The New Social Engineering

Apparently I’m behind the times. I’ve always understood the term “social engineering” to mean what the American Heritage Dictionary calls “the practical application of sociological principles to particular social problems,” or what Mises called “treat[ing] human beings in the same way in which the engineer treats the stuff out of which he builds bridges, roads, and machines.”

But in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal I discover that “social engineering” now means “tactics that try to fool users into giving up sensitive financial data that criminals can use to steal their money and even their identities.” It includes “phishing” and other online scam tactics. If you Google “social engineering,” you can wade through pages and pages before you find any links to the older meaning.

I guess there is a connection between the two kinds of social engineering. One online tech dictionary says, “Social engineering is manipulating people into doing what you want, in much the same way that electrical engineering is manipulating electronics into doing what you want.”

That definition would probably embrace the kind of social engineering that libertarian scholar Wendy McElroy criticizes here, or the wide variety of schemes — from Mao to McNamara, from urban renewal to rural resettlement — that James C. Scott discussed in his book Seeing Like a State.

Perhaps the classic critique of social engineering, before the term was invented, comes from Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.