequality existed in ancient societies, too, Ortman noted, and so how social networks themselves contribute to these circumstances has to be investigated.

Social networks exist online as well as off, and the line is frequently blurred. Facebook extends our real life relationships across space and time, and Amazon's Mechanical Turk lets people from across the world work together on a single project for pennies per hour, extending regimes of exploitative accumulation. Clearly, how digital social technologies can be directed to make life better or worse is a prescient question.

Image: Gabriel Garcia for the Santa Fe Institute

The issue now is how to guide emerging technologies to ensure that the future we end up with is not a high-tech dystopia, according to Bettencourt. Take, for example, Google's rising prominence in all areas of life, from medicine to artificial intelligence, and its dominance in the field of data collection.

"What we have now are markets for information that aggregate it, and people prefer this and that, and then becoming an aggregator has value," said Bettencourt. "There are centralized and decentralized ways to organize that, but the aggregator is always in a central position, and if that's a person or an institution or a company, that creates inequalities that will be amplified. These are issues that we are starting to explore."

Another example of an important question regarding emerging social technology might be asking whether Uber—a prime example of how transient networks of strangers drive the sharing economy—is really creating 20,000 jobs in Australia, as the company claims, or if Uber's "jobs" are really not jobs at all, and why this might be? Could it be that Uber's ascendence is intimately tied to prevailing political ideas about the superiority of business over government and the devaluation of labour?

If social networks are the vessels that sustain city life, then these are questions we must ask to ensure the powers they afford us—greater production, greater opportunity, and greater wealth—are used to benefit everyone, instead of just a few.