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The use of social media in Syria

In this entry, I will write about the use of social media by Syrians, and mainly the use of Facebook [1]. Why is this interesting? I find it so because Syria and the Middle East are largely importers of digital technology, and still remain relatively under-studied by those who design and make technology. The other obvious reason is that due to the conditions and the events that Syrians are going through, looking at their use of social media for personal and public matters is one way to talk about the different motivations, actions, and circumstances that frame their lives, and a way to think about what that means for designing technology. Finally, in social informatics, and especially in community- related research, we are interested in “localities” where technology is used [Taylor 2004]. After all, as Howard Becker argues, every particular case has general implications [Becker 1998].

To write this post, I spent a couple of days looking at how people I could reach from my Facebook account use the platform. This includes Friends and personal connections, pages I follow or those I could reach because one of my connections referred to them, and activists who are usually individuals with extended social reach with a large audience base. My account is rather personal and I do not aim to be exhaustive or general [2]. I do try to be politically unbiased, although it is a particularly challenging matter to which I don’t think I can fully comply. Although there are atrocities committed by all sides, the sequence of events and the numbers do not put equal responsibility. I present these observations within themes, showing examples when possible [3], and I further use them to provoke questions about the design of social media. So, there we go.

Themes of Facebook use in Syria

1. News, events, and activism

Facebook is a main aggregator of various sources of news: news of family and friends, of the local town, of national events, and of world politics. This is supported both by the various possibilities for social connection (person-person, person-group, person-page, page-page) as well as its ability to curate various types of other media (photos, videos, and generic URLs). Facebook is therefore an important way for many Syrians to get news about local, national and international events. Although anybody can be a source of news, specific people (media activists), public figures, local groups, and media agencies dedicate special effort to follow the news and report on it (often with political commentary). Volunteers and local media groups often specialize in certain areas (a town or a region), and are almost always politically affiliated. The news can cover anything: the locations of bombings heard early morning, the state of repair of power and water lines, the condition of roads and the possibility of travel, the progress of combat on the front lines, the names of those killed in a recent strike, prices of vegetables, the elections in USA, and media statements made by politicians, activists, or military leaders.

A known personality in Aleppo reports on the recent status of water delivery in the city after a prolonged suspension.

— A known personality in Aleppo reports on the recent status of water delivery in the city after a prolonged suspension.

A Facebook page dedicated for delivering news on Aleppo reporting on heavy clashes.

— A Facebook page dedicated for delivering news on Aleppo reporting on heavy clashes.

After the recent killing of "Father Frans"; a dutch priest who was residing in the Old City of Homs. The picture shows Father Frans in the green t-shirt along with another young man in a blue shirt: "Bassel Shehadeh", who was a Syrian film producer and an activist. Bassel was killed in May 2012 during a government assault in Homs. Finally, the profile picture of the activist posting this picture is a pic of the activist "Razan Zaitouneh" who was kidnapped in December 2013 by unknown militants.

— After the recent killing of “Father Frans”; a dutch priest who was residing in the Old City of Homs. The picture shows Father Frans in the green t-shirt along with another young man in a blue shirt: “Bassel Shehadeh”, who was a Syrian film producer and an activist. Bassel was killed in May 2012 during a government assault in Homs. Finally, the profile picture of the activist posting this picture is a pic of the activist “Razan Zaitouneh” who was kidnapped in December 2013 by unknown militants.

2. Personal connection, friends and family

The direct straight-forward theme is using Facebook to communicate and keep-up with friends and family. Syrians are becoming increasingly displaced. Large numbers of refugees continue to flood into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, while those better-off economically manage to leave to Egypt, the gulf states, or Europe. Browsing the Facebook feed has therefore became a primary way to get news and commentary about the whereabouts of friends and family, either inside or outside of Syria. My connections have mentioned often that browsing the “green dot” that indicates that somebody is online on Facebook chat was a way to know that they are doing OK. With the increased absence of electricity and Internet the whole city of Aleppo can go offline for several days, and even weeks. It is then common to have a wave of “online cheering” and exchange of greetings when the city gets reconnected with friends and family appearing back online.

A friend of mine recently shared a music piece with the theme of remembering the homeland. He tagged us in the first comment.

— A friend of mine recently shared a music piece with the theme of remembering the homeland. He tagged us in the first comment.

