Computers And Information Technology Research Paper

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Roots and origins being elusive and often illusory, I will date this research paper from about 1980, when some key collaborations between sociotechnical systems (STS) scholars and maverick computer scientists began. This passes lightly over some early important work critiquing automation, such as that of J. D. Bernal, the early days of the STS movement in Europe, particularly in England, Germany, and Scandinavia, and the neo Marxian analyses of labor process, many of which came to inform later STS work described below.

The nexus of work that currently links STS with computer and information science is a very complex one, with roots in all the areas described below, and held together by a strong, invisible college. This group shares a common concern with how computers shape, and are shaped by, human action, at varying levels of scale. The links with STS include concerns about computer design within the social construction of technology; computers as an agent of social or organizational change; ethics and/or computing (Introna and Nissenbaum 2000); critical studies of computers and computer/information science; applied, activist, and policy research on issues such as the ‘digital divide,’ or the unequal distribution of computing and information technology across socioeconomic strata and regions of the world.

Some contributions from this part of STS that have been used by scholars in many other parts of the field are Suchman’s ‘situated action’ perspective; Star’s ‘boundary objects’ (Star and Griesemer 1989); Forsythe’s methodological questions about ‘studying up’ and the politics of the anthropology of computing (1993); Henderson’s work on engineering drawings as ‘conscription devices’ (1999); Edwards’ work on computing and the Cold War, and its model of ‘closed and green’ worlds (1996); Berg’s critique of rationalization in medicine via computing (1997); Heath and Luff’s study of ‘centers of control’ via the technologies and interactions of the London Underground work force (2000); Woolgar’s program building and analytic work—much of it concerning the World Wide Web—from the Virtual Society? Program based at Brunel University (Grint and Woolgar 1997); Bowker’s concept of ‘infrastructural inversion,’ taken from information management at Schlumberger Corporation (1994); and Yates’ historical examination of information control techniques in American business (1989, 1996, 1999); Hanseth et al.’s work on standards and ethics in information technology (1996); and Bowker and Star’s work on large-scale classification schemes (1999).

1. Automation And The Impact Of Computerization

Many early studies of computers and society, or computers and organizations, concerned computing as an automation of human work. This included two major analytical concerns: the replacement of humans by machines in the workplace, and the ‘deskilling’ of existing functional jobs (Braverman 1998). Later, the analytic picture became much richer, as researchers realized that automation and deskilling were just two dimensions of the picture. An early breakthrough article by two social-computer scientists defined this territory as ‘the web of computing’ (Kling and Scacchi 1982), a term which became a touchstone for the next generation. It refers to the co-construction of human work and machine work, in the context of complex organizations and their politics. Much of this research took place in business schools; some in departments of sociology or industrial psychology. In Scandinavia and other regions with strong labor unions, partnerships between the unions and researchers were important, at first focused on job replacement and deskilling, and later, on design created through partnerships with users, social scientists, and computer designers (discussed below).

The social impact of computing remains a strong research strain worldwide, despite the anthropological fact that finding ‘untouched tribes’ is increasingly difficult. Thus the problematics of interest to STS have shifted from initial impact on a group or institution, to understanding ongoing dynamics such as usage, local tailoring of systems, shifts in design approaches, understanding the role of infrastructure in helping to form impacts, and the ecology of computers, paper, telephones, fax machines, face-to-face communication, and so forth commonly found in most offices, and increasingly in homes and schools.

