Introduction to Social Informatics

aftercomputeruse
This is a cartoon showing the social effects of computer usage. Seems about right to me. (Retrieved from: http://www.tomandmaria.com/i202)

Hello and welcome to my social informatics blog! Here, I will create regular blog entries based on assignment requirements throughout the Spring 2016 semester.

For our first post, we are to write about our understanding of social informatics after reading the following articles:

  • Zhang, P., & Benjamin, R. I. (2007). Understanding information related fields: A conceptual framework. J. Am. Soc. Inf. Sci. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(13), 1934-1947.
  • Sawyer, S., & Rosenbaum, H. (2000). Social Informatics in the Information Sciences: Current Activities and Emerging Directions. Informing Science, 3(2), 89-95.
  • Fletcher, C. (2006). Appreciating context in social informatics: from the outside in, and the inside out [Workshop handout]. ASIS&T Annual Meeting, Austin, TX.

Before I write about these individual articles, I want to begin with my understanding of social informatics from our first introductory lecture. As far as I understand it, social informatics is the study of social consequences of information and communication technologies. The field studies how technologies impact our everyday interactions outside of technology as well as how technology suits our socialization needs. One statement that stuck out to me from that first lecture was the assertion that most of our online interactions stem from our social desire to gossip – which I find incredibly hilarious, as I can assure you is entirely true after participating in years of sorority meetings. But it’s more than just about how we use the internet to talk or how we text each other. It also studies information divide – how race, gender, and class can affect accessibility.

Now, after reading these articles, let’s see if my understanding is now more nuanced.

Zhang’s article on information related fields focuses on the Information Model, or I-Model, which “asserts that information with the help of technology can provide capabilities to people and to society in various domains and context.” It works to help define common characteristics between different areas of information studies, with four fundamental components: Information, Technology, People, and Organization/Society. Later, he introduces two additional components for consideration: domain and context. “Context” caught my attention, because I remember talking about it during our first lecture, where we defined different types of context: social, cultural, political, economic, technological, institutional, and individual. These contexts are important for how we interpret information. Within this article, context is defined as ” specific settings, circumstances, or conditions in which studies are conducted or practices are carried out.” I hadn’t considered “domain” before this article, which is essentially the background information, such as a subject discipline or field of study.

I found this idea of domain and context confusing, until Zhang gave an example: “in a study on information technology (IT) use in emergency room operations, IT can be quite low fidelity (a white board). People concerned in the study are doctors and nurses who have knowledge and expertise not only about the application domain (medical) but also about the particular context (the emergency room where they work).” Domain and context are not truly separate ideas, but rather they are both terms which help define the environment in which an information study takes place. These fundamental components mentioned within the article are key to social informatics, as they show how information works within a social environment.

This article is quite useful, especially given the multiple references to Human-Computer Interaction, or HCI, which is another course I’m taking this semester. I’m interested to see how many times my HCI and Social Informatics course will coincide.

The second article more specifically addresses social informatics, specifically with the World Wide Web and the emerging digital assets such as digital libraries, electronic commerce, and distance education. The beginning of this article focuses on the history of the field, asserting that studies on social impact of computer usage has been studied for about 25 years. I have to wonder why this field is associated with information sciences and not psychology or sociology. It seems interesting to me that studies on computer usage–which, in some cases in countries like South Korea, China, Japan, and yes, even America have led to computer addiction–are associated with this field and not more closely with psychology. Perhaps it is because studies from the psychological or sociological field tend to focus more on abstract studies of the persons involved and not with the technology involved, which is more closely related to our field. Though social informatics studies societal impact and consequences of information and communication technologies, it seems that there is an emphasis on technology (as in, how certain kinds of technology lead to different social impacts, or how it facilitates communication).

I felt satisfied when I saw that Sawyer and Rosenbaum addressed this question in their article, stating that “Researchers in fields as varied as computer science, information science, communications, sociology, anthropology, information systems, management science, education, and library science have been investigating the ways in which ICTs and the people who design, manage, and use them shape and influence each other in different social contexts.” It’s a multidisciplinary field, that can be approached from several different “domains” (to give a nod back to the Zhang article).

Other interesting points I noticed in this article includes a snippet about pushing connection to the internet in education settings without people considering how the internet truly facilitates learning. This article was published in 2000, when I was 8 years old. Around fourth or fifth grade, I believe – that is, between 2001 and 2002, the elementary school I was in did away with their program for advanced students known as Excel. In the years before, advanced students would meet during recess to learn additional teachings in science and math. We would meet with a teacher who would give us science projects or logic problems. It stimulated our intellect and gave us a way to interact with each other. However, they decided to do away with this program and instead replace it with a computer program. I refused to participate in Excel after that. There was no camaraderie or group connection to be made with other gifted students if we spent the whole time staring at a computer screen. We had no instructor for the activities – just someone who observed. I believe that Sawyer and Rosenbaum pointed out a disturbing trend in schools with this article: the pushing of technologies to stay ahead, while instructors do not keep up with this technology or understand how to still feed a student’s desire for interpersonal communication and interaction.

It isn’t just communication that suffers from turning education into an online or computer activity. Budget suffers as well. In high school, there was a push for this technology known as “smart boards,” where you could use these “markers” to interact with a computer from this projector. Hardly any teacher knew how to use it correctly. Those who did knew how to use it considered the technology too expensive to actually let students use. I remember it only being used once for actual “whiteboard”-like activities when a teacher used the markers to circle mistakes on a sample essay. Most of the time, the expensive, interactive technolgy was used as a glorified projector, showing movies or Powerpoint presentations.

The most interesting part of this article was at the end, where there was a list of statements the authors considered to be a summary of findings within Organizational and Social Informatics research. One statement I found quite intriguing was the idea that ICTs are not value neutral; there are winners and losers. We discussed this briefly during our introductory class. I’m interested to learn more about this. I remember that the question was once posed in a college ethics class about whether or not inventions or technology could be good or evil. Though many of the other statements on the list include “use” after the term ICT, this one quite clearly says that it is the technology that is not value-neutral. I wonder what my class would have said about that.

Finally, we come around to Cole’s workshop handout on social informatics. This is the shortest of the required readings, with condensed information. It is a handy guide. I’m tempted to print it out and keep it around for reference. Again, we come back to this idea of context as it relates to the field of social informatics. While Zhang wrote that he would rather avoid the arguing and in-fighting over the term and simply keep his own definition for his article, Cole presents a very brief history of the term from its roots in anthropology to its use in social sciences.

Within his handout, he lists four possible interpretations of the relationship between society and technology:

  • ICTs in social context (Technology in Society).
  • ICTs as part of social context (technology partially social).
  • ICTs have technological and social contexts (technology and society).
  • ICTs are primarily social (technology as social).

He says that there is no unifying theory over this relationship. If I had to choose from this list as to which most closely fit my understanding of social informatics before I read these articles, I would say that the fourth is most agreeable. After all, communication is in the name of the technology. Communication depends on social interaction. You can’t have an ICT without at least two people interacting in some manner. Now, I can see merit to all of these proposed ways of understanding how society and technology interact. Perhaps, I’d lean a little more into the third idea, that there are both technological and social contexts for ICTs.

I found these articles helpful to provide a crash-course introduction to the field. I’m excited to get into specifics as the semester rolls on.

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