Newsflash: People Experience Pleasure and Pain

This month's prize for a harebrained/evil idea presented in a blog post goes to Edward Boches, who is concerned, perhaps correctly, about 'the “us versus them” mindset that permeates our country and our politics'. His solution? Here's the gist:
  • We require every 18-year-old in America to participate in mandatory social media service as part of a daily or weekly routine for one year.
  • We assign our young adults to a racially diverse online social group comprised of 12 people from different regions, backgrounds, income brackets. (Google+ is a potential platform.)
  • We present each group with a social challenge – obesity, jobs, poverty, high cost of education, even the problem of young men getting their sex education from watching online porn – and we ask them to solve the problem.
  • We give them benchmarks, goals, and require an outcome in the form of an idea, a program, a new policy or maybe just a video.
  • Finally we aggregate all of the solutions on one public website where the press, our legislatures, businesses and educators can access, rate and maybe even implement the ideas.
I don't have the time to point out everything that's wrong with this idea and the rest of his post (see here and here for some remarks). Instead, I'll focus on a very general point.

It is hard to tell from his post, but I hope Mr. Boches is not labouring under the misconception that "our society" is a living, breathing entity with a mind of its own. If this hope is warranted, it may further be hoped that he thinks his proposal will ultimately increase people's well-being by decreasing divisions in society. If we suspend disbelief for a moment and assume this would actually be the effect of forced networking, we still have good reason to think that people's net well-being would be decreased.

People tend to choose to hang out with people roughly like themselves. You can look at scores of sociology and psychology papers or look all around you or indeed simply trust Boche, who points out that we use social media to "find more people just like us". Sociologists call it "homophilic selection", everybody else calls it "birds of a feather flock together". Combine this with the revealed preferences methodology, which gives the right answer about 99% of the time, and you arrive at the conclusion that people hang out with others like themselves because this is better for their well-being than hanging out with people quite different from themselves.

And this is a danger in thinking about "what's best for the community": People have the ability to experience pleasure and pain, communities don't, and it's kinda easy to forget that.

P.S.: I'd really, really like to see some evidence backing up the statement that juries work like this: "We stick 12 strangers in a room, present them with a very serious responsibility, and in most cases they fulfill their duty with the utmost of diligence." His cite is a link to imdb's page for 12 Angry Men. No, really.

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