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Mobile Community Design
Research and design information for mobile community developers.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Social Responsibility and Theoretical Choice - Part 6

Potential Solutions: Subversive Technologies and Impact Statements

Three major factors bring an influence to bear on technology adoption: a) technology developers b) governmental legislation c) users. Developers (or designers) have more control over their own behaviour than that of the latter two. However, participatory design did have a stage where it was more concerned with political legislation than design (Helander et al., 1997, p. 303) and this is another possible avenue for designers interested in improving the quality of life of workers and users. Users themselves will ultimately choose to use technologies in a largely unpredictable and emergent fashion, so it may not always be possible to design humane environments for them. There are also other options such as boycotts or protests which seek to rally large numbers of users to change their behaviour in unison to influence manufacturers and governments. However, designers primarily will have control over the processes they use, the products that are produced, and the types of actions those products enable and encourage. There is an unofficial class of products known as ‘subversive technologies’, which either by design or not, have the ability to change power structures in societies. These products are often highly adaptable or offer high-level functions which are generally applicable. They often offer new forms of communication, and frequently they are inexpensive and difficult to censor and regulate. Primary examples of subversive technologies include mobile phones, e-mail, the Internet, camera phones and peer-to-peer networks. It may be that it is the actual structure of the technology which is more socially important than the design process used, or the intended use of the technology, although these are certainly related. It may be better to give users technologies which enable them to organise, analyse situations, form strategies, and represent and defend themselves than to attempt to prescribe future humane usage situations.

Another option is to predict the likely elements of technology adoption and make it public prior to the completion of technologies. This is the equivalent of an environmental impact assessment for software and hardware. An environmental impact assessment is a report completed by those proposing a new development (such as a buildings, freeways, landfills) before it occurs . It uses scientific methods to predict potential levels of environmental damage or change. A part of this is sometimes a social impact assessment, which attempts to predict likely social consequences of the development. A related concept is an environmental impact statement which is used by the US federal government to discuss the likely impact on the human environment which major projects pose. This formal documentation integrates the activity of predicting the future impact of new technologies on human and environmental quality into regular development processes. Its public disclosure allows it be evaluated by communities to determine how implementation should be managed. It is surprising that software and hardware which permeates offices, homes, cafes, and clothes, and which mediates our communications, is being distributed without similar safeguards or public inquiry. An ‘environmental and social impact statement’ for technology products could become a bureaucratic step which hinders innovation, but it could also be a tool by which communities could regulate technology adoption to retain reasonable levels of quality of life. There is an interesting irony here that it may be much harder to predict the impacts of subversive technologies due to their malleability and uncontrollable nature. The development of such an impact statement is beyond the scope of this thesis and would be a good topic for future research.

These solutions could easily be applied to travel technologies. In 50 years backpacking will undoubtedly be different than it is now, and presently it is different than it was 50 years ago. At any stage it would have been possible to find backpackers who nostalgically desired a return to a previous style of travelling. Likewise, it is also possible to find backpackers who are dissatisfied with current travel problems and desire a future form of travel that is not yet available. The free market solves some of these problems by offering products which are successful if people wish to use them, and thus purchasing power is used to vote for various technologies. New mobile technologies will undoubtedly change the future of backpacking, just as e-mail, airplanes and credit cards have changed it previously. It is less an issue of resisting change, but instead managing it in a way that is socially desirable. Backpackers may find subversive open source mobile communication solutions in the future which allow them to invent an entirely new definition of what it is to be a backpacker and create a new backpacking experience. It may also be that government tourism agencies would benefit from creating their own mobile software to encourage tourism. Producing an environmental and social impact statement for this type of product would allow backpackers and locals to help shape the future of backpacking.

The completes the series of posts on the topic of theory's affect on design. I'm currently formulating a post on (what else?) the iPhone which has some critical flaws to it - so stay tuned for that!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Social Responsibility and Theoretical Choice - Part 5

Where is Our Technology Design Leading Us?