2. The Emulation Of Human Cognition And Action (Artificial Intelligence And Robotics)

The early program of artificial intelligence (AI) work, beginning in an organized way during World War II, was to create a machine that would emulate human thinking (classic AI) and action (robotics). Some of the emulation work came in the form of intelligent tutoring systems and expert systems (Wenger 1987) meant to replace or supplement human decision making. The decision-making side of the research continues to be strong in management schools and in government agencies; it is often critiqued by STS researchers, although some do use these tools (Gilbert and Heath 1985, Byrd et al. 1992). The discussion about whether emulation of human thinking would be possible dates far back; it came to the attention of many STS researchers with the work of philosopher Hubert Dreyfus (1979, 1992), who argued for the irreducibility of human thought and therefore its impossibility in computers. Later STS researchers (including Forsythe, Star, and Suchman) formed direct collaborations with AI researchers. These partnerships took both critical and system-building forms; in both cases, the social science researchers acted as informants about the nature of the ‘real world’ as opposed to the emulated world of AI. AI changed during the late 1980s and early 1990s—some computer scientists spoke of the ‘AI winter,’ referring to funding problems unknown in the 1970–88 period. As personal computing and e-mail spread, and later, the Web (1994 ), and the early promises of AI seemed not to be paying off, AI began to lose its prestige within computer science. Many AI researchers changed to problems in information science, software engineering, or cognitive science. A branch of AI, distributed artificial intelligence, continued to interact with the STS community (Huhns 1987, Huhns and Gasser 1989). Their interests were in modeling and supporting spatially and temporally distributed work and decision practices, often in applied settings. This reflected and bridged to STS concerns with community problem-solving, communication and translation issues, and the division of labor in large scientific projects.

3. The Enterprise Of Computing, Its Military Roots And The Role Of Activism

In 1983 US President Ronald Reagan introduced his (in)famous ‘Star Wars’ (officially known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI) military defense program, a massively expensive attempt to create a distributed laser and missile-based system in space that would protect the USA from foreign attack. The proposal put computer scientists, and especially software engineers, at the center of the design effort.

An immediate outcry was raised by the computing community as well as by alarmed STS scholars close to it. There were concerns that a system of that magnitude was untestable; tools were lacking even to emulate the testing. There were concerns about its viability on other grounds. There were also concerns about its ecological impact on the field of computer science (akin to those raised by organismal biologists about the Human Genome Project)—that the lion’s share of research funds would be funneled into this project, orphaning others.

A new group, Computer Scientists for Social Responsibility (CPSR) (, was formed in Silicon Valley as a focus for these concerns. The group quickly found common ground in many areas, including activist, ethical, policy and intellectual questions. It has flourished and now sponsors or cosponsors three conferences a year in which STS scholars often participate: Computers, Freedom and Privacy (policy); Directions in Advanced Computing (DIAC) (intellectual and design directions, and their political and ethical bases and outcomes); and the Participatory Design Conference (PDC) (brings together users, community organizers, computer and social scientists to work on issues of co-design and appropriate technology) (Kyng and Mathiassen 1997). It, like its counterparts in the UK (Computers and Social Responsibility) and elsewhere, became an important meeting ground between STS and computer/information science. This was especially true of those critical of military sponsorship of computing agendas (at one point in the US some 98 percent of all funding of computer science came from the military, especially ARPA (formerly DARPA)—the Advanced Research Projects of the Army, arguably the critical actor in the creation of the internet (Abbate 1999).

Beginning in the 1980s, a grassroots movement sometimes called ‘community computing’ arose, and linked with CPSR and other similar organizations. It attempted to increase access to computing for poor people and those disenfranchised from computing for a variety of reasons (Bishop 2000). This often involved the establishment of ‘freenets,’ or publicly available free computing. Terminals were placed in venues such as public libraries, churches, and after-school clubs; some were distributed directly to people in need. This general problematic has come to be called the ‘digital divide,’ and forms an active nexus of research across many areas of interest to STS.

An important part of the attempt to enfranchise everyone arose in the world of feminist activism and scholarship, as early computer hackers were nearly all male, and there were sexist and structural barriers to women as both users and professionals. Another meeting place between STS and computer/information science was formed by numerous conferences on women in computer science, gender and computing, and feminist analyses of the problem choice and ethics of computer science. An excellent series of conferences, whose proceedings are published in book form every four years, is sponsored by IFIPS (the International Federation of Information Processing Societies, Working Group 9.1, entitled Women, Work and Computing). See, for example, Grundy et al. (1997). There is a resurgence of interest in this topic with the advent of the Web (see, e.g., Wakeford 1999).

4. Design

Beginning in the early 1980s, but reaching full strength in the late 1980s, a number of STS and STS-linked scholars began studying information technology design. This took two forms: studying the work of doing design, and doing design as part of a multidisciplinary team. Henderson’s work (cited above) on the visual design practices of engineers is a good example of the former; other important works in the area include Kunda (1992); and a special issue on Design of the journal Computer Supported Collaborati e Work (Volume 5:4, 1996). STS scholars participating directly in design did so in a number of ways. Anthropologists (such as Nardi 1993, Nardi and O’Day 1999) and Orr (1996) looked at issues such as the culture of programming, its practices, and the role of technicians (Barley and Orr 1997). Some, such as Nardi, conducted usability tests for prototypes of systems. Sociologists examined work practices, organizational processes, and informed the computer scientists about the ways in which these issues could shape or block design (Star and Ruhleder 1996).

