Originally published April 12, 2011
I often catch up on my reading backlog on airplanes, and it was on a recent flight that I had the opportunity to attack about five issues of Computer, the IEEE Computer Society’s monthly journal. Computer is very often the carrier of excellent articles that make a contribution to clear and positive thinking on technology in general and information technology in particular. It was thus that I read the November 2010 issue and believe that it is a “must read” for anyone truly interested in the future of social media and its impact on the world as we know it.
This was a special edition co-edited by Peter Pirolli (Palo Alto Research Center) and Jenny Preece and Ben Shneiderman (University of Maryland) on technology-mediated social participation (TMSP). Dr. Preece is the Dean of the iSchool (College of Information Studies) at the University of Maryland (UMD), and Dr. Shneiderman is one of their faculty’s stars and a world-class expert on issues of human-computer interaction and visualization techniques.
What I found particularly interesting about this issue was that it provided a rather useful and logical framework for looking at social media and how we can optimize its potential to address national priorities while identifying and mitigating the dangers that come with TMSP. After two seminal articles on scientific foundations and design challenges, several other pieces specifically looked at TMSP in the context of health care, education and government transparency. All three are hot buttons for the current administration and will continue to be front and center in our national agenda in the years to come.
The most intriguing piece, in my opinion, was “New Missions for a Sociotechnical Infrastructure”1 by G. Olson and G. Mark (University of California, Irvine), E. Churchill (Yahoo) and D. Rotman (UMD). It provides what is almost a roadmap for societal democratization by laying out five infrastructure programs that would dramatically expand access for citizens and enable them to weigh in on “areas critical to the nation’s greater good.” The suggested programs are not necessarily an exhaustive list but they do address the most pressing areas. The programs appear below:
Each one of these areas deserves a deeper review, but at the very least let’s review three of them to understand the breadth and scope of what the authors have in mind.
Establish Domain Centers Critical to U.S. Interests
There will always be debate over what our national priorities are and whether we might need to add or modify a specific entry. The authors do a fairly comprehensive job, however, in suggesting candidate domain centers. These entities, which in the authors’ opinions are more than clearinghouses, are intended to be both physical and virtual collaboratories, a term they use to emphasize collaboration. The dozen domain centers in their initial list address the following issues:
While recognizing that there will be many challenges in setting these up, the authors single out coordination, cost and scope, and ethical concerns as the most difficult to attack.
Develop a Media Literacy Campaign
The media literacy initiative described is one that is already very badly needed and growing in urgency by the minute. There was a time when the trust and integrity of a Walter Cronkite, or the reputation of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, served to educate and orient most readers looking for news in current events or specialized areas. This holds no more. While it is difficult to obtain the absolute latest statistics, we now are “infosaturated” with something in the order of 400 million active blogs, 15 hours of video being uploaded into YouTube every minute, 55 million tweets every day, and constant postings from over half a billion Facebook users. How do we know where to go for news and who to trust with the veracity and integrity of the news? There is no doubt that we have to educate the average person in how to work with the new media. The importance of this is evident in how the concept of “Internet freedom of expression” has caught on and been at the center of popular demands for democracy in a number of countries in the last few months.
Take a Continuous National Snapshot
The key notion here is the importance of being able to “take the citizenry’s pulse” more or less in an ongoing manner. We can appreciate how significant this can be in the virtual age, when we frequently need to react very quickly to unfolding events. Furthermore, the benefits could be quite substantial if we take into account what might be obtained in terms of a near real-time understanding of social trends, the spread of diseases, and other socioeconomic phenomena. While there are a number of opinion polls and market research organizations counting and surveying us in a myriad of different ways on a multitude of subject areas, the authors contend that modifying the Decennial Census may be the way to go to obtain a “moment-by-moment picture of the citizenry.” (Of course, the American Community Survey, also run by the Bureau of the Census, already goes a long way to assuring that we have a snapshot of America much more frequently than every ten years.)
But the scope of this initiative is quite ambitious. The authors suggest that many social networks already capture health and dietary trends, reading habits, and consumer preferences usually freely posted by individuals. So, “Why not harness that information and unite it to reveal the nation’s big picture?” One reason, as the authors well recognize, is because the privacy issues are monumental. Nonetheless, if it could be done without having Big Brother overwhelm our society’s quality of life, it would certainly be worth exploring.
Technology-mediated social participation is here to stay, and we should start by getting a better understanding of what we can do with it and what we must guard against. The November 2010 edition of Computer is a great step forward in that imperative.
Recent articles by Dr. Ramon Barquin