The sociological context of digital technologies, a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Kate Orton-Johnson, Programme Director of the Masters in Digital Sociology at the University of Edinburgh and ARTICONF project partner, about the importance of considering social and cultural aspects when developing new digital technologies.
How did you get involved in the ARTICONF project?
Kate Orton-Johnson: A colleague at the University of Edinburgh put me in touch with Radu Prodan, the coordinator of the ARTICONF project, as he was keen to involve social scientists in the bid. I am interested in the cultural side of technology and was keen to get involved as opportunities for truly interdisciplinary conversations are few and far between.
How does the project marry the development of new technology with social and cultural aspects?
Kate Orton-Johnson: We’ve had 3 project meetings so far. We are coming to the project with very different disciplinary perspectives, and finding a common language around issues of trust and decentralisation has been challenging, but interesting.
As digital sociologists we are trying to find new ways of thinking about our use of social media, new ways of dealing with issues, such as trust, and thinking about what the future of social media technologies can be. There are a range of technological solutions that move away from social media conglomerates and decentralise social media networks, but in order to understand technologies in society we need to think about the social contexts in which they operate; how we are as human beings, how we function in ways that might be counterintuitive, annoying, undesirable, unplanned for…This project brings these technological solutions and products into a dialogue with social science. You could build something technically beautiful but if people don’t like it or don’t trust it, it is never going to be used.
What do you think about the application of blockchain technology to social media networks?
Kate Orton-Johnson: There has been a lot of hype about blockchain and academic debate about what it can do and one of the strengths of ARTICONF is that we are working with industry partners that want to implement this technology in new and creative ways. In the proposed use cases we are thinking carefully about how they are designed and how they are implemented in a technical and a social way. They will be useful case studies for potential future applications of blockchain.
Why is it important to decentralise social media networks?
Kate Orton-Johnson: In the Western world people are becoming increasingly aware and concerned about how their data is being collected, used, repackaged and sold. We are generating data for corporations, yet we don’t really know why or how it is being used. Decentralisation would give us more control over our data, so we can choose the type of data we are willing to provide to the companies we want to use. This is what blockchain potentially enables.
How can decentralised social networks transform the economy?
Kate Orton-Johnson: I am quite cautious about the economic implications of this. There is a long history of technologies being seen as something that can revolutionise and drive change for the better. However, technologies can only do what we as humans design and use them for, they’re not going to on their own revolutionise the economic system we live in.
In principle, decentralised social media networks could open up revenue streams for people who were previously giving their data away for free and contribute to a more collaborative approach to our technology use. This is something that we will explore as the project develops.
What are you currently working on?
Kate Orton-Johnson: We are talking with our technical partners in ARTICONF about how we can model the things they want to understand from their users: Do people trust the new networks? How can we measure that? We want to learn about how people understand and experience different types of social media structures.
Another important aspect of our work is promoting public understanding of blockchain technology, finding new ways that help people understand it and encouraging dialogue about its potential and impact. These conversations can in turn shape the design and development of the technology.