The social environment model: Small heroes and the evolution of human society

  • Brian Whitworth Massey University
  • Alex P. Whitworth Princeton University
Keywords: social dilemma, socio-technical system, social synergy, social environment, Wikipedia


Traditional “realistic” theories of social action, whether based on the individual gain heuristics of capitalism or the collective class struggles of communism, cannot explain the massive volunteerism of online socio-technical collaborations like the Wikipedia project. Based on the idea that a social system is an environment within an environment, this paper argues that people in society are subject to both self- and social-interest directives, from natural and social world environments respectively. However, social dilemmas arise when these directives conflict. That people resolve social dilemmas by anchoring one directive then operating the other explains why the "social invention" of free markets was so successful, and further implies that socio-technical communities are a new social form, beyond capitalism and communism, which we call "free-goodness". This model attributes the evolution of humanity to parallel technical and social evolutions. For example, the first civilizations that emerged from hunter-gathering thousands of years ago had to discover not only agricultural technology, but also the "golden rule" by which people cease to pillage each other. Socio-technical systems today continue that tradition, of taking humanity to a higher level, by combining social and technical advances.

Author Biographies

Brian Whitworth, Massey University
Senior Lecturer Institute of Information and Mathematical Sciences
Alex P. Whitworth, Princeton University
Ph.D. Candidate Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
How to Cite
Whitworth, B., & Whitworth, A. P. (2010). The social environment model: Small heroes and the evolution of human society. First Monday, 15(11).