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Panelist topic

January 24, 2012

Only a a few weeks to go, and we’ve finally nailed down a topic for our panelists. We’ve offered them the following paragraphs as framing and have asked them to use their talks to respond to the questions at the end.

It is possible to speak of the broader scale dynamics of a socio-technical system. A system might experience phase changes, might be more or less able to incorporate new information, might be more or less able to take coherent action and make good decisions. Yet in the same way that we can experience weather directly, but not the climate, the size and scale at which these dynamics operate may render them hard for us to understand and measure.

These dynamics are determined–at least in part–by the communication between individuals and the manner in which individuals extract information from their environment. Incremental changes in the nature of people’s communication networks or information consumption patterns can aggregate to create significant shifts in the dynamics of the larger socio-technical system.

We are continuing to build and adopt technology that can effect such incremental changes at massive scales. A single design change to a social platform used by a billion people might precipitate large and sudden social changes at global scales.

Systemic changes will result from the rapid adoption of social technology regardless of whether we anticipate or look for them. Responsible design should seek to incorporate awareness of these effects, but this raises the following set of questions.

  1. What are the potential changes we might see? How can we measure them? How can we anticipate them?
  2. How are specific aspects of design connected to systemic changes? What sorts of technological interventions can be / are used to bring about which kinds of changes?
  3. What sorts of systemic behaviors do we desire? How are such behaviors to be balanced against need for individual freedom and choice? Who should make decisions about design in light of such impacts?

Each of our three panelists will be speaking to one the above questions. What is your take? What do think design that is oriented to these kinds of questions should be called? Please comment, and share with others if you think the discussion is interesting!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2012 3:35 pm

    What’s in a name… how about Macrosocial Media Ecology? I’m a sucker for ecological models of things, but it seems apropos.

    Questions #1 and #2 – People tend to be fascinated with raw numbers when it comes to social media, like number of views, likes, +1s, etc. Looking at bottom-up effects on massive systems is certainly talked about less frequently. There are precedents in social dynamics theory and chaos theory that could inform theoretical models and forecasting. Learning how to introduce controlled changes into such a large and multivariate system will be a bit like learning weathermaking.

    Question #3 unfortunately is answerable by the folks with the deepest pockets, who can influence the greatest number of people and make a personal/corporate gain (corporations are people too, right?). So the question of personal freedom and choice is moot; widget-makers present a false sense of choice to the masses, based in emotion rather than logic, and humans are notoriously bad at overriding the amygdala.

    It would arguably be more realistic and useful to society to develop an understanding of how to empower individuals to recognize macro/micro social media forces at work, and how to choose whether to be affected by them.

    • February 6, 2012 10:26 pm

      I completely agree about using the language and tools of dynamic systems to talk about macro-level phenomena, and that’s what I had in mind in posing the question. And while yeah, this is probably way too complex to do with any precision (I agree with the weathermaking analogy) just becoming aware of the possibilities would be a step forward.

      Along these lines I’ve found Stuart Kauffman’s work (e.g. Origins of Order) to be particularly inspiring. I like the idea of a socio-technical system as an adaptive system that is more or less able to change with it’s environment depending upon its structure.

      Regarding the your “deepest pockets” comments… well, there will always be people willing to do less than ethical things for the right amount of money. But an ethical dimension is much harder to ignore if it’s been made clear. I think the point of value-sensitive design is to bring such otherwise hidden aspects of design into focus.

      Anyway – the point I was trying to get at here is that it is possible that aspects of socio-technical design can have macro-level impacts that may or may not be desirable (e.g. increased balkanization, reduced knowledge flow & innovation, etc.). If you buy into that conjecture, than it becomes possible for a handful of coders to create social software that could in short order fundamentally alter aspects of a social system. Given the incredibly broad and rapid diffusion of social technology, I think we could be looking at huge changes. Maybe I’m overstating things here, but if the underlying conjecture could be proven and demonstrated convincingly, then this is more than just a question of privacy and individual freedoms. Rather it’s a matter of national or even global security.

      • February 10, 2012 9:37 pm

        A few more ideas on the name. I’ve heard others refer to it as Social Computing System Design, or simply Sociotechnical Design.

        As for the discussion on scale. I always wonder what numbers can we as designers really talk about. The number of systems with hundreds of millions of users are very very few (Facebook, YouTube, etc). However, many of us have been involved in much smaller systems. I guess a question I’d love to bring up to the discussion is: are we interested in smaller scale sociotechnical systems? and if so, how can we make sure that what we learn from them is generalizable?

  2. February 12, 2012 7:02 pm

    I’ve been thinking a little bit about this since yesterday. At first thought, Andrés’s suggestion of “sociotechnical design” seemed to be a rather broad claim. In contrast, Persuasive Tech has always felt a bit narrow to me, since the conference and field seems to mostly concern itself with systems in which the designers intend to persuade. That’s really a much too narrow definition; as we talked about yesterday, all choice environments nudge people in one way or another, and all designers should be thinking about how they are nudging, whether it is intended or not.

    So that gets me back to thinking that sociotechnical design isn’t too broad — but that whatever we are talking about is an issue that cuts across all of sociotechnical design (though obviously is not the only issue). If we go the naming route, I feel like our name should perhaps fit into the phrase “Guidelines for _[name here]_ in SocioTechnical Design”. Thoughts?

  3. February 13, 2012 5:26 am

    Part of the difficulty in deriving a name for this “thing” is that we have just begun to apprehend what “it” is, so there will probably be some error-driven convergence on a consensus. I think once we extract some features from the World Cafe we had, we might have fewer interim steps towards a good-enough approximation.

    There was some debate at the workshop about whether this “thing” merits a name. I think there is power in naming, because it forces an otherwise nebulous state into observability.

    I think Sean’s emphasis on how design (architecture?) nudges, whether intentional or not, is a major piece of the puzzle, and implicates education and awareness.

    Andrés’ point about smaller scale systems also rings a bell, because I believe in a fractal nature of social systems. As below, so above? What lessons can we transport and translate from smaller systems to larger?

    Josh has mentioned several times the adaptability of systems, which implies a learning mechanism. I would suggest looking to Hebbian theory in this regard. The topic of diversity during World Cafe made me think of the pattern of branching, then pruning, of synaptic connections, trans-ontogeny. Diversity in the beginning is productive, but later, maladaptive.

    One other observation that was made: this looks like a fairly multidisciplinary “thing”, and that tends to fly in the face of siloed, grant-driven work, which could confound things a bit sine it breaks with traditional academic models (some people argued against this point, so please comment on this especially)

    Measurement was another giant unknown. How can we measure effects? This is an area of tremendous potential. I’m interested in measurable cellular-level changes, but only because I believe they project upwards into higher layers. It seems to me that figuring out how to derive a set of measurements, sensors, and descriptives / quantitatives is important. Also seems to cut across dimensions and disciplines.

    Finally (and potentially, initially)… so what? Some people have assailed usability, saying that it detracts from out ability to navigate the difficult and blunting our innate problem-solving capabilities. Are we tilting at windmills? What do we hope to gain?

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