Tech will (not) save us, values will (not) guide it
This blog post reflects on some collective thoughts a group of us came up with at a multi-disciplinary workshop focused on digital innovation. At this workshop, a group of Computer Scientists, Climate Scientists, Social Scientists and other researchers at Swansea University brainstormed product and research ideas in the trail of innovation for the future digital economy. The Bristol-based founder of Matter II Media Tim Kindberg, asked us to come up with possible solutions and associated research questions, to cater for the needs of pre-defined segments of the population in the not-so-distant future of the year 2040. We aimed to be imaginative, give concrete examples and not be deterred by resource considerations. At the end of the exercise, I was struck by the common thread running through the solutions which emerged – a vision for the restructuring of life along a network model, or what Castells (1996, 2010) described as the network society. Also, everyone in the room aspired to contribute towards technological innovations which would enabled positive social change. However, I felt I may have been in the minority in being somewhat sceptical of the ability of technology to achieve this - not without clear guiding principles. Below are the solutions we came up with and some thoughts on their potential.
One of the groups had to think about a technological product to address the needs of children in 2040. The group predicted that children will continue to increasingly interact with technology rather than “real” people. While this may lead to developmental benefits (for example Johnson and Johnson 2008), it can also result in harms, for example with respect to social skills (Sandvig, 2003; Harman et al 2005) or childhood obesity (Vandewater, Shim, & Caplovitz, 2004). As such, a technological fix may be to make interaction with technology more “human” and imbue it with didactic and healthy living functions throughout – especially in the context of smart homes. Perhaps Alexa should only respond to polite requests, prompting children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. It might limit TV time and encourage exercise. A Smart Home with an educational AI, might also prompt children to explore, discover and learn for themselves about the world around them.
Another group identified that modern city commuters need a convenient and sustainable transport system. Taking as inspiration modern electric trains, driverless cars and the informal public transport systems often seen in developing countries (e.g. private mini-buses and jeeps that pick up multiple customers along a specific route), this group hoped to develop a system which would be both energy efficient and capable of taking commuters exactly where they need to go. They came up with a new form of public transport based on individually programmable “pods” which assemble into trains. In practice, the aim would be to enable the individual to “catch a pod” between self-defined locations. En route, pods would join up with others in a train formation to maximise energy efficiency, while ensuring the individual gets to where they need to go in reasonable time.
To tackle unemployment in 2040, another group thought they may need to make it easier for people to create and find jobs. The idea was to have an integrated network of smart homes/buildings within smart cities, based on AI and blockchain technology, capable of “self-diagnosing” where a job needs doing. As an example, an individual’s smart home may send them a notification that needs doing in the home. They may then use a smartphone to publish the job specification to a secure database. AI technology could be used in conjunction with a sharing economy app to find someone with the skills and the profile to do the job. The customer could then use their smartphone to remotely give the contractor access to their home and monitor the progress of the work being done.
The final group identified the lack of adequate service provision for homeless people in the modern city. With respect to post-recession UK, it was noted that there has been a decrease in public provision, alongside a an increase in homelessness (Fitzpatrick et al. 2017). As a solution, the group hoped to develop an efficient and transparent way of fundraising for homelessness charities, to encourage individual donors to give more. Blockchain technology could be applied to charitable giving so as to build relationships of trust between charities and donors. In fact, I had come across a similarly cunning idea before, through the work of Disberse.
A common thread running through each of the above solutions is the restructuring of social relations into a network model, one where horizontal reciprocal relations between individuals play a more important role than they have in the past. This reminded me of Castells and his theory of the network society (Castells 1996, 2010). Castells understood the information age as revolutionary through the very notion of the network. The network society emerges from the collapse of time and space and the social impact of this new capacity for information flows which ICT enables. His post-Marxist analysis arrives at a vision of a society where the relevance of class is replaced by adaptability and ability to understand and manipulate information. This notion clearly has an intuitive appeal given the prominent role of ICT in our lives. However, there are inherent difficulties in measuring a network and the social impact of information-flows therein. How many people/nodes does the network need to engage to be a network? Is information technology predominantly driving social change or vice-versa? How do we distinguish between the technologies which are more or less impactful? How can we predict their impact? How can we agree on the kind of impact we want technology to have? How do we explain the continued existence of power asymmetries or the emerging new forms of (digital) inequality and exclusion?
These and other questions spur the other side of the theoretical debate, those who see more continuity than change in the so-called information age (see Kumar 1978 or Webster 2006). Proponents of this view might consider the ideas we came up with as temporary fixes, or even distractions from the core issues at stake. Solution 1 does not challenge that modern life requires parents to be more absent or present but exhausted; Solution 2 adapts to the logic of individual convenience and consumerism being our first and foremost priority, without challenging its ultimate incompatibility with sustainable development in a world of finite resources; Solution 3 does not so easily apply to non-manual labour and it does not “fix” the core issue of lack of jobs to match people’s skills, or the insecurity that comes with a “flexible” (some might say volatile) job market; and Solution 4 might lead to an increase of donations, but it does little to change what many see as a public policy failure in addressing the needs of the most vulnerable in society. It is thus clear that our tech solutions have limited capacity to change value systems and the structural conditions of our lives. At the same time, waiting for systemic change is obviously not going to get us to that ‘other’ place and by taking (some) steps we may think things differently and move closer to solutions.
Ultimately, the age of information flows creates endless possibilities for technological innovation, but they are not in themselves transformative. Technology is not neutral, it is developed within specific social, economic and power dynamics. As such, we can (and should) contribute towards the design of technologies which are capable of drawing out the social values necessary for a peaceful and sustainable future. The first step has to be to clearly identify what these values are, recognising that they are historically situated, not technologically determined. While the ICT revolution may have led to our shared yearning for a network society, the network itself is not, contrary to what Castells (1996, p.193) predicted, more powerful than the powers within it. At least not yet.
Castells, M. (1996). The Rise of the Network Society (Vol. 1). Oxford: Blackwell.
Castells, M. (2010). The Rise of The Network Society (2nd ed.). Chichester, West Sussex: Chichester, West Sussex.
Fitzpatrick, S., Pawson, H., Bramley, G., Wilcox, S., & Watts, B. (2017). The homelessness monitor: England 2017: Crisis.
Harman, J. P., Hansen, C. E., Cochran, M. E., & Lindsey, C. R. (2005). Liar, Liar: Internet Faking but Not Frequency of Use Affects Social Skills, Self-Esteem, Social Anxiety, and Aggression. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 8(1).
Johnson, G. M., & Johnson, J. A. (2008). Internet use and cognitive development during childhood: The ecological techno-subsystem. Paper presented at the IADIS International Conference on Information Systems, Algarve, Portugal.
Kumar, K. (1978). Prophecy and Progress: The Sociology of Industrial and Post-Industrial Society. Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Sandvig, C. (2003). Public Internet Access for Young Children in the Inner City: Evidence to Inform Access Subsidy and Content Regulation. The Information Society, 19, 171–183.
Vandewater, E. A., Shim, M., & Caplovitz, A. G. (2004). Linking obesity and activity level with children's television and video game use. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 71-85.
Webster, F. (2006). Theories of the Information Society (Vol. 3rd ed). London: Routledge.