🦋 Glasswing #3- Sociology of Secrecy and Secret Societies
On Simmel's Sociology of Secrecy and Secret Societies
In this article, I compose a short contemporary adaptation of Georg Simmel's 1906 paper on the Sociology of Secrecy and Secret Societies. Given the present-day challenges posed by AI and generative foundation models (GFMs) to our social interactions, I believe that this piece is particularly relevant and worth reading. By exploring questions such as the basis of our communication and the sources of our confidence in it, I aim to adopt Simmel's analytical approach in addressing these issues.
Human communication and relationships rely on the ability to establish context about one another. It is the precondition of every social relationship that individuals know something about each other.
Context allows people to approximate the measure of culture to presuppose in each individual prior to communicating. As relationships become more differentiated, the level of personal differentiation increases, and the complexity and intensity of the relationship grow in proportion to how much each person reveals about themselves through their words and actions.
This context between individuals is the basis of their relationship, and it develops upon the basis of actual experience and knowledge of each other. The possession of full context eliminates the need for trust, while the complete absence of context makes trust impossible. The amount of context needed to establish confidence in a relationship is determined by the partners shared history.
Modern culture is becoming more objective, and social relationships are becoming more anonymous, making it harder to preserve context. This is evident with the growing use of minimal disclosure technologies, increased demand for pseudonymity, and the current view of privacy, taking information as being public or private. Objectification has led to a sharp differentiation in the amounts of context that is essential to build confidence. This has eliminated the basis of personal qualities from which a modification of attitude within the relationship could spring, and confidence no longer depends on the context of that individual.
In situations where personal qualities are essential for the success and existence of the organization, the context between partners is required. For example, in a partnership, not only must the partners know each other's professional status and general qualities, but they must also understand each other's personalities, moral principles, companionability, and dispositions to ensure the success and continuity of the relationship. As a result, the secret of personality is more limited in such situations, as the success of the organization is heavily dependent on the personal quality of the individuals involved.
Context is an essential aspect of effective communication, but it is often challenging to preserve. Objectification being one challenge, but another being the blurred boundary between what constitutes spiritual private property and what information individuals have the right to know about others for the sake of association and social coherence. However, the legal boundary of invasion upon spiritual private property is hard to draw since knowledge about others is often necessary for practical reasons but can also be morally unjustifiable. The line between permitted and non-permitted information is indefinite and depends on moral tact and objective relationships and their demands. Consequently, individuals are responsible for decision-making in this area without any final recourse to authoritative general forms.
All relationships differ in their intimacy and secrecy, and some are centered around specific interests or secrets, while others involve whole personalities of the individuals, such as friendships and marriages. Individuals may now be too individualized to achieve complete reciprocality of understanding in friendships, and therefore may prefer differentiated friendships, which only involve one aspect of the personality. In such relationships, friends must respect each other's boundaries and not obtrude themselves into areas outside the special relationship. Despite this, the relationship is still sourced at the center of the whole personality, even if it only expresses itself in a single segment of its periphery.
AI and Secrecy?
Generative foundation models (GFMs) show little regard for our our social norms; yet, they are demonstrating the capability to predict and replicate them. As it pertains to representing one's objective self, the ease of impersonation is on the rise.
The possibility of distinguishing between an AI and a human on digital platforms raises grave concerns. Current approaches primarily revolve around technical solutions such as neural networks themselves or content provenance tools that rely on digital signatures. However, given the increasing strength of GFMs, a technical approach to this problem may become insurmountable.
The more lived experiences we have in the physical world — the meals we share, the travels we embark on — the more secrets we have with one another that an AI will be incapable of understanding. Our inside jokes, for instance, are merely tasks modeled from a natural language distribution by an AI, whereas for us, they represent the distribution of our relationship, as Simmel aptly put it.
Our secrets will be what allow us to communicate with one another with confidence.
Thanks for reading Glasswing! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.