4.11: Social Impact Studies

Within the Three Interfaces of Adam model (see Figure 3-2), the overlap of the technosphere and the ecosphere could be considered as the domain of Technology Assessment studies and the overlap of the technosphere and the sociosphere could be considered as the domain of Social Impact studies. This chapter will focus on Social Impact studies and the next chapter will focus on Technology Assessment studies.

The United States Senate set up an Office of Technology Assessment in 1972. This is an encouraging sign of our growing sensitivity to the impact of technology on our natural environment. However, this sensitivity should be extended from "nature" to "human nature". Information-processing machines may have less impact on our natural environment than energy-consuming machines but more impact on our social environment. Therefore, let us focus first on social impact studies (that is, the impact of the technosphere on the sociosphere) rather than on technology assessment studies (that is, the impact of the technosphere on the ecosphere). Social impact studies could be considered as an attempt to answer the conundrum "What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object"? - some people considering technology as an "irresistible force" and other people considering society as an "immovable object". One answer to the conundrum is that the force is sometimes not irresistible (society rejects the technology) and another answer is that the object is sometimes not immovable (society accepts the technology).

Total rejection and total acceptance could be considered as end-points on a scale of resistance. This resistance could be viewed as inertia if you are focusing on the "immovable object" and as friction if you are focussing on the "irresistible force". Total acceptance could be considered as the case in which friction is reduced to zero and total rejection as the case in which friction is enough to not only slow the technology but bring it to a halt. Christopher Evans argues that resistance affects the time scale of the development of a technology.1 Others have argued that resistance is a function of fashion, fluctuating up and down like the lengths of skirts, or swinging pendulum-like from acceptance to rejection as from liberalism to conservatism (to which dimension it is correlated).

All social impact studies could be considered as involving public resistance to new technologies, if technologies are defined in their broad sense as ways of doing things and new is defined psychologically as new to the person involved rather than sociologically as new to the society. A technology may be composed of techniques as well as of things. Thus, a four-day week is a technology and, to someone who has not yet experienced it, it is a new technology.

In the next section, you will be introduced to my electronic colleague, Fast Eddy - the electronic data terminal. Let me describe one wee exercise which Eddy and I conducted together, as a means of getting some conceptual grasp of the domain of social impact studies. I dialed a well-informed computer Eddy knows in Santa Monica, California and asked, through Eddy, what it knew about Office Automation. ELCOM, an electronics data base in the computer's memory, which corresponds to the semi-monthly publication Management Contents, had 57 citations containing those words. I asked Eddy to print them out.

Each citation contains an Accession Number (if I want the full text of any of the articles cited, I can order them, through Eddy, by this number), bibliographical information, index terms and corresponding category codes, document type, and abstract.

Let us focus on the index terms. I listed those index terms, organized them into categories, and those categories in turn, into larger categories. Thus computer was put in the category office equipment, which was put, in turn, into the category technology. Four major categories emerged - technology, society, issue, and methodology. I then built a matrix with those index terms within major categories on the y-axis and the 57 citations on the x-axis. Thus, a cross in cell x,y means that citation x was classified under index term y.

So what? Let me anticipate two "so what?" questions.

So what's new? This exercise could, indeed, have been conducted before. However, it would not have been done before. It would have been too cumbersome and costly. Fast Eddy produced this on-line printout in five minutes. Admittedly, slow Scot took a long time to build the matrix. However, this can easily be mechanised so that fast Eddy can take over. Will someone out there please tell me how to tell him how to do it?

So what has this to do with us? If you are interested in social impact assessment. This new technology introduces a new tool to your tool-box, a club to your golf-bag.

At the very least, it provides us with a systematic way to survey the literature. Thus, if you want to survey the literature on "word processing", you read citations 1, 11, 15, 23, 28, 29, 30, 32, 36, 37, 39, 41, 42, 43 and, then, write the corresponding section of your literature review.

It's potential probably goes far beyond this. It sets up a domain of discourse. A posteriori, it is obvious that any social impact study could be entitled



However, I doubt if I would have realized that those were the four major categories unless I had conducted this exercise.

The four categories could be considered as the four dimensions of a four-dimensional space, with each cell representing, the social impact of a particular technology on a particular sector of society focusing on a particular issue and using a particular methodology. Fitting the research which has already been conducted into this matrix will help organize the body of literature within the domain of discourse. Messing around in the empty cells of the matrix will generate a multitude of research proposals. The problematique (the system of questions) for this domain of discourse can be derived logically from this matrix.

The matrix, in itself, constitutes useful data. It enables us to do research on research. The marginals provide interesting information about the relative emphasis within this data base on different aspects of the domain. I haven't yet built a similar matrix for other databases. However, a comparison with this one will provide information about the relative emphasis from database to database, depending on the interests of the scientific communities which share them. Since the citations appear in reverse chronological order, it would be easy to explore changes in emphasis over time.

This chapter focuses on the impact of a particular technology (electronic technology) on a particular society (modern industrial society). Let us be more precise. Imagine a matrix with electronic technology broken down on the X-axis into the various information machines and modern industrial society broken down on the Y-axis into its various constituent institutions [see Figure 4-1]. The study described above focussed on one cell within this matrix.

If you are conducting a class on social impact and have students who can not find a topic of interest, you can draw this matrix on the blackboard and invite them to throw spitballs at it. The cell, in which the ball lands, defines a topic - the impact of machine X on institution Y. My spitball landed in the personal computer x school cell, so that will be the focus of this chapter. However, it is important to remember that an equivalent chapter could be written about each cell.

1   Christopher Evans, The Mighty Micro: The Impact of the Computer Revolution. London: Victor Gollancz, 1979.