5. From ‘The Unnamable’ To Social Informatics: Shaping An Invisible College Linked To STS

An invisible college of social scientists, including STS researchers, who do–study–critique computer and information science has steadily grown since the early 1980s. A brief overview of some of the ‘sister travelers’ now growing in strength in STS itself includes the following.

5.1 Organization Theory And Analysis

People who study organizations have for some time been concerned with the use and impact of computing within them. During the 1990s, STS has become an increasingly important theoretical resource for this field, and has resulted in a number of organization science conferences inviting keynote addresses by STS scholars; reading STS work and attempting to apply it in organizational design and studies. The work of Latour and actor network theory has been especially important (Orlikowski et al. 1995). The policy area of STS has also become increasingly important where issues of privacy, employee rights, intellectual property, and risk are related to computer and information systems (regular updated reports and references can be found on Phil Agre’s ‘Red Rock Eater’ electronic news service: html).

5.2 Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) And The Participatory Design Movement (PD)

Cognitive and experimental psychologists have been involved with the design of computer and information systems since at least the 1950s. They formed a field that came to be known as Human–Computer Interaction (HCI). This field focused originally on very small-scale actions, such as measuring keyboard strokes, attention and interface design, ergonomics of workstations, and usability at the level of the individual user. In the late 1980s, part of this field began to stretch out to more organizational and cultural issues (Grudin 1990, Bannon 1990). The impact of the personal computer and the consequent decentralization of computing, and the rapid spread of networked computing to non-computer specialists were important factors. This wing of HCI began to draw together computer scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and systems analysts of like mind. In 1986 there was a search to put a name to this. Two of the major competitors were ‘office information systems’ (to replace the old ‘office automation’), and ‘computersupported cooperative work (CSCW),’ which won out. CSCW is an interdisciplinary and international group that studies a range of issues including the nature of cooperation, critiques of computer science, building systems to support cooperative work (both local and high distributed). STS scholars have been part of this field since the beginning; Star was a founding co-editor of the journal. Her work and that of Suchman’s have been widely used in CSCW.

Closely linked with CSCW is PD, the practice of designing computer systems with user communities and social informaticians. Annual conferences are held in tandem with CSCW. They have picked up and actively use STS approaches. The roots of PD have been reviewed recently by Asarco (2000); they include corporate initiatives, community development, social movements, and the Scandinavian School, discussed in the next section.

5.3 The ‘Scandinavian School’

In the 1950s the (powerful) trade unions in Scandinavia helped to pass the ‘codetermination legislation.’ This law stated that unions must be involved in technological design—originally motivated by concerns about deskilling and job loss through automation. A form of sociotechnical systems analysis evolved into a set of techniques for studying work places and processes. As computers arrived in the workplace, this came to include progressive computer scientists and social scientists, many of whom now participate in STS publishing and conferences, as well as CSCW and PD (Greenbaum and Kyng 1991, Bjerknes et al. 1987, Bødker 1991, Neumann and Star 1996).

5.4 Computers And Education

The use of computers for science education began in the 1960s. The study of this, based in schools of education and science departments, has had both critical components and basic research. In recent years, the addition of distance education via computers, internet classes, and the ubiquity of computers in college classes has become a critical component of this community. One branch is called Computer-Supported Cooperative Learning (CSCL), and has a lively relationship with both STS and CSCW (Koschmann 1996). STS concepts are beginning to be used across all areas of science education, and recent STS conferences reflect the links strengthening between science education and STS.

