Technophobes May Be Right Afterall

Information and communications technology may often have unforeseen, paradoxical effects.

Published: 15-Mar-2002

University Park, Pa. --- Those who dispute the claim of universal benefits from new information and communications technologies are often called technophobes, but the evidence shows they may be right after all, says a Penn State researcher. The prevailing view that the more technology we have, the better off we are, just isn't borne out by the evidence, says Dr. Steven Sawyer, associate professor of information science and technology. "It's like claiming that owning a personal digital assistant will automatically make you more organized." Furthermore, the notion much favored by managers that information science and technology is going to change your job for the better – so you should get with the program – that idea doesn't stand up to scrutiny either, he adds.

Sawyer and Dr. Kristin Eschenfelder, assistant professor of library and information studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, conducted a review of the literature on the relationships between information and communications technologies and the larger social context in which these new technologies exist. Their results were published this month in a chapter, "Social Informatics: Perspectives, Examples, and Trends, in the Annual Review of Information Science and Technology." The review is a publication of the American Society for Information Sciences and Technology.

In their chapter, the researchers list three common findings among the studies they reviewed: 1) information and communication technology (ICT) uses lead to multiple and sometimes paradoxical effects; 2) ICT uses shape thought and action in ways that benefit some groups more than others and these differential effects often have moral and ethical consequences; and 3) a reciprocal relationship exists between ICT design, implementation, use and the context in which they occur.

They found that the studies typically highlighted unforeseen and unintended outcomes, often contrary to the original intentions for the information and communication systems. For example, one cited study showed that groupware designed to improve communication among pharmaceutical sales representatives had the opposite effect. The participating reps reported that the software did help to achieve one of the intended goals: use lessened the need for face-to-face communications. However, the reduction in face-to-face time harmed overall group communications by removing opportunities for social networking and relationship building. In another study, conducted by Eschenfelder, Sawyer and colleagues, the results showed that a listserv originally designed to promote information sharing became a social testing ground. Instead of freely sharing knowledge with other members across the listserv, members used it instead to informally evaluate each other by judging the astuteness and appropriateness of posted questions and answers. This activity led to cliques and the concentration of knowledge among clique members instead of across all listserv members.

The researchers write that the second common finding -- ICT uses shape thought and action in ways that have moral and ethical consequences -- illustrates the fact that information and communication technologies are often used to reinforce, not reduce, existing differences in social status, power and structure. For example one study they cited challenged the assumption that search engines are unbiased indexers and deliverers of web page links and that all relevant pages have an equal chance of appearing as the result of a search. In fact, the study showed that search engine designs place grass roots, small scale, alternative and/or controversial web pages at a disadvantage. Another study showed how the structural configuration of the Canadian provincial government telecommunications systems penalized certain rural branch libraries that were attempting to obtain and maintain Internet access services.

The third common finding -- ICT use shapes context and vice versa -- was illustrated with examples from a variety of fields. One example is a study of the insurance brokerage industry that showed that brokers rejected an on-line bidding system because they needed to have visual and voice contact with the other parties in the negotiations. The ICT system was designed to replace face-to-face negotiations between brokers and underwriters, but they re-shaped it instead into a record-keeping system for the results of the negotiations.

The studies Sawyer and Eschenfelder reviewed for their chapter come from a new field of research they call "social informatics" or the body of research and study that examines the social aspects of computerization. They write, "There are various means to help information science and information technology professional develop frameworks to expose the value conflicts embedded in the design of ICT and to explore different perspectives in these situations. However, these are not widely practiced, especially in the U.S." "There is an ever growing need to develop straightforward, low-cost analytic techniques usable in budget and time constrained environments, " the researchers add.

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