Professor Sandra González-Bailón and Professor Victor Preciado from the School of Engineering and Applied Science have been awarded a course development grant for a new course they will teach in the Spring of 2015. The grant was awarded by the Penn Provost’s office and the Penn Social Science and Policy Forum, in recognition for courses that bridge disciplines or schools and that represent innovation in policy-relevant social sciences.
The course Professors González-Bailón and Preciado developed is “The Theory of Networks: How Digital Technologies Shape Collective Behavior and Why it Matters.”
Online networks are prevalent in how we access and share information. They shape how we consume news, how we interact with friends, peers and strangers, or how we mobilize groups or try to gain the attention of large audiences. Online networks encourage dynamics of information exchange that can, potentially, be very consequential for the societies we live in or the societies we would like to build. The recent mass mobilizations demanding social justice across the world are one visible example of how online networks are being used to introduce new ideas in the public domain or press for alternative policy agendas. At the same time, online networks are also creating new challenges for how we think about surveillance and censorship, freedom of speech and privacy, or mass collaboration and peer production. Networked technologies have, in brief, the potential to transform governance, collaboration, and organization, and radically change how we think about regulation and policy making in the digital age. However, harnessing the potential of networked technologies requires a technical understanding of how networks operate, what dynamics they are more likely to encourage, and what features limit their ability to diffuse information or spread behavior. We need to understand the logic of networks – and learn how to model their complex and counter-intuitive dynamics – before we can analyze their social impact or engineer interventions, for instance, campaigns to promote socially beneficial behavior. This course stems from the premise that students need the technical training to unpack the black box of networks before they can assess the social implications of online technologies. Providing the tools to unpack that box is one of the two main goals of this course. The course also aims to highlight that the social context in which technologies operate matters: when nodes in a network are not machines but people, and behavior is guided not by algorithms but social norms and expectations, the models and applications we can build will, by necessity, differ. Explaining how and why is our second goal.
This course will provide an introduction to the theory of networks, covering both the social and technical aspects of network research and its applications. The course aims to attract undergraduates from engineering and the social sciences, and create a space where these students can learn and collaborate across a disciplinary divide that is not always bridged. The main pedagogical goal of the course is to span that divide, and teach why multidisciplinary collaboration is necessary to uncover the technological and social implications of networked technologies – especially relevant when they intersect with policy and regulation.