Co-Evolving Social Systems with Escalating Technological Change
How can individuals and organizations maintain a sense of control amidst the ever-accelerating pace of the information technology revolution?
Ruth E. Davis
We are told again and again that the pace of technological change is accelerating. We know from history that technological change can cause tremendous sociological upheaval. Can we anticipate or perhaps even direct the development of technology so that we can maximize its positive effects on our society?
Anita Borg (President and Founding Director of the Institute for Women and Technology), Douglas C. Engelbart (computing pioneer and Director of the Bootstrap Institute), and William J. Mitchell (Dean of the School of Architecture and Professor of Architecture and of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT), shared their insights during a lively dialog. They focused on the possibilities for co-evolving our social structures with technological changes in ways that improve our collective ability to deal with complex problems and improve our quality of life.
Three key questions emerged during the dialog. First, how do we involve a broader spectrum of society, across age, gender, ethnic, and class backgrounds to influence the direction of technological change? Second, how do we find ways to improve our collective ability to deal with the social system complexities that result from rapid technological change? And, third, how do we assure an equitable distribution of the benefits of technology? This article begins with a summary of the presentations of each of the panelists, and concludes with some ideas for future work that emerged during the dialog.
Summary of the Dialog
Guiding the technological revolution is too massive a task to be attempted by the narrow slice of the population currently creating and controlling the technology. We need to bring together the notions of technology and democracy. Technology is having an incredible impact on our political, social, economic, and personal lives, an impact even greater than that of our governments. Much technology that might be inspired by and useful to half the population is not being developed because women are underrepresented among those creating the technology. Colleagues at the Institute for Women and Technology (IWT) are exploring alternatives for including more people, both technical and non-technical, into the process. They have found that more and better ideas result when more perspectives are brought into play. The technical people gain insight into what they might create, and the non-technical participants discover they have many good ideas about the possibilities of technology. This experiment in bringing democracy to the creation of technology has shown that when diverse perspectives are represented, we can create something useful and positive for a wider audience.
IWT has found a significant shift in the ideas that are put forward for future technology when talking with women. These are not just technical women, but women of all ages and all backgrounds. The more diverse the group, the better. They have found that groups of women tend toward ideas for group uses of technology rather than gadgets for individuals. For example, they are more interested in family and workgroup information management than in personal information management. A shared calendar that coordinates schedules (and is intelligent enough to recognize problems and notify you) is much more useful than a collection of individual calendars. Interviews with 300 women scientists from 60 developing countries (at a conference in Capetown, South Africa) highlighted how important it is to include all voices in the conversation, in imagining new technology, in order to drive it in directions to benefit all people.
The challenge for collectively dealing with all the technological changes that are occurring is phenomenal. We cannot use our old methods of thinking and problem solving if we are going to improve the collective capability of mankind to deal with complex, urgent problems resulting from the technological revolution. One such significant problem is that of scale. The consequences of a massive change of scale take everyone by surprise. For example, imagine that everyone and everything around us was suddenly ten times larger in every dimension. At first, it seems that maybe everything would be fine, since everything changed, your perspective might be the same — the person in front of you is ten times taller, but so are you. However, having grown in volume, you are 10 times 10 times 10, or 1000 times as heavy as you were, and your strength is determined by cross-sectional area, not volume, so you’re only 100 times stronger. You would not be able to stand; your chair would not be able to hold you. Your lungs would have increased the surface area they provide for intake of oxygen by 100, but they would need to be able to support 1000 times your old metabolism.
Like the scale changes in this example, the changes resulting from technological development are going to surprise us. With escalating change in several systems, many forces will start to collide, politically, militarily, economically, and socially. Adaptation to changes in one area requires changes in another, and we will not be able to keep up. Another example of new complexities is taxes in e-commerce. Who should collect taxes for transactions on the Web? Where does the transaction take place? For the moment we seem to have opted for not taxing web transactions, but if the money is not collected, the services it provides can no longer be supported. The current situation is already impacting state and local governments, where sales tax often provides significant revenue.
We need a strategy to deal with the changing scale brought on by the information technology revolution. Several strategies are promising, but it is important to note that if we can make headway in dealing with complexity, which itself is a complex task, then we can use this progress to improve our ability to make progress. Thus we can bootstrap our way to an improved capability for dealing with complex, urgent problems. The human system cannot be duplicated or automated by machine, but we can find ways to enhance our own abilities and co-evolve with our technological systems to augment our collective IQ.
In dealing with the complexities of the issues of information technology, especially networking, we can learn a lot from the physical organization of cities and the urban life they support. Cities have always been organized physically around networks for distribution and communication: roads, water, sewer, and power. The physical networks provide the infrastructure without which the city could not thrive. We layer new networks on top of old ones, and with each layer we transform the life of the city. Each new network layer redistributes the opportunity for social equity. When interstate freeways replaced the first highways, it made a significant difference in economic opportunity whether or not your town was on the network. Now we are dealing with a very large scale new kind of network. The benefits derivable from this digital communication network are no longer “place-based,” but still demand physical access. This network requires too much infrastructure to be able to go everywhere at once; so some get their network access earlier than others. And again, opportunity follows access.
Based on the lessons from urban networks, three conditions are necessary for equitable distribution of benefit from the digital world. First, getting connected physically is a necessary though insufficient condition. In many places it is a large-scale civil engineering effort requiring roads, ditches, towers, and satellites, not just the plugging in of a machine. Second, a certain level of education is also necessary. The physical connection is useless without the knowledge to use it effectively. Finally, we must have open access to relevant content and services. Otherwise we are building the water supply network without filling the reservoir. For example, MIT is working with a consortium of architecture schools in the third world, providing open access to libraries, images, technical information, and people, building a community capable of assisting its members in many ways. We need to “fill up the pipes” to provide meaningful content that is relevant to the needs of those accessing the network in order to distribute the benefits of the technology.
