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Bubbles Are More Than You Think - The Center for Information and Bubble Studies

Semper Ardens forskningsprojekt | 02/05/2016

Professor and Director of the Center for Information and Bubble Studies (CIBS) Vincent F. Hendricks

Billions of people make an investment every day – not a financial one, but an investment of time and effort into expressing our opinions on things we are sympathetic to and those we detest. We pay respect and expect a return – in terms of “likes” on a recently posted selfie. We are investors in social media, trading likes for likes all the time, and without much market research. Of course, social media is awash with what the finance world would call liquidity – there is no shortage of likes, upvotes, posts and retweets. However, too much liquidity can poison a financial market, leading prices to inflate beyond their fundamental value – what we call a bubble. Furthermore, it can possibly poison a market in which we invest opinions and expressions rather than money. By this means, the pivotal aim of the Center for Information and Bubble Studies (CIBS) is to uncover the structure and dynamics of different bubble phenomena from finance over social media to politics and science in order to (1) formulate intervention strategies for malignant bubbles from “shitstorms” to radicalisation, stimulate possible benign bubbles from climate awareness to democratic initiatives and thus play a proactive role promoting scientific social responsibility (SSR).

Bubble Studies

Bubbles are typically associated with situations in the financial world where assets trade at prices far exceeding their fundamental value. Stock and real estate may be overheated, but the same goes for opinions on the web, social status, and a whole range of other phenomena in science and society. Today likes, upvotes, comments, selfies, and emoticons may conceive as liquidity to be invested in political viewpoints, religious stances, fame or online-respect, power or influence. One may accordingly consider opinion bubbles, political bubbles, bubbles of social capital, bullying bubbles, polarisation bubbles, science bubbles, etc. [1]

"You invest everyday without much thinking about it – a like, comment, upvote is an investment of your opinion,” says Vincent F. Hendricks.

The CIBS wishes to uncover the structure and dynamics of bubble emergence across disciplines, domains and institutions. The guiding research principle of the centre is that bubbles essentially amount to information control problems among deliberating agents who are collectively susceptible to demonstrate socio-psychological features like boom-thinking, group-thinking, and lemming effects.

These features together with determinate market models may make for bubble-hospitable environments[2] for cyber-bullying on social media[3] to research funding and science bubbles.[4]

“In and by itself your investment may not may mean all that much, but aggregated opinion may all of a sudden make for a very strong public signal as to what apparently is the right thing to think, believe or do,” says Vincent F. Hendricks.

Malignant and Benign Bubbles

Information may indeed be used for enlightenment, insight, education, qualified decision and deliberation, but may unfortunately also be used to manipulate people, opinions and markets. The aim of the bubble studies is to come up with intervention strategies for malignant bubbles like unjustified twitter-storms (like #marius[5], #voteman[6]) where for instance a false tweet from Associated Press crashed the American stock markets in minutes or made the euro plunge against the US dollar with a false rumour to the effect that the chairman of the German Bundesbank was about to resign. Another example relates to the strange bubble economics of selfies where social capital is used to overheat fame. [7]  In addition, polarisation, radicalisation and extremism may be considered as unfortunate and destabilising bubble formation.[8]

CIBS is currently studying the mathematics of bubbles and social psychology, political bubbles, bullying bubbles, online strategies for twitterstorms and science bubbles – visit www.bubblestudies.ku.dk for the portfolio of the scientific projects and investigative angles currently pursued.

Such "info-storms", as they are called in the book of the same name, by Vincent F. Hendricks and Pelle G. Hansen from 2014 (second revised and expanded edition appearing in 2016)[9], demonstrate how information technology and social media may amplify irrational group behaviour. In this way, bubbles refer to unfortunate (irrational) ways of collective aggregating behaviour, opinions, preferences or actions based on socio-psychological habitus and bubble-hospitable environments in science, society, and elsewhere. For more information on info-storms, video material and communications see footnote. [10]

“Be careful what you “like”, you may just be part of starting an infostorm.” Vincent F. Hendricks

Tools of the Trade

The methods applied for uncovering the structure and dynamics of bubbles are drawn from logic, economics, computer science, formal sociology and behavioural studies. The research agenda is initially to provide mathematical characterisations of the socio-psychological phenomena conducive to bubble-formation like bystander-effects and the mathematics of bubble formation.[11]

Figure 1: Formal model of bystander-effect

To test the empirical adequacy of the formal models the mathematical descriptions are held up against computer simulations, field and controlled experiments in order to validate, refine, and further develop the formal characterisations and their range of applicability. 

Figure 2: Initial computer simulation of bystander-effect

Interdisciplinary Research and Scientific Social Responsibility

CIBS naturally aligns philosophy, economics, mathematics, logic, computer science, social psychology and behavioural studies resulting in a thorough interdisciplinary platform of scientific inquiry.

Figure 3: Bubbles as composite research objects


CIBS has some 25 associated researchers from all walks of science – from the humanities, to social science, natural science and technology – visit www.bubblestudies.ku.dk for a listing of the crew.

