Q & A

Intel’s a silicon company. Why is it investing in social sciences and humanities researchers?

The Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing is founded with the understanding that computing today is social through and through – there is no way to understand what is happening inside our machines and with our silicon without simultaneously grasping the social and technical relationships in which they are embedded. Existing methods from engineering, human-computer interaction, and consumer research and design need to be supplemented with methods from disciplines with long histories of wrestling with social/technical relationships.

Social computing – that’s Facebook and other social networking services, right?

While social networking services have created important market disruptions and unleashed new kinds of cultural and political phenomena – from the transformation of journalism and publishing, to the Arab Spring – social media is only part of the story. We live in a world of massively networked, mobile, location-based computing that is redefining the very nature of social experience, and changing how we experience ourselves as persons. Social computing captures this emerging social and technical milieu, the entanglements of the social and the technical in every aspect of our lives today. Consider how many times you interacted with a screen today, the microseconds during which you divided your attention from mobile device and distant person, to proximate person or thing, and back again? Or how many times you presented the opportunity for another social or computational agent to collect and data on your behavior?

What do you mean by “entanglement”?

For the past 20 years, computer science has imagined two separate worlds: one of technical systems and programming, and another of users and organizations. But think about what happens when you visit a website and see an ad tailored to your prior search history: a set of algorithms has made a guess about your next desire based on the trails of data that exist about your online behavior; and if it guessed wrong, it learns that, too. Such data also increasingly captures your offline behavior, given your social networking status updates, use of coupons and loyalty points, and so on. You are exposed to new choices. You are channeled in particular directions. Algorithms increasingly guide and shape our lives, whether or not we invite them in. Social scientists have started to mine “big data” to understand individual and large-scale behavior patterns. But few have actually studied how big data is transforming our sense of self, our subjectivities, our social frameworks and our sense of future possibility. And even fewer have studied the social processes and personal or cultural biases that go into designing those algorithms. How are we adjusting to living in a world saturated with data and algorithmic tools?

This sounds a lot like User-Centered Design and Human-Computer Interaction.

Well, sort of. But this is the next step. There are no longer simply “users.” Every user is already interfacing with tens, if not hundreds or even thousands, of different computational devices, systems and networks, from their mobile phone to their car to their money. Design can’t just be about isolated users anymore; it has to be about a whole ecology of devices, people and systems, all complexly interlinked with one another.

Some of your research topics include materiality and creativity. Can you explain what you mean?

It’s become cliché that everything is becoming digital now, and dematerializing into the cloud or online ether. But there are real, material substances involved in the migration to the digital. We want to explore the implications of this materiality, and how it matters for society. A simple example is the location of server farms close to financial centers, and the arbitrage possibilities afforded by shorter, high-bandwidth cable connections from trading rooms to stock exchanges. But more mundane examples include the increasing use of technologies that are simultaneously material and informatic – RFID chips, QR codes, and other materialities of information connection and flow.

As for creativity: consider the new forms of collaboration. It’s not just video conference calls or a shared online document anymore. “Users” may actually be massively-multiple collaborations working together on a common project. “Societies” may be geographically dispersed and non-proximate, and may include non-human agents (bots) or multiply-human agents (avatars controlled by multiple people). Such terms as “pro-suming” (producing and consuming at the same time), “creationist capitalism,” and “making” index new kinds of creative activity, taking place in in new collectivities.

This all sounds very academic. What are the practical implications of the research the center will undertake?

Social computing will create new paradigms for apprehending the profound shifts in privacy, intellectual property, the role of algorithms and big data in society and the role of society in algorithms and big data. We are guided by some pressing practical questions: What new design processes are needed as organizations and entrepreneurs adapt to a “real world” thoroughly overlaid by the “virtual”, and vice versa? What new tools are needed to identify compelling new opportunities, and avoid new kinds of threats, as individuals, companies, governments, and societies build upon the infrastructural rails now being laid? What policies and standards will make sense for emerging socio-computational ecosystems?