1.2 Welcome to the digital age

The digital age is everywhere, it’s growing, and it changes what is possible for researchers.

The central premise of this book is that the digital age creates new opportunities for social research. Researchers can now observe behavior, ask questions, run experiments, and collaborate in ways that were simply impossible in the quite recent past. Along with these new opportunities also come new risks; researchers can now harm people in ways that were impossible in the quite recent past. The source of these opportunities and risks is the transition from the analog age to the digital age. This transition did not happen all at once—like a light-switch turning on—and, in fact, the transition is not yet complete. But, by this point we’ve seen enough to know that something big is happening.

One way to notice this transition is to look for changes in your daily life. Many things in your life that used to be analog are now digital. Maybe you used to use a camera with film and now you use a digital camera (which is probably part of your digital phone). Maybe you used to read a physical newspaper and now you read an online newspaper. Maybe you used to pay for things with physical cash and now you pay with a credit card. In each case, the transition from analog to digital means that more information is now being captured and stored digitally.

In fact, when looked at in aggregate, the effects of the transition are astonishing. The amount of information in the world is rapidly increasing and more of that information is stored digitally, which facilitates analysis, transmission, and merging (Figure 1.1) (Hilbert and López 2011). All of this digital information has come to be called “big data.” In addition to this explosion of digital data, there is a parallel growth in our access to computing power (Figure 1.1) (Hilbert and López 2011). These trends—increasing digital information and increasing computing—show no sign of slowing down.

Figure 1.1: Information storage capacity and computing power are increasing dramatically. Further, information storage is now almost exclusively digital (Hilbert and López 2011). These changes create incredible opportunities for social researchers.

Figure 1.1: Information storage capacity and computing power are increasing dramatically. Further, information storage is now almost exclusively digital (Hilbert and López 2011). These changes create incredible opportunities for social researchers.

For the purposes of social research, I think the most important feature of the digital age is computers everywhere. Beginning as room-sized machines that were only available to governments and big companies, computers have been constantly shrinking in size and increasing in popularity. Each decade since the 1980s, we’ve seen a new kind of computing emerge: personal computers, laptops, smart phones, and now embedded processors (i.e., computers inside of devices such as cars, watches, and thermostats) (Waldrop 2016). Increasingly these ubiquotous computers do more than just calculate; they also sense, store, and transmit information.

For researchers, the implications of computers everywhere are easiest to see online, an environment that is fully measured and amenable to experimentation. For example, an online store can easily collect incredibly precise data about the shopping and purchasing patterns of millions of customers. Further, an online store can easily randomize some customers to receive one shopping experience and others to receive another. This ability to randomize on top of tracking means that online stores can constantly run randomized controlled experiments. In fact, if you’ve ever bought anything from an online store your behavior has been tracked and you’ve almost certainly been a participant in an experiment, whether you knew it or not.

This fully-measured-fully-randomizable world is not just happening online; it is increasingly happening everywhere. Physical stores already collect extremely detailed purchase data, and they are developing infrastructure to monitor customers shopping behavior and mix experimentation into routine business practice. In other words, when you think about the digital age you should not just think online, you should think everywhere. Digital age social research will involve people interacting in fully digital spaces and will involve people using digital devices in the physical world.

In addition to enabling the measurement of behavior and randomization of treatments, the digital age has also enabled new ways for people to communicate. These new forms of communication allow researchers to run innovative surveys and to create mass collaboration with their colleagues and the general public.

A skeptic might point out that none of these capabilities are really new. That is, in the past, there have been other major advances in peoples’ abilities to communicate (e.g., the telegraph (Gleick 2011)), and computers have been getting faster at roughly the same rate since the 1960s (Waldrop 2016). But, what this skeptic is missing is that at a certain point more of the same becomes something different (Halevy, Norvig, and Pereira 2009). Here’s an analogy that I like. If you can capture an image of a horse, then you have a photograph. And, if you can capture 24 images of a horse per second, then you have a movie. Of course, a movie is just a bunch of photos, but only a die hard skeptic would claim that photos and movies are the same.

Researchers are in the process of making a transition akin to the transition from photography to cinematography. This transition does not mean that everything we have learned in the past should be ignored. Just as the principles of photography inform the principles of cinematography, the principles of social research in the past will inform the social research of the future. But, the transition also means that we should not continue doing the same thing. Rather, we must combine the approaches of the past with the capabilities of the present and future. For example, the research of Blumenstock and colleagues was a mixture of traditional survey research with what some might call data science. Both of those ingredients were necessary: neither the survey responses nor the phone records by themselves were enough. More generally, I think that increasingly social researchers will need to combine social science with data science in order to take advantage of the opportunities of the digital age. To continue only taking pictures when we could also be making movies would be a mistake.