An immediate research management-challenge is the focal alignment or convergence of the disciplines on the unique conglomerate research object. The disciplines are not to run in parallel with each other or alongside the bubble phenomenon, but to end up as converging lines with the composite research object as the vanishing point factoring in everything from vocabulary to methodology, from social psychology to computer science. Isolating the generic elements of the bubble’s hospitable environments will serve as the immediate platform for this interdisciplinary alignment. To further joint alignment and interdisciplinary convergence on the bubbly object of inquiry, a set of adequate mappings is initially required from,

  1. Assets / liquidity / returns / markets / agents (investors) / investment horizon in economics to assets / returns / investment horizon on social media, in politics, reality culture, in the news and the press, health care and treatment and elsewhere where bubbles may emerge.

A noise trader in economics may, given certain reasonable assumptions, be considered affine to a noisemaker (troll) in the blogosphere (Hendricks 2014d; Hendricks & Hansen 2015). Monetary return is well defined, it is less transparent what the return of an opinion investment online pertaine to the current refuge and migrant debate in Europe amounts too.

“Interdisciplinary research is not interdisciplinary unless you have an associated composite research object,” says Vincent F. Hendricks.
Thus, such mappings are not always isomorphic, but the lack of such isomorphisms, or inadequacy of postulated mappings, is a crucial methodological tool in the demarcation of bubble phenomena, avoiding confirmation bias and consequently not seeing bubbles everywhere. Domestic violence and the proliferation of a fashion trend like “skinny jeans” are not bubble phenomena even though there is a lot domestic violence and plenty of skinny jeans out there. Bubble studies as a scientific composite should not end up a bubble itself.
"The activities of CIBS stem from innovative interdisciplinary thinking about basic research in the humanities. The research activities promise practical impact and thus the centre is a pivotal example of SSR,” explained Flemming Besenbacher, Chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation when the centre was granted.

Indeed, a core ambition of CIBS is to act and conduct inquiry in tune with an agenda set by SSR. Mark S. Frankel, the director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), recently put it accordingly in an interview with Science[12], and CIBS aligns with the insight that (1) ”science is a social institution, with a mission and 'baggage' like all other social institutions created by human beings;” (2) CIBS is a research centre in which its researchers will be "looking beyond themselves" and will "use their skills to help with global problems,” such that (3) ”we must educate graduates to be vitally concerned with not only how to apply their knowledge and skills, but also to consider the value of what they do for others."

The Center for Information and Bubble Studies is located at the Faculty of Humanities, The University of Copenhagen and the initial funding will run for five years.

Now, bubbles may not necessarily all be malignant if they mirror public conviction on correct information and social influence rails reason. In economics, rational bubbles may exist in which it is reasonable for investors to continue their investment behaviour all the way to bubble emergence. Could there be benign bubbles calling for crowd climate awareness, race and gender equality, health care benefits, anti-radicalisation, anti-echo-chambering of ideologies or religious disagreement, etc.? How benign bubbles may be stimulated and used to promote good ideas and socially desirable initiatives are focal research points of CIBS, accordingly addressing some of the grand challenges of the 21st century.

References

Budtz Pedersen, D. & Hendricks, V.F. (2014). “Science Bubbles”, Philosophy and Technology, 27(2014): 503-518 (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13347-013-0142-7)

Hendricks, V.F. & Hansen, P.G. (2015). Infostorms: Why do we “like”? Explaining Individual Behavior on the Social Net. 2nd edition. New York: Copernicus Books / Springer Nature. (http://www.springer.com/us/book/9783319038315)

Hendricks, V. F. & Rendsvig, R.K. (2015). "The Philosophy of Distributed Information, in Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Information, ed. L. Floridi. London: Routledge (http://www.tandf.net/books/details/9781138796935/)

Hendricks, V.F. (2016). ” “Bubbles Studies: The Brass Tacks”, forthcoming in Leading Frontier Research in the Humanities, ed. Emmeche, C., and Budtz, D. London: Bloomsbury.

Footnotes


[1] (Hendricks 2014a, ”From the Art World to Fashion to Twitter, We’re All Living in Bubbles,” Epoch Times 12.01.2014: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/445574-from-the-art-world-to-fashion-to-twitter-were-all-living-in-bubbles/).

[3] Hendricks 2014b, ”If You Really Want To Help A Troubled Teen, Don't Like Their YouTube Video”, Business Insider 13.2.2014: http://www.businessinsider.com/if-you-really-want-to-help-a-troubled-teen-dont-like-their-youtube-video-2014-2?IR=T )

[4] Budtz Pedersen & Hendricks, ”Science Bubbles”, Philosophy and Technology, December 2014, Volume 27, Issue 4, pp 503-518: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13347-013-0142-7, (Hendricks 2014c, ” Neuroscience risks being the next science research bubble”, Medicalxpress 05.11.2014: http://medicalxpress.com/news/2014-11-neuroscience-science.html)

[7] Hendricks 2014e: ”The Strange Bubble Economics of Selfies”, Mashable 15.05.2014: http://mashable.com/2014/05/15/social-capital/)

[8] Hendricks 2014e, ” Denmark must not succumb to polarisation in the wake of Copenhagen attacks, The Conversation, 16.02.2015: https://theconversation.com/denmark-must-not-succumb-to-polarisation-in-the-wake-of-copenhagen-attacks-37083

[11] Hansen, Hendricks, Rendsvig 2013, ”Infostorms”, Metaphilosophy, Volume 44, Issue 3, pages 301–326: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/meta.12028/abstract