Social Responsibility and Theoretical Choice - Part 6
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!