Innovation for the People: Why Tech Needs More Sociologists

“ Us/ It’s the Machines”Carl Cox & Josh Wink

Data-driven technologies are slowly inserting themselves into all aspects of our lives — our cars now help us parallel park, our fridges link to our phones and remind us we’re out of milk, and algorithms work behind the scenes to determine everything from what we should watch next on Netflix, to who would be an ideal customer, employee, convict, and spouse. With the rate of innovation going the way it is now, I might live to see my science-fiction fantasy become a reality. But, behind the scenes, are these systems good? Do they promote fairness, freedom, and human flourishing? And as innovation moves us forward, what do we need to do to ensure that the future we build is better than the dumpster fire we’re all currently living in?

As James Somers’ recent Atlantic article, The Coming Software Apocalypse explains, these new technical systems are overwhelmingly complicated, and require a model-based approach to keep track of all the different and interrelated parts. Yet, models, when they are opaque, unregulated, and uncontestable (where adjustments aren’t made based on feedback), as Cathy O’Neil reveals in her recent book, Weapons of Math Destruction, have unintended consequences that can entrench existing inequalities and wreak havoc on peoples’ lives. So, what do we do?

Now I might be biased, but I believe that sociology is more than just a discipline; it’s a way to get there — it’s a set of guiding principles and practices that bring clarity to the human experience and strategic direction to change initiatives. “Even in industry,” Sociologist Peter Berger explained, “a case might be made that the most intelligent and forward-looking thinking has profited greatly from sociological contributions.” A humanistic sociological practice can help companies and organizations design, develop, and deploy adaptive strategies and successful implementation plans, because at all stages, in all moments, we work to protect and honor the people.

Sociologists or any social scientist or design thinker, when they are welcomed into the process as a full partner, can add a much-needed understanding of the social, and can upend entrenched assumptions and orthodoxies. As foundational social theorist, Max Weber, explained, “Sociologists…provide the specialist with useful questions upon which he would not so easily hit from his own specialized point of view.” Deployed strategically, sociologists can bridge the socio-technical gap.

For example, as edge computing companies automate workflows and build impressive technical systems they facilitate and architect the new landscape on which social life will be enacted upon. Edge computing is poised to enable a wide range of new features and experiences. This advancement in technology is critical for many important new functions like VR, AR, autonomous driving, IoT, smart cities, and wireless 5G services. Thus, edge computing will transform the relationship between man and machine. But, are edge computing companies considering the social and cultural context of their brave new world?

Let’s take a look at Austin Startup, Vapor IO (backed by investments from Crown Castle, the nation’s largest provider of wireless infrastructure and early investments from Goldman Sachs). They recently announced the rollout of Project Volutus, a “data center as platform” service that places micro data centers at the base of cell towers to enable cloud-based edge computing applications. While they are only in two cities and are working with charter customers, this is the beginning of something truly transformative.

The company lauds itself for being “completely automated,” and “impressively efficient.” They believe they will deliver better experiences because there will be “no human intervention.” But, as Max Weber explained in a speech in 1918, reflecting upon a previous era of automation and technological development “one cannot with impunity try to transfer this task entirely to mechanical assistants.” Humans are still a part of this, albeit in different and unseen ways. Because of how they promote their business, I worry that they’re going to unintentionally create “moral crumple zones.”[1] This term, developed by Tim Hwang and Madeleine Elish after examining the history of aviation autopilot litigation, calls attention to the ways automated and autonomous systems — accidently or intentionally — deflect responsibility away from the technological system and onto the human (usually the immediate low-level actor) during moments of failure.[2]

There is a price to pay when you disregard the humans working within your techno-landscape. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, the burden usually falls on the most vulnerable. What will these new edge technicians require on the job to succeed, and how can the company support instead of alienate their human workers? In my work, I use an institutional ethnographic approach (IE) where the objects of analysis are the relations between people and the acts of social coordination that, in a variety of contradictory and complimentary ways, give shape to our lives. IE ensures solutions work for people because it takes context into consideration. For example, work structures our lives; it’s the place where we spend most of our time. We want our jobs to provide a sense of identity, satisfaction, and accomplishment. Yet, as data technologies transform America’s workforce, 61% of workers perform repetitive or intense physical work, and only 30% believe their jobs offer good prospects for advancement. In addition, contract work is becoming the new normal in tech. Understanding what the new edge computing workforce knows and have experienced (as well as other technical workforces that are being outsourced and contracted) can help uncover human needs, user experiences, and best practices. The context of their work, and the daily experience of their labor can positively inform system design, employment contracts, and implementation strategies — this will make the company more efficient, stable, and responsive to current and future social and human needs. For edge computing and companies like Vapor IO to succeed, they need to understand the social and cultural context and design human-centered solutions at all levels of company action.

Working with engineers and computer scientists, we need to design solutions that embrace human diversity and challenge the reductive understanding of humanity that currently runs deep in tech. Larry Page, one of the founders of Google sees all of us as basic pieces of code: “Your program algorithms aren’t that complicated.” Mark Zuckerberg sees our mercurial nature and vast diversity as a fundamental human flaw. Like that aggrieved kid from high school, he believes that the biggest problem facing humanity today is fake people. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”[3] Yet, each one of us exists in a variety of contradictory, complimentary, and sometimes overlapping fields. We cannot be easily reduced because, as Emile Durkheim (another founder of sociology) states, people become fully human only in and through society. We’re creative. When it comes to anything we encounter, we’ll discover hacks, workarounds, and new frontiers. There will also be unintended ripple effects, process failures, and challenges to these news systems and technological innovations.

Sociologists are up to the challenge — we search for patterns to human behavior for a living. We think systemically and scientifically; our entire discipline is structured around building causal models to explain human behavior. We’re always thinking about the structure behind society, and drawing from previous research and social theory to understand current human acts and future possibilities. Because of this, you can’t take a sociologist anywhere; we’re always ruining the mood because we’ll have a structural and historically grounded answer for every little piece of social commentary and be somewhat unresponsive during cocktail party conversations because we’re designing models for more equitable social functioning in our heads. In service to the people, we’re complete buzz-kills; just ask any undergraduate sociology major. But, despite all we know, we’re still moonshot thinkers and serious optimists. We believe, that together, we can do better. So, let’s go build some human models.

[1] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2757236

[2] https://ethnographymatters.net/blog/2016/06/28/the-future-of-designing-autonomous-systems-will-involve-ethnographers/

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/how-silicon-valley-is-erasing-your-individuality/2017/09/08/a100010a-937c-11e7-aace-04b862b2b3f3_story.html?utm_term=.f7cdef37386e

Jillian Powers, PhD

Written by

Applied Sociologist: trend & insight interpreter; methodologist; builder of all things human-centered; cultural and social voyeur, sometimes participant

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