3. Nostalgia towards left places and sorrow over destruction

Numerous homes, villages and cities have suffered immense destruction, largely due to the use of heavy artillery and air bombing, and due to clashes taking place among inhabited areas. In Aleppo, the line of clashes goes right through the city center and the old city. You can often find posts of photos and Youtube videos with compassionate comments showing destruction in civilian areas, infrastructure, and historic sites, while comparing the condition of those places with photos and videos taken before 2011.

A Facebook page dedicated for celebrating local Aleppo culture (accent, food, events) posting a picture of the city with words of nostalgia: "Good morning o peace of my aching heart".

— A Facebook page dedicated for local Aleppo culture (accent, food, events) posting a picture of the city with the words: “Good morning, O peace of my aching heart”.

4. Solidarity with the missing

With Syrians detained by the government (estimates of 200,000), and also increasingly by various militant groups, it is common to use Facebook to report of missing Syrians. Friends and activists would spread posts explaining the circumstances of those detained or kidnapped, and Facebook pages would be opened to follow their news and to remind people with their disappearance. Sometimes, the family of those missing asks for no fuss to be made online, fearing that this will bring further hardship.

5. Loss, death, and grief

With 9 million displaced Syrians, many Syrians have experienced loss in one way or another over the past three years: losing home, losing a family member or a friend, or losing work and savings. As military action escalated in late 2011 and onward, it is rare to find a Syrian who does not have a family member or who did not personally know someone who was killed, either because of participating in combat, or as a result of detention and torture, or because of being a civilian under fire. It is almost a custom now that Facebook pages would be opened in memory of those who passed away, for friends to write elegies and words of condolence, and for the public to become aware of the reasons and circumstances of their death. The personal profiles of those who passed away would also become a place of mourning where friends would write words of farewell.

A Facebook page created in memory of "Waseem Abu Zenah", a young Syrian IT engineer who recently died in detention due to lack of medical attention. The page shares an English article written by one of Waseem's friends.

— A Facebook page created in memory of “Waseem Abu Zenah”, a young Syrian IT engineer who recently died in detention due to lack of medical attention. The page shares an English article written by one of Waseem’s friends.

6. Fight, debate, and violence

I would argue that it is next to impossible to remain neutral in light of the events in Syria. Debate (or simply online flaming) therefore takes place on any type of a shared post or a comment. Also, violent content is abundant in the Syrian online social sphere. Photos and videos of the aftermath of bombings, airstrikes and front-line fighting (which are extremely graphic and violent by any measure) are very common in the daily stream of content on my Facebook wall. Along this, it is common to find comments on these pieces of content that are inflaming and calling to exterminate and defeat the “other side” and calling for justice and revenge.

A raging debate goes on a post made by a Syrian activist who heavily denounced air strikes and barrel bombings.

— A raging debate goes on a post made by a Syrian activist who heavily denounced air strikes and barrel bombings.

-- A debate between a commentator who is pro-government military action and another one who is opposing.

— A debate between a commentator who is pro-government military action and another one who is opposing.

7. Collaboration and thriving local communities

Many Syrians use Facebook to collaborate, communicate and learn. This includes local activist groups connecting over Facebook groups to coordinate for covering the news of localities, relief and charity groups coordinating online fundraising campaigns, and potentially militants who communicate to coordinate some of their operations (this last one I have not observed personally, but activists mentioned that it happens). In my own work, I have worked for a prolonged period (over two years by now) with a community of learners (mostly university students) who use Facebook, blogs, youtube and custom wikis to learn about cutting-edge technology, hold public talks and presentations, and organize collaborative workshops. Social media helps them to find alternative places to collaborate and publish content as well as to spread the word about their events and grow the community by reaching to new members online.

8. Charity and relief

The cyberspace, and on top of it the social layer, has allowed Syrian groups and organizations to sprout and coordinate for the benefit of a certain activist agenda without having to establish official associations going through complex procedures (which are often unclear and subject to corruption and authoritative government control). Today, countless groups and organizations dedicated for the relief of Syrians use Facebook and other social media, sometimes as media outlets to announce their activities and publish reports, or even to coordinate the work between their members and to announce their need for volunteers and donations.

A local charity and relief organization reporting on their recent knitting workshop held in a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey.

— A local charity and relief organization reporting on their recent knitting workshop held in a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey.

-- A volunteer working in a local charity group asking for aid through her Facebook profile.

— A volunteer working in a local charity group asking for aid through her Facebook profile.