As demonstrated in the above example of the US government seeking to influence the design of new technologies, there are decisions being made about what work roles should be replaced, who has control over the creation of new technology, and what values it will represent. The design processes we use also have a similar effect. Technological determinism is a term sometimes used to describe this technological change (Feenberg, 1999). This theory has weak and strong versions, with the latter advocating that new technologies follow their own unquestionable evolutionary path and that humanity needs to adapt to the needs of scientific progress. The more commonly advocated weak version stipulates that while new technologies do influence behaviour, there is also another significant effect of people deciding which technologies to create and how to use them. Some social science researchers are on the other end of the spectrum and believe that personal choice and environmental situations are the primary controlling factors of technology development and use (Arnold, 2003). This perspective dismisses the history of progressive technology advancement and successful predictive formulae such as Moore’s Law (Fitts & Posner, 1967) which are based on the premise that new advancements in science will result in the predictable growth of new technologies. For example, some of the most stable predictions in technology design are that devices will get smaller, more powerful and more efficient. When these powerful handheld devices are delivered into the hands of customers by hardware and software vendors, they will have an impact on employment roles, social relations and governments. People will make some decisions about how to use these devices, but they will be constrained by the physical limitations of the devices and tempted to use the features which are easy and inexpensive.

Thus it seems that there is a balance in responsibility between those who are designing and selling devices, governments which regulate their practices, and users of these technologies who decide what is desired and socially acceptable. Clearly we do not want situations where introduction of new technologies results in members of the surrounding community living in inhumane conditions. However we should also remember that the introduction of a new technology was not the significant factor in the Luddite rebellion. Instead it was unethical business owners and a government which did not enact laws to support a healthy economic climate in which people could find quality work. The older textile technology of the wooden frame was used to exploit workers, just as the new automated machinery was after it. However, some technologies do change workers job roles more than others; for example enhancements to frames were not as disruptive as entirely new shearing frames. However, it is the way that business owners choose (or are regulated) to use available technologies and treat their employees, which greatly influences the quality of life of workers. Thus it is quite possible that we as designers could use completely humane design theories, which produce a mutually satisfactory product, which is then implemented in a profit-driven fashion by industry, which results in the abuse of workers. Thus it must be remembered that design theory and methods is only a small part of the bigger picture of humane sociotechnical systems.

Next Post: Potential Solutions: Subversive Technologies and Impact Statements

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Social Responsibility and Theoretical Choice - Part 4

Social Implications of Technology Use on Backpacker Culture

As with all technologies, the tourism technologies proposed in this thesis would change the environments they are introduced into, and the behaviour of the people using them. There are elements of this which are reasonably predictable and elements which are not. For example, community authoring poses challenges for existing models of creating guidebooks. It could be that backpackers on the road will generate more current, accurate, and detailed information than professional authors had previously provided. This could easily result in the replacement of experienced paid authors with an inexperienced swarm of unpaid travel authors. It is also true that professional authors work hard and provide insightful, useful and comprehensive overviews, and that this may not be matched by amateurs. This could result in a competition between the two authorship paradigms. This scenario would be likely to result in a shift in the focus of professional authors, or perhaps the gradual elimination of this job role.

Similarly there is a small portion of the backpacker population who genuinely want to experience untainted foreign cultures, isolate themselves from home, travel without a guidebook and use only the most basic travel equipment. Because of the increase in Internet cafes, backpackers carrying mobile phones, and the number of backpackers, it is increasingly hard for these people to find the travel experience they are looking for (Huxley, 2005). This is analogous to the increasing difficulty of finding new species on a planet that does not hold many unexplored locations. The technologies I am proposing in this research would make it easier and safer to travel, which would increase travellers’ confidence in going to more remote locations (and thus increase their impact on the destinations). It would enhance the group-formation abilities of backpackers travelling alone, which could result in more group activities and more partying. The ability to e-mail, call and instant message from a mobile device carried in a pocket could result in backpackers connecting more with people at home or from a similar culture, instead of actively engaging in the cultures in which they are travelling.

So what is the aim of our technology design? Should we follow the path of the Luddites and destroy the Internet cafes and mobile phones? Should we protect the guidebook authors and instead of replacing them with community authoring technologies, seek ways to improve the quality of their reportage? Should we design technologies which help to reduce the ability for others to contact backpackers and guide a minority of backpackers to pristine unexplored locations? All of these options are theoretically possible, but it depends on what social aims we have, where sufficient markets are, and how much of the result we can predict. It may well be that guidebook authors will go the way of human traffic directors and telephone switchboard operators. Is this a natural evolutionary process, or is it a role which is respected in society to the degree that we wish to protect it when it is obsolete?

Next Post: Where is Our Technology Design Leading Us?