5.5 Former Library Schools As An Emergent Nexus For STS Work

Since the 1980s, schools of library science have experienced massive closures, due to a complex of corporatization, declining public sphere funding for public libraries, and a general move to close professional schools whose faculty and students are mostly women (social work and physical therapy schools have met similar fates). In the USA, a few of the surviving library schools have reinvented themselves as new ‘Schools of Information,’ most dropping the word ‘library’ from the title. Sites include the University of Michigan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of North Carolina, and Indiana University. Their faculty now includes social scientists, computer and information scientists, and library scientists. STS work is central to many of the programs, and several faculty members from the STS world who work with information technology or information itself have found positions there. The structural shape of the programs differs in countries with different forms of funding, and different configurations of the public sphere. Kling’s ‘Social Informatics’ page is an excellent resource (http: www.slis. SI ), as is Myers’ ‘Qualitative Research in Information Science’ ( (see also Kling 2000). However, STS work is still very influential, for example, at the Royal School of Librarianship in Copenhagen.

6. The Web: Cultural Studies, Economic Impact, Social Practices, And Ethics

The public availability of the World Wide Web from 1994 and the commercialization of the Internet–Web, combined with falling prices for computers with good graphics and cheap memory, has changed the face of computing dramatically. Many STS scholars have been involved in different facets of studying the Web. Cultural studies of chat rooms, home pages, MOOs and MUDs, and social inequities in distribution and use have exploded (see e.g., Turkle 1995). Some of this is adapted by STS scholars as studying the use and development of technology; some as a lens through which technology mediates culture. E-commerce, including scientific publishing, has come to overlap with STS work (e.g., Knorr-Cetina and Preda 1998). Ethical areas, such as privacy, electronic stalking and harassment, hate speech sites, and identification of minors on the Web (which are protected by human subjects regulations, but impossible to identify in many e-venues) are among these issues (Friedman and Nissenbaum 1996).

7. Challenges And Future Directions

One of the difficult things for STS scholars who work in this area is the process of tacking back and forth between sympathetic communities housed in information and computer science, STS itself, and one’s home discipline. This appears at many levels: job openings, publications, choosing conferences to attend, and the growing call from within industry and computer science for ethnographers, social science evaluators, and co-designers. Sometimes this latter call takes the form of guest talks to technical groups, keynote addresses at technical meetings, consulting, or being asked for free advice about complex social problems within an organization. As with STS itself, there are a growing number of PhD programs within social informatics, broadly speaking, and the field is both spreading and converging. This may, in the long run, ease the juggling problem. At present, most researchers in the area pursue a double career, publishing and participating in both computer IS and STS communities, with some bridge-building back to the home disciplines.

Another challenge lies in the area of methods. Many social informatics STS researchers inherited methodological practices from their home disciplines, and some of these make an uneasy fit with current technological directions. For example, there is now a great deal of survey research and of ‘ethnography’ being done on the Web, including intense study of chat rooms, e-discussion lists, and other forms of online behavior. On the survey side, sampling and validity problems loom large, although they are old problems with venerable methods literatures addressing their solution. The question of sampling only from those with e-mail hookups is similar to the old question of sampling only those who have telephones. Every sample has limits. However, the validity issue, such as the practices of filling out e-mail forms, how the survey appears in the context of many other e-mail messages, and the impact of the genre itself on the content is only now beginning to be explored. Similarly, for ethnographers, it is clear that e-mail messages are not the readymade fieldnotes that many early studies (i.e., from the early 1990s) delighted in. Forms of triangulation between online and offline research are now coming to the fore in sophisticated methods discussions; another contribution lies in the socially little-known interaction between the built information environment and the phenomenology of users (Wakeford and Lyman 1999).

In conclusion, growing overlaps between complex computer information science groups, STS, and the other social worlds listed above means new opportunities for STS. STS students are finding employment in corporate research and development (R&D) settings, new information schools, government policy employers concerned about information technology, and in the non-profit sector concerned with issues such as the digital divide.

A note on access: much of this sort of material exists in the proceedings of conferences and is indexed by corporate or organizational authors. It is, in libraries, usually held in special Computer Science libraries on campus, and is, by social science standards, badly indexed. Seek help from the reference librarian to find this material. Working groups or special interest groups (SIGs in computer science terminology) can be powerful loci of change, with thousands of members, both professional and academic. Some are of direct interest to STS scholars, such as SIGSOC, the Special Interest Group on Computers and Society run by the ACM (Association for Computer Machinery, the dominant professional organization for computer scientists in the USA) or ACM SIGCHI (SIG on Computers and Human Interaction), which has grown so large it is now functionally its own professional organization. Although all professions have jargon and acronyms, computer and information science is highly dense with them.


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