Meta. A word on marginalization and non-use

Internet access in Syria before 2011 has been gradually increasing with more private users, internet cafes, and public institutions getting connected. I have not found an informative report, but it is common sense to expect that those better off economically had better Internet access. This is also true after 2011. Government-controlled areas still have better access to electricity and Internet, and those better off economically have stronger voices online. News about areas outside of government control come mainly from media activists or from online media outlets (Facebook pages, Youtube channels) of oppositional armed groups. This heavily questions the non-proportionate representation of Syrians online, where those who access the Internet can deliver their point of view, while the weakest and the most vulnerable are photographed and studied by activists, media agencies, and relief associations instead of speaking for themselves. A Syrian researcher has an insightful report of his visit to Syrian refugee camps in northern Syria and Turkey where he comments on issues relevant to the marginalization of Syrian refugees from the possibility to take initiative in actively controlling their circumstances [Idlbi 2013]. In addition to that, with the escalation of military action in Syria, the voices of civil and peaceful activists have gradually faded out of the picture, and news of armed attacks became the more dominant content.

On the role of Social Media

After this quick overview of different existing uses of Facebook, I find it quite uninformative to claim that social media has a positive or a negative effect on the Syrian situation without being concrete and in relation to a particular case. Few months ago, I have attended a talk by Kentaro Toyama, who made the compelling argument (and I paraphrase), that by looking at the historical impact of technology, we can see that technology is an “amplifier” of human intentions, motivations and desires [Toyama 2011]. I find this accurate in the use of social media by Syrians, where people use it for family connections, relief efforts, collaboration, activism, news, war, and flaming. It is a question then on how to design social tools to enable certain forms of interaction while discouraging others. This  is a task that is neither easy nor politically-neutral (it will always come associated with a political agenda). On this note, I will close with deriving questions from the above themes on the design and making of social media in the context of the lives of Syrians.

Problematizing social media in Syria

  1. Spread of hate-speech: how can social media be designed to encourage mutual understanding or peaceful debate instead of increasing rift between people?
  2. Spread of graphic violent content: Facebook and Youtube frequently delete content that is deemed to be violent or offensive. The policies that these platforms follow to moderate content posted by their users remain unclear, but one of them is mass reports made by other users. For example, Syrian pro-government and pro-opposition pages often lead “reporting campaigns” in order to shut the opponents’ pages down. The question that I raise here is around regarding the nature of “violent content” and the effect of its posting and the discussion that goes around it. It is, on the one hand, a fundamental right to know about atrocities. On the other hand, this content is never neutral and is often interpreted and re-purposed for emotional charging and calls for in a war-torn Syria.
  3. Ownership of data and Facebook’s monopoly: a relevant issue is Facebook’s ultimate control over its content. Several activists and pages have reported the suspension of their accounts at one point or another, and content deletion is common due to mass reports. This has raised some concerns and suggestions to find an alternative, possibly federated, social platform where the ownership of data does not belong to one central authority. Such platforms do exist, but the immense popularity of Facebook where “everybody is there” makes such platforms less appealing.
  4. Security of data and cyber intelligence: when somebody gets detained or kidnapped (especially an activist or a charity worker), I have seen in many cases that their friends would swiftly write to Facebook administration to close their account. Even more, activists often leave their account passwords with people they trust such that those friends would change all passwords if the activist is detained or kidnapped. This is to prevent the leak of sensitive insider data (connections, personal messages, online social interactions, political affiliations) from being exposed, and thus further endangering the kidnapped and their social circle. Further, it is common among activists to be aware of suspicious account of people they do not know personally for they might be following them for the sake of tracking them down. This raises the questions on how we can protect private data and quickly lock-down accounts to protect against malicious access.
  5. Role in escalating or dampening violence: it is a big question whether social media in the case of Syria has actually contributed to reducing or escalating the violence. On the one hand, whenever an atrocity is committed, tweets, Youtube videos, and Facebook posts flood the media sphere. This somewhat enables people to become moral supervisors of each others. However, due to the flexibility of engineering your own connections online, I have seen several of my friends mentioning that in Facebook you can end up completely isolated within a similarly-minded group of people. This, in turn, might encourage extreme identities and a closed-world view where it is easier to dehumanize the other.
  6. Design for collaboration and for rapid small groupings: Facebook is being used by collaborative and volunteer groups to communicate, coordinate action, collect donations and announce events. However, I have seen concerns around the lack of possibility to organize and retrieve content on Facebook, which is linear and “decays” with time. Could there be alternative structuring for a social platform where there is the possibility to structure how information are created and retrieved? Further, could we think of providing small charity and voluntary groups with tools that help them express their needs and find resources? There are even local efforts by Syrians to create alternative social platforms that aim to address these very issues [4]

In the case of Syria, social media tools and platforms need to take into account radically new contexts and use cases. The current tools have provided a promising space, and their relative neutrality contributes significantly to their wide adoption and adaptation by various groups with diverse views, however, looking at how they are used within the Syrian context provokes various questions of the current status and alternative possibilities to work out. My final word here is to encourage others to provoke and suggest what I have omitted, where social media is surely being used by Syrians in ways far more diverse and complex that what I have listed in this post [5].

