Socio-technical affordances and the social, communicational processes of Design

Virt-EU researchers continue to identify how values and ethics in technology design impact other central issues in social science. For example, in a talk at the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR) conference, LSE’s Alison Powell linked design with communication power and its impact on the theme of “Networked Publics”.

Credits to AOIR 2017

In her presentation, Powell outlined the power of socio-technical affordances on the social, communicational processes of design. Willing to critically understand the affirmation of specific forms of communication power, Powell puts under scrutiny the way through which the sociotechnical processes prompt technologies to become concrete.

Indeed, her approach purports to show that not only the design of technologies determines the way people interact with them. Thus, the social imaginaries contribute along with the structure of communication systems in shaping people’s expectations and agency.

The central issue Powell addressed can be summed up by the question:

How do the “affordances” and the “social imaginaries” of the technological systems shape the way that these systems are capable of being made to enact communication power?

Powell argues that the affordances of technologies encompass the symbolic mobilization of material qualities of communication systems by different social imaginaries.

Social Imaginaries

She borrowed the concept of Social Imaginaries from Robin Mansell’s book “Imaging the Internet”, which in turn reminds Charles Taylor definition of social imaginaries as

the ways in which they [people] imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations.

Different types of technology bear different social imaginaries sticking to societal, economic and contextual determinants. To better explains this concept Powell leaned on a previous study she conducted along with an interdisciplinary team of researchers consisting in the set-up of bots aiming at manipulating political discussions during three main events of the last UK general election.

The experiment showed that social media affordances such as the open participatory structure combined with the accessibility of API’s don’t suffice to explain the forms of communication power they have produced for example in certain well-known cases (see for example the case of the Russian-backed-propaganda-fake account of Jenna Abrams).

Indeed, the experiment failed because the social aspects of the sociotechnical assemblage: access to financial capital, high-level technical capabilities, political knowledge for more effective manipulation were all more significant.

Powell suggests another example then, pointing to socio-technical affordance of perpetual connectivity and the corresponding social imaginary attached to it glimpsing the great advantage for citizens in terms of participation.

Being the complex information system of the Internet a source for citizens to unprecedented access to information and networks based upon an ever-expanding and self-generating information commons, it comes that an infrastructure allowing for a widespread connectivity is an effective way to broaden citizen participation into public life.

A general assumption on liberal democracies stands in the possibility for subjects to let their stances being welcomed and discussed in the public realm. This process has been governed for a long time by public institutions insofar they have worked as a mediation body able to conciliate the requests of concurring constituencies.

Designing Cities as Computers

Today we are keenly watching the adoption of the IoT paradigm as a new mean to organize and to manage people’s needs in a more efficient manner. For instance, it’s the promise brought up by the smart city: rethinking the design of public services and its delivery to citizens based on real-time data gathering collected through thousands of sensors able to track and to register peoples’ action, aims at fostering the brand new equation of “data as voice.”

As further suggested by programmer and tech writer Paul McFedries, is the idea of building new cities championing the adoption of technical affordances such as the idea of building cities as computers wherein

the streetscape is the interface, you are the cursor, and your smartphone is the input device. This is the user-based, bottom-up version of the city-as-computer idea, but there’s also a top-down version, which is systems-based. It looks at urban systems such as transit, garbage, and water and wonders whether the city could be more efficient and better organized if these systems were ‘smart.

Powell confronted this scenario reminding that datafication is also the result of extensive networking and the expansion of value extraction in response to total networking processes. The risk of making data collection and presentation the means of establishing voice is that these activities don’t in themselves produce the capacity for action or change.

Furthermore, the collective institutions that might provoke or support such action in support of the collective rather than the individual, have been disempowered. Participatory sensing is itself individualized and networked. These conflictual aspects have been clearly pointed out by what Robin Mansell foresaw as a paradox of the information society. She’s outlined the unwillingness of legislators and states to regulate what Jonathan Zittrain called the “Generative Internet”. Indeed, the social imaginary that see the internet as a complex information system granting unprecedented access to information is backed by the assumption that to the extent that this commons is governed, it is governed from below.

Thus, a common stance in the mainstream debate regarding the internet is to reject any misjudged intervention that can compromise the fundamental values of the Internet.

But using ideas about the internet (see the social imaginaries) to influence other parts of the world is not always the best solution to address old problems such as citizens participation in the democratic process.

The collection of citizen’s data against their awareness and willingness to share them, along with the use of these data to make decisions affecting their lives, no matter if they had previously expressed any consent – is to neglect the assertive valence of participation.

Real-time data processing requires constant inputs of data, ideally from varied sources, in order to nourish these systems. This strategy depends entirely on connectivity being perpetual and irresistible, which in turn sets the frame for expectations that civic action might also absorb the inevitability of connectivity. But we should be concerned with the fact that rights have both a positive as well as a negative valence. The choice to participate should be conceived either as the positive right to take part in the public decision process, or as the negative right to avoid any involvement in it.

Thus, Powell ended her presentation, prompting to critically reflect on the forms of power produced in by the sociotechnical spaces we live in. These spaces can be narrowly enabling if their dominant logic is followed. If we wish them to be deeply enabling a number of dilemmas need to be negotiated.

Some of these require ethical critiques of the values of the dominant social imaginaries, and creative thinking about communication resources, both technical and symbolic. We should be aware of the potential harm that the social imaginaries inherited from the technological affordances might cause to societies. Thus, confronting this vision aims to demonstrate the capacity of this socio-technical spaces to disempower (like everything) but more importantly, to create frameworks of power that determine ways that people are able to engage.

Leaning into the dilemmas makes the way forward

We, as Virt-EU, are fully committed to reflecting on those challenging issues such as the design of socio-technical affordances in regard to the efficiency-led-paradigm of the smart city, as well as to the social imaginaries featured into the communities of developers and designers.
Thus we envisioned the Virtue Ethics approach as a dynamic framework that will help better address this challenges.