The Technological Implications of Society

Sometimes you just need to look at it the other way.  SSIT (our host and benefactor for this BLOG) is the Society for the Social Implications of Technology.  A recent issue of IEEE’s Computer Magazine focused on Gender Diversity in Computing.  In the introduction, Jane Prey (NSF) and Alf Weaver (U. Va) assert that “a lack of diverse perspectives will inhibit innovation, productivity, and competitiveness.”  This certainly matches what little research I’ve done on the contribution that diverse perspectives are a catalyst for innovation and solving problems.  In short … we need to consider the impact that society has on technology.

The types of people we employ to invent and develop technology, the funding sources we have for research, the mass media fad-de-jour, the winds of politics, and even the dolls our children play with set the stage.  Consider how these factors change as you move from the U.S. to Germany to Russia to India to China to Brazil, etc.  Each culture, government, and set of parental and social expectations influence what will happen in education and from there into research and industry.  Some of these environments highly value engineering, others lean towards sports or movie stars.  Some have significant investments in military technology, others in educational systems, and others in infrastructure.  Perhaps we get the Technology we ask for, or worse the technology we deserve.

I participated in a “Congressional Visits Day” this last month.  Two hundred or so scientists, engineers and the like went off to visit our elected representatives in Washington DC. Our request was simple — fund basic R&D or else … we were gentle with the “or else” — but think about it. Laser R&D occurred in the 1960’s, the applications emerged in the 1980’s. The Human Genome project ran from 1990 to 2003 — and the (GM) flowers are starting to bloom all over. The long lead time impact of research is legendary.  But when one society doesn’t fund research or technology they relinquish the leading edge to others.  No doubt the Brazilians (et al) will be willing to share with the U.S. the products of their investments and innovations, but the culture of innovation will thrive where it is fostered.  And, in this scenario, it will lack the insight that would come from having U.S. participants in the creative mix.

And the reverse of this is the value each of the diverse cultures above (and those not mentioned) bring to the table when we engage the full spectrum of human experience rather than the perspective found in the common cubicle mono-culture.  What side of the road should your intelligent car use?  Can your input device handle thousands of characters? Can the voice recognition detect intonations or clicks? And don’t limit this to cultural variations.  Is your display readable by red-green color blind individuals? How does a person with limited vision traverse your web site, your building, your city? Does your audio information system serve the needs of hearing impaired individuals?  Diversity comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, abilities, languages, religions, prejudices and even genders.

Society has real impact on technology.  Diversity is one tool for helping to assure this impact is as beneficial as it can be.

One thought on “The Technological Implications of Society

  1. Another impact that society has on technology is by serving a sort of Darwinistic role in choosing what technologies will survive, how much investment they will get, and when they will actually become widespread.
    Ideas such as the WWW had been out there a long time before they finally took off in 1993-1994. At that time, there were a lot of other factors that came into play (dialup speeds, PC deployments, cost, etc), but also society was ready to accept it and use it at that point.
    These ideas may sit “on the shelf” for decades before the time is right for society to accept them. Just last night, I reminded my students that it may be worth mining old “failed” projects to see if it might be the right time to revive them.

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