……………………………………………………………………………..……

Notes

  1. Facebook is what is mainly addressed here. However, due to connectedness of social media, it is a melting pot. On Facebook you can see references and discussions around videos, blog posts, news articles, photos, and statements made by public figures or activists. It is therefore fair to consider it as the social platform where most other social media are referenced, shared and discussed in the Syrian sphere.
  2. To clarify my position:  I am currently  located in Switzerland, working at the University of Fribourg, and with good contact with a local community of Syrian volunteers (mainly in Damascus) as well as with people working in charity and relief. I have spent the time between June 2011 and February 2012 in Aleppo. Since Aleppo is my home town, my connections and attention is naturally biased to it. Also, what I see on Facebook is only what my personal social & professional circles enable me to reach and what I tend to follow due to my political views. This post should therefore be read as a single account.
  3. In the screenshots taken, I have anonymized personal information, including personal names and profile pictures. In the case of public pages, I have left the snapshots un-blurred.  I have translated all content except for the one case where content was written originally in English (I noted that explicitly).
  4. MicroCommunity” is a project lead by Syrians for creating a social platform for encouraging the formation and collaboration of small-scale communities, particularly in the Arab world.
  5. The topics that I omitted include the use of social media for: fun and humor; history and documentation; political activism and popular mobilization; political propaganda; cyber war; and also, for connecting and recruiting foreign fighters, apparently mostly by the Islamic State of Iraq And Al-Sham (ISIS) and Al-Nusra front [ICSR 2014]. For more information, there is a number of media articles on the use of social media particularly in relation with the Syrian uprising, mentioning recruitment of fighters; fund-raising for humanitarian aid as well as for weapons and supplies; artistry; news and activism; cyber intelligence; debate and flaming; and media campaigns [MediaMeasurementMitchell, Reuters 2011Baker 2014].

References

  • Becker, H. S. (1998). Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It (p. 232). University of Chicago Press.
  • Idlbi, A. (2013). On a Mission to Learn – My Trip to a Syrian IDP Camp. Field report. Link
  • Taylor, W. (2004). Community Informatics in Perspective. In S. Marshall, W. Taylor, & X. Yu (Eds.) Using Community Informatics to Transform Regions (pp. 1-17). Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing.
  • Toyama, K. (2011). Technology as amplifier in international development. In Proceedings of the 2011 iConference on – iConference ’11 (pp. 75–82). New York, New York, USA: ACM Press.

Of rituals and technology

I have always enjoyed fixing computers. This is not because of the challenges that are presented by the process of computer repair (although there is a certain amount of enjoyment to be found there as well) but because it is interesting to hear how people feel about their computers both in terms of their normal functioning and their malfunctioning. There seemed to be a near-infinite number of ways that people had come up with to make the functioning (or malfunctioning) of these machines make sense. I came to think of these little quirky approaches to grappling with the black box of computational devices as little rituals. Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner describes rituals as symbolic actions, grouping them alongside other forms of symbolic action such as social drama and metaphor (4). However, I did not have a concrete definition of what a technological ritual was; I just knew it when I saw it.

Fundamental to these is the idea that rituals are activities that occur in the material world, but have some sort of importance beyond their material qualities. Metaphor has become an important to aid users in understanding the functioning of the otherwise complex functioning of digital devices (e.g. 1). Digital technology also has its share of social drama: Facebook relationship status being one way to solidify a romantic engagement between two people. Even ritual itself has been spoken of in the context of computation. One study has examined how “ritualized interactions often play a major role in the performance and experience of the art or performance work,” (2) while another has looked at how ritual activities could be used to make virtual characters seem more like real characters (3). However, art performances hold a kind of lofty ambition and a focus on making virtual characters have rituals focuses on representing people to make them easier to interact with. I wonder how looking at the more everyday practices of people as they relate with technology could lead to a better understanding of both people and the technology they use. As an example of how to look at technological interactions in terms of ritual, I point to Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero.

