An essay on the lessons learned from Philosophy of Human Computer Interactions and thoughts on the way forward
As a student of Human Computer Interaction I am most often taught about creating technologies, improving user experience, developing applications or something that involves studying human behavior with regards to creating/improving technological services or artefacts. I am surrounded by educators and colleagues with extraordinary expertise in their respective sub-fields within ICT. I am thoroughly impressed by how much people know within the field of technology and how advanced have things become in this post internet boom era. In the last decade the speed at which new technologies are created has grown exponentially. From telegraphs to skype, from walkmans to smart phones, from industrial computing to personal computing – the infiltration of technology in our lives has been quick. However, after I took a course on philosophy of human computer interaction, I have now started to think that we may not know it all and there still are fundamental questions we technologists need to ask ourselves.
We have understood how technology works but we are still far from understanding how technology and society work together. There has been a huge shift in the way we behave and interact because of this rapid mass adoption of technology by our society. In this essay I am going to discuss the role of technology on our lives, its place in society and the questions we technologist need to ask ourselves from a perspective of a student studying human computer interaction.
Human (society) Centered Design
Designers, developers, project managers, educators, ICT consultants, business decision makers and technologists are aware of the “user centered” approach and have now started practicing and preaching it their daily professional lives. Every time a new digital artifact is created, it is done so with a mentality that the user’s needs are of paramount importance and have to be kept in mind while designing and developing technological applications. Whilst this approach has been highly successful in promotion of technological adoption of society through better quality and more usable technological products or services, I believe there lies a small problem with this way of thinking. Human beings are extremely social creatures. Many scientists agree that the reason we have a bigger cerebral cortex than most species because we behave and interact in societies. This is what makes us smart and this is what made our brains evolve faster. Technology has become such an important part of society now that the evolution of the human race and its societies will inevitably be affected with it. With digital tools and applications mediating the communications of billions, our societal behavior is shaped by the technology we use. Technology is not just shaping the new man, it is also shaping his society and environment. We need to start thinking technology more holistically. We need to understand it from different societal, behavioral, philosophical and environmental perspectives. We need to not just understand the user’s technological needs but try to understand the role of technology in human life.
Sexuality, Social Media and Society
Not so long ago in the human race, for hundreds and thousands of years, the first time usually a man ever saw a woman naked or vice versa, was in person – not on a computer or TV screen! Over 25% of internet usage is for pornography. It’s strange that with the rise of TV and media, our perception of our own sexuality has completed changed. Even the pace at which society has been consuming pornography has increased. From renting an adult movie in the physical format from a local video store to having unlimited free access to millions and millions of pornographical videos in a matter of 3 clicks from any home PC or mobile with an internet connection. This increased consumption of pornography by our society has had a severe impact in the way we perceive sexuality of our own self and that of our partners.
Pornography and social media make up most of world vibe web usage. We have seen increasing people with internet addiction – in fact, in technologically advanced countries you can see an entire civilization of internet addicts. From waiting at the bus stop to walking to the super market, people are always interacting with their black mirrored plastic and metal device. With the rise of ubiquitous computing, we have also seen a rise of people using their devices everywhere. We wouldn’t know what we would do if we had a one hour commute and didn’t have our cell phones or tablets. Internet addiction has been tied with severe repercussions like depression and reducing attention. At the same time, applications are designed to be addictive. The average smart phone user checks his phone more than 72 times a day. We are creatures of habit and our society is slowing being turned into internet addicts through the human engineered engaging and interactive technological applications. We need to think beyond making the user “hooked” on to the product and understand technology’s context with our society.
More Data. More Power. More Greed
We have now started living our lives online. We share our lives with our friends and loved ones online by uploading our private pictures, sharing personal messages, checking in to places online and so on. With Edward Snowden in the media there have been huge questions and concerns about privacy and big data. Is our personal data really ours? There is a phenomenal amount of data that we have generated with the rise in social media and World Wide Web usage. We now have more data than ever. Powerful data. Omnipotent data that we created together as a race. However, many people with power or position use this data for their own greedy purposes. US intelligence has been criticized severely by the world governments and citizens from all over for intruding upon our personal lives.
Large corporations hire digital advertisers to market their products or services online. When users sign up for social media services like facebook – they aren’t aware that they will be sharing their data with advertisers that can easily target ads to them based on where they live, where they travel to, their relationship status, their likes and interests and so on. Cell phone providers understand usage and human communication with data patterns across different places in the world. With the data we share (intentionally or unintentionally), advertisers are now capable of telling us what to buy, what to wear, who to vote for, how to look – everything. It’s not religion; but people with access to powerful data that are the new culture creators and operators. What do we do with this data and what can be done with this data are two separate questions. Instead of using this for marketing, can the knowledge we have be used for better resource allocation? Can we use this data for peace and conflict resolution instead of politicians trying to target vote banks with dirty politics? Can we use this data for environment protection instead of resource exploitation? Can we use this data for planning more sustainable cities instead of spotting of real estate trends for investments?
Transparent Government. Transparent Technology.
Every government in the world needs to focus on how technology can be used to enhance the quality of life of its citizens and the society as a whole. At one part of the world governments, like that of Estonia, are using advanced web technologies to bring about transparency and e-governance and at the other end of the world advanced web technologies allow money laundering from place to another and enable corrupt government official to steal from millions from their citizens. Technology is powerful and a lot can be done with it. It is important that we ask ourselves if we want to participate in a legal system and societal governance that promotes technology use for overall societal welfare and individual empowerment or want to be a part of a system that allows the corrupt to get away easily. Technology needs to be transparent. Technology should not facilitate corruption or backward development. We need to create laws that understand this perspective of technology.
Conclusion – The Questions to Ask.
As we move forward towards an era of Ubiquitous Computing we must ask ourselves the purpose of the technologies we use or create and its true role in our life and place in human society. We have all the technologies we need to create enhanced lives for every member of our human race and yet we haven’t achieved to bridge disparities. We create the most astounding tools that help us find our loved ones if there is a natural calamity but we also create technologies that enable exploitation of resources that ironically lead to environmental imbalance and natural calamities. Technology is here to stay, we need to be the masters of it and decide its role in our society. When we think of technology, we cannot just think about the user. We need to think about the human society and it environment collectively.