In order to address contemporary issues, it will be necessary to start to think about the design of new technologies in a different way, not from the limited perspective of marketing and design, but from an interdisciplinary perspective, which focuses on the impact of various design choices, and integrates insights from social science and philosophy.
Humans have an obligation to think about the potential consequences of their actions, a point articulated in both philosophy and law. “We need to think before we act.” Reflection upon history and technology, philosophy and ethics, social engineering and design provides a perspective, a context, for looking at the world we live in, helping us understand the world and make intelligent choices. Or to put it a bit differently, they help us make important policy and design decisions. It is in the context of these decisions that the study of Technology and Society and Ethics of Technology becomes meaningful.
There is a rich and diverse body of work documenting the impact of new communications technologies and of various design choices. The field of Technology and Society (anthropology/history), for instance, gives insight into contemporary and future issues and problems: What issues are likely to arise? How they may be understood? And how they may be addressed? In 1905, the journal Telephony reflected, “The invention of new machinery, devices, and processes is continually bringing up new questions of law, puzzling judges, lawyers, and laymen” (as cited in Marvin, 1988, p. 70). With the introduction of a new communications technology – whether we are talking about the telegraph, the telephone, or the Internet – comes a period of initial confusion in which social norms and practices are renegotiated as different groups negotiate how a technology is used, designed, and understood (see e.g., Marvin, Hakken, 1999, p. 99; Murphy, 2002, p. 30; English-Lueck, 2002). And this is what is happening on the Internet today – digital rights management, open source software, concerns over identity theft and privacy.
Past technologies, such as the telegraph, may give us a great deal of insight into contemporary problems. This point has been popularized by Tom Standage who explains that the telegraph – “the highway of thought” – was a “worldwide communications network whose cable spanned continents and oceans,” “revolutionized business practices,” and was believed to promote world peace and harmony (1998, p. vii, 39, 207-210). On the telegraph there were “budding romances,” “online weddings,” “failed governmental regulations,” “new forms of crime,” “failed governmental regulations,” “concerns about information overload and security” (as paraphrased by Cline, 2005, p. 61).
There is a large body of research documenting the parallels between the between previous communications technologies, such as the telegraph and telephone, and contemporary Internet technologies. In this way, the history of technology gives us insight into the problems that we are facing today.
- The Victorian Internet (Standage)
Additional Reading (for serious readers only):
- When old technologies were new: thinking about electric communication in the late nineteenth century. (Marvin)
- The social impact of the telephone. (Edited by I. de Sola Pool)
- Prime Time Society: an ethnographic analysis of television and culture. (Kottak)
- The printing press as an agent of change: communications and cultural transformation in early-modern Europe. (Eisenstein) An encyclopedic two volume set – be forewarned!
The field of Communications looks more specifically on the impact of various design choices and how they influence interpersonal communication. Scholars explain that in the design of virtual workgroups and virtual communities, for instance, it is possible to influence group dynamics, to promote teamwork, creativity, or productivity, providing insight into the impact of various design choices: Nancy Baym, for example, looks at how online group interaction emerges out of “complex interactions” between design variables (1998). Thorngren explains why long distance relationships over the telephone are hard to maintain over time, unless reinforced by face-to-face interaction or social, family, or business ties (1977, p. 383). And Nicholas Yee looks at how conditioning may be used to shape behavior in massive-multi-player online video games and how the structuring of activity may be used to promote teamwork and bonding (2001, 2003).
- http://www.nickyee.com (Nicholas Yee)
- The emergence of on-line community. (Nancy Baym)
- Power, Madness, & Immortality: the Future of Virtual Reality (Cline)
- Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality (Biocca & Levy)
- Silent actors: communication networks for development. (Thorngren) In the social impact of the telephone. (I. de Sola Pool)
- A Group is its own worst enemy, economics & culture, media & community, open source – a speech (Shirky)
Political philosophy and ethics also gives us insight into the design of Internet and virtual reality technologies. The development of Internet and Virtual Reality Technologies raise a number of traditional moral questions about the use, impact, and design of new technologies, existential questions about who we want to be, and questions about the relationship between the individual and the state (Cline, 2009b). The history of Western philosophy provides insight and perspective into these questions, and grounds discussion as, in the words of Marvin, “. . . patterns anchored in older media that have provided the stable currency of social exchange are re-examined, challenged, and defended,” reflecting “less the evolution of technical efficiencies in communication than a series of arenas for negotiating issues critical to the conduct of social life” (p. 4).
Science Fiction provides an alternate entry point for the discussion of political philosophy and ethics. Science fiction provides insight into possible futures, into problems created by new technologies, and questions about the relationship between the individual and the state. In addition, books such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash – described by Bruce Damer as the Old and New Testaments, within the development community – have helped to guide, shape, and provide inspiration for the development of new technologies.
- A Brave New World
- The Diamond Age
More recently, there has been growing interest in the impact of internet technologies upon society, as illustrated by growing interest within academia, as well as by government. In particular, there has been growing interest in virtual worlds such as SecondLife, in massive-multi-player role playing games such as World of Warcraft, and in legal issues regarding property rights and privacy. The Council for Europe has released Human Rights Guidelines for Online Games Providers and Human Rights Guidelines for Internet Service Providers. Conferences, such as The State of Play have increased in popularity. Blogs, such as TerraNova, proliferate. And the number of graduate students writing PhDs on virtual environments continues to increase, contributing to an ever increasing body of literature and providing new insights into the social impact of computer and communications technologies.
- Metaverse Roadmap: Pathways to the 3D Web
- Human Rights Guidelines for Online Games Providers
- Human Rights Guidelines for Internet Service Providers
- TerraNova (http://terranova.blogs.com/)
- The State of Play: Law, Games, and Virtual Worlds (Balkin)
- Power, Madness, & Immortality: the Future of Virtual Reality (Cline)
- Cyborgs@cyberspace: an ethnographer looks to the future. (Hakken)