It is common to hear people complain about having too much email. It takes a lot of time to sort through all of one’s messages, it causes problems with missed communication, and it can make people feel overwhelmed with the amount of information they are receiving. As an answer to this problem, Merlin Mann describes Inbox Zero (http://inboxzero.com/) , a way of handling email overload. At one level, this is a prescription of simple actions of sorting, removing and addressing the demands presented in a person’s inbox. However, it is also a set of small actions that in combination hold a certain higher personal and social value. The empty inbox described by the processes name not only reduces distractions when new email comes in, it also gives a symbol of technological well-adjustment. It is social in the sense that the person’s relations to others are kept in check. The material of Inbox Zero is an empty in box, it’s meaning is control of technology in a way that also incorporates interactions with other people.

This idea of ritual, as it pertains to technology, is still quite rough. However, as HCI has focused more on experiences and the designing thereof, the kind of duality of meaning that comes from ritual acts may prove to be a valuable way of understanding the relationships between the form and function of artifacts and the meanings that people ascribe to them. Looking at interactions as rituals may point to better understandings of digital artifacts and the people who interact with them.

References
[1] Blackwell, A. F. (2006). The reification of metaphor as a design tool. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 13(4), 490-530.
[2] Loke, L., Khut, G. P., & Kocaballi, A. B. (2012, June). Bodily experience and imagination: designing ritual interactions for participatory live-art contexts. InProceedings of the Designing Interactive Systems Conference (pp. 779-788). ACM.
[3] Mascarenhas, S., Dias, J., Afonso, N., Enz, S., & Paiva, A. (2009, May). Using rituals to express cultural differences in synthetic characters. InProceedings of The 8th International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems (Vol. 1).
[4] Turner, V. W. (1975). Dramas, fields, and metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Cornell University Press.

Calling into question design’s ability to solve problems: a quick look at micromanagement technologies for low-wage service jobs

In academia, we often talk about technology becoming increasingly pervasive (or ubiquitous) in daily life, referring to technologies moving beyond the personal computer and present in multiple locations. Technologists often herald this vision of technological pervasiveness as a positive change: having more technology opens up new spaces for design to explore solving problems. While new pervasive technologies are able to account for problems in more innovative ways, these new forms create as many problems as they are purported to “solve”. In the case we examine today, new technologies are not shown to solve problems as much as they displace burdens from one set of people to another.

This article from the New York Times outlines a plight of retail and wholesale service workers (e.g., cashiers, cooks, stockers, etc.).  Newly adopted time management technologies micromanage workers’ work hours to such a degree that in impacts their non-work lives. From one perspective, these technologies solve employers’ problems such as creating new ways to deal with peak customer demands and getting the most out of workers in four-hour periods. This may be beneficial for the employers, but in the process of creating efficiencies and responsiveness to economic pressures and trends, however, the new technologies have essentialized human beings as parts of algorithms. By understanding what these new technologies are doing to low-wage service employees, we understand that this time-management software is not solving a problem; it’s shifting a burden.

“We’re seeing more and more that the burden of market fluctuations is being shifted onto the workers, as opposed to the companies absorbing it themselves” – from the article

By using these neoliberal micromanagement technologies, employers want to have access to a flexible on-demand workforce, but without the responsibility (or cost) for officially placing individuals on-call. In more skilled labor jobs, companies often have to pay for the privilege of having a person “on-call” (meaning they can request for you to come in work), which is not the case for these new service workers, which indicates that with the introduction of these new practices and technologies there are also shifting of worker’s workplace expectations.

This article leaves me with a few thoughts:

To be clear, I don’t think shifting burdens happens in every case of design, but becomes likely in cases where design enrolls multiple parties and stakeholders with unequal positions of power. In this scenario, you have employers and employees both impacted by the novel micromanagement technology, but employees are made to bear the responsibility to be responsive to market pressures.

These new micromanagement technologies create new ways for employers to understand their workforce and efficiently allocate their human and non-human resources. These technologies create different types of visibility and understanding of these resources, but we do not entirely understand the potential impacts of these technologies and their accompanying practices on employers and employees. If anyone has any links to relevant research regarding the impact of such technologies on lower waged service jobs, I would welcome their suggested readings.