As engineers and architects, it is our job to make conjectures about the future, in order to design and build artifacts that will be useful in that future. We imagine the future of buildings and cities, places where individuals come together and interact with others, and we must imagine the future needs of these individuals in order to design useful products.
From the discussions among the panelists in response to questions from the moderator and from the audience, there emerged four key areas for future work to help co-evolve social systems with technological changes.
Increasing the Participation of Underrepresented Groups
Moderator Haynes Johnson suggested that the two greatest changes in American life in the last century have been desegregation and the transformation of the role of women. Our society has become much more diverse and rich as a result of the contributions of women and minorities. Great strides have been made in the fields of medicine and law, with women’s participation approaching their percentage in the general population. Yet the participation of women in technological fields is lagging. In fact, in computing fields, it has declined. The report of the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development (CAWMSET) makes several action-oriented recommendations to create systemic change, encouraging the participation of women and minorities in science, engineering, and technology fields (see: http://www.nsf.gov/od/cawmset).
Technological developments don’t happen in a vacuum. There is always a societal context that can support some developments and hamper others. However, the control exerted by society is not always conscious, nor is it democratic. The most privileged among us tend to be the early users of new technology, further marginalizing those already at a disadvantage. We need to ensure that all voices participate in the conversation, so we can learn not just to cope with, but to drive technological change in directions that benefit the entire world.
The last presidential election further demonstrated the problem of unequal access to technology that continues to plague democracy. Most of the election problems arose in the poorest communities, which had access to the worst equipment. MIT, together with Cal. Tech., have started a project to address the voting machine problem. They have collected an amazing assortment of voting machines (and found that they are generally quite easy to tamper with).
Involving the User Community
In order to improve the infrastructure, we need new ways of thinking, and we need to get the proactive involvement of the user community. We need to imagine new paradigms. A successfully facilitated co-evolution of systems (human, social, scientific, technological) needs to occur on a scale not possible with current tools. We must invent new tools and ways to improve our collective ability to address complex urgent problems.
Creative intellectual enterprises get embedded in the communities that sustain them. The ancient Greek idea of citizenship required that every “citizen” be able to come together to discuss issues. Thus the size of a community was bounded by how many citizens could know each other and actually meet face to face. Today we have a vastly different notion of cooperative efforts. People located geographically distant can collaborate on large projects. In some areas of science the benefits have been phenomenal. For example, in the human genome project, a result, or even just an idea, gets posted on the web, and suddenly researchers all over the world can be thinking about it and contributing to solutions. Partly because of this open, community approach to research, the discovery of the coding of the human genome took much less time than originally predicted.
We need to get the broadest perspective of ideas into the creative process so that we don’t have an oligarchy of creators making decisions. Currently, most people affect the design of products only as consumers. They buy only what they like from what is available. This is not enough. We need their contributions at much earlier stages in order to design and develop what they want and need, rather than what we may be able to sell them.
Different cultures desire different levels of privacy; some are happy to give up privacy in order to gain some other benefit. In the United States, privacy is highly valued, but comes at a price. Our privacy laws make it easier for some criminals to escape conviction and punishment. On the other hand, in Iceland the people have agreed to allow all of their personal data to be collected, including medical details, because they see a benefit in having this data available for study.
Our physical world has been designed to balance community, public, and private spaces, offering varying degrees of privacy that everyone understands in the physical negotiation between public and private situations. We have not yet figured out a way to offer the same kind of intuitively understood levels of privacy in the digital world.
Redirecting the Academic Agenda
Focusing university talents on real problems of society is a great idea. It happens too infrequently. It is critically important that we teach students that they are learning tools for transforming society, not just isolated skills focused on laboratory problems. IWT has created a Virtual Development Center (VDC) involving six universities this year (Santa Clara, Purdue, Texas A&M, University of Colorado, University of Arizona, and Smith College), whose goal is to get the students together with the community in brainstorming ideas for technology that will make our lives better, and then involving the community in the design and implementation of projects that result from these ideas.
These efforts are unusual because of the education and research culture in which they operate. The usual focus in academia is on doing what you need to get a degree, get published, get tenure, and get promoted. Large-scale social problems are complicated, messy; there are no clean or clear solutions, so it is difficult to engage our best people in work on these kinds of problems.
Our current division of the academic world into disciplines also works against our capability to address the complex problems that rarely fall within a single discipline. For successful co-evolution of human and technical systems, this culture must change. Encouragingly, there are increasing attempts to promote interdisciplinary research. But, we have a long way to go and the challenges of cultural and institutional change in higher education are significant.
Our social, economic, and cultural development in the past has been place-based. We are overlaying our physical networks now with a digital network. It is almost invisible. Once connected, our social networks are no longer place-based. We are at the intersection of physical and digital worlds, and need to learn how to form new communities. We need to bring in people of all perspectives, give them permission to have ideas, and recognize that whether or not they have experience with technology, they can be incredibly brilliant. The whole notion of co-evolving systems requires that we proactively stimulate the process, change our ways of thinking, and develop new tools to support our improved ways of thinking. This can create the potential for continuing to improve the very process by which we improve and, thereby, increase our capacity for solving complex and urgent problems.