Researchers have found that it is possible to model the long term behavior of societies by focusing on a few factors, such as for example, the search for resources, rather than resorting to complex calculations of rational behavior. Joshua Epstein, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution asserts that, "that certain sets of microspecifications are sufficient to generate the macrophenomena of interest."
In plain language, Epstein suggests that a few key considerations motivate individuals and small groups of individuals; and that the collective interactions of these micro-actors determine the shape of a society. This eerie rediscovery of a "hidden hand" of individual motivation disturbed many social scientists, perhaps because it illustrated that social futures were much more sensitive to the motives of individuals and of small groups than to large scale social planning, in the manner of the Stalinist Five Year Plans
But the outcomes were not linearly determined by the choice of what motivation or values the micro-actors adopted, though that doesn't discourage the advocates of control. "If we're hoping, like Asimov, to predict the future, Epstein's models will disappoint. In fact, because his models give widely divergent results even when their agents are programmed with very simple rules, they indicate that predicting the future will never be possible. Still, Epstein's artificial societies do more to make plain the hidden mechanisms underlying social shifts--and their unexpected consequences--than any tool that social scientists have hitherto possessed. In the future, they and others like them could suggest how policymakers can engineer the sorts of small, cheap interventions that have large, beneficial results."
The "small, cheap interventions" that the MIT Technology Review article hopes for are likely to be elusive. If Epstein's research tells us anything it is that while affecting what makes people tick is the one of the most important variables of all, it is a variable that is surpassingly hard for central authority to manipulate in a unilateral way. Propaganda can't cut it. Central authority can only hope to deal interactively with individuals and small communities, which means that the dream of authority -- that vision of every social engineer from the beginning of time -- must always come hard up against the reality of freedom; mankind's curse and it's supreme blessing.