As I’ve argued, designers and technologists are not always “solving problems” through their innovations; in their efforts to solve problems, they are also creating new problems by displacing and shifting burdens to others. This leaves unanswered questions regarding how design might better account for shifting burdens and what the processes are by which these shifts actually happen. This also brings about a new occasion for design to create new opportunities for these low-wage auto service workers. Prior research documents the rarity for new technologies to disrupt power structures, but it is not impossible. At the end of the article, the author points to workers’ diminished power to collectively organize and form unions as part of why such technologies exist and why low-wage service jobs without much mobility may increasingly become the norm. This point presents an opportunity for design to better help low-wage service workers better understand how technology impacts their everyday working experiences as well as designing for new methods for collectively organizing for better treatment, wages, and working expectations. Which leaves open questions of how can design change and help improve low-wage service workers’ situations? What kinds of new technologies, visibilities, practices and norms would need to be established  and/or supported to help low-wage service workers collectively produce action?

It is important to note that new micromanagement technologies that rely on creative and novel ways of algorithmically thinking and collecting data will continue to pervade the lives of low-wage service workers. This leaves open areas of research to explore the relationship and impact of these technologies, workers, and market-forces.

Imagining digital futures, or, What is it about refrigerators ordering groceries?

In the New York Times today there is an article about Google X, the top-secret lab for big ideas at Google. According to the article, the future being imagined here is “a place where your refrigerator could be connected to the Internet, so it could order groceries when they ran low. Your dinner plate could post to a social network what you’re eating. Your robot could go to the office while you stay home in your pajamas. And you could, perhaps, take an elevator to outer space.”

This is indeed a compelling vision.. maybe. Am I the only one who finds this future a little underwhelming, maybe even problematic and dysfunctional? For one thing, aren’t there already enough what-I-had-for-lunch tweets without plates getting in on the action? And what if the plate (because of course it has artificial intelligence) decides to chime in with some commentary: ‘pizza leftovers again?! @John’sMom are you seeing this?’.

And while staying at home in pajamas does sound pretty attractive, how does sending your robot into the office help? Does it make typing noises at your computer so people think you’re there? Does it go to meetings for you? Does it make decisions for you? What if it messes up? Could you really relax at home in your pajamas knowing that your robot might create a huge mess (bureaucratic or physical) that you will need to clean up? What if your robot knows how you really feel about your coworker and gets into a fight with your coworker’s robot? Could your robot be fired? Could your robot get you fired? Could it get promoted? Who would be held responsible for its actions: you, the robot, the robot’s designer? Would the robot have a moral compass, and if so, whose? Would everyone send their robots in for them, so the workplace would be entirely robots? Would it be all the same to them if the lights and heat were shut off to save electricity? Would there be robot unions to protest this mistreatment?

And then there’s the grocery-ordering refrigerator. This seems to be one of the most common images of a digital future of pervasive computing, no doubt inspired by a moment of watching the last few drops of milk drip onto still-dry cereal and thinking ‘man, I wish the refrigerator could have just taken care of that.’ But what kind of groceries would it order? It stands to reason that a digital refrigerator might need to deal in SKUs, which would make it easy to order more frozen pizza but maybe more difficult to order ‘the best-looking local in-season fruit’. Also, what infrastructure would this require? In addition to the refrigerator, the ordering system would need to be in place on the grocery store end, as well as maybe a delivery service. It’s hard to imagine smaller markets being able to invest in this, and vendors at the local farmers’ market would be out of the loop entirely. This would undoubtedly be unproblematic for many people, but it is significant that these biases could be encoded in technical systems that could encourage already-existing (unhealthy) habits to become even more entrenched.

As Langdon Winner has argued, technologies shape forms of life: technology design is ultimately about choosing ways of living, of ordering the world around us and our activities in it. While geeky technophiles tend to do a pretty good job of dreaming up some very cool and labor-saving technologies, they are less good at envisioning the forms of life that they might institute.

This is where more nuanced and critical approaches like Social Informatics might be useful. As scholars who study social dimensions of technologies we are used to teasing apart their various social, cultural, philosophical, historical, political, and ethical aspects, and looking at them critically. These aspects are just as much, if not more, important than technical feasibility, yet they are discussed far less frequently (if at all) during technology development and assessment. Maybe one of the reasons for this is that our existing critical approaches focus on technologies that already exist, not ones that have yet to be implemented.

But why should geeks working at big corporations with deep pockets be the ones who get to decide what our (digital) future should look like? What sorts of futures might Social Inforfmatics scholars envision? And as we’re imagining futures, could we also maybe move past our own laziness to consider how we might build a future with less inequality and more justice, less stress and more health, less poverty and excess and more true wealth and happiness?

All of these may sound like unattainable goals. But imagining a future in which they are true would be a first step toward making them a reality. And I would take that over a ‘smart’ refrigerator any day.

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