Socialising New Technologies

Socialising New Technologies
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In previous posts we’ve noted that when new technologies are introduced it often takes people time to work out the social rules that need to be used to tame and domesticate the raw technology. The mobile phone is a good example of that: just because it is possible to make and receive calls anywhere, at any time, doesn’t mean that we want or have to allow people to do that. So in the few years since mobile phones arrived we have seen a whole host of norms emerge which govern how phones can and cannot be used in practice. For instance, we turn phones off or to silent when we go to meetings or the theatre. I imagine that people do the same when they go to church, they certainly do if it is a wedding or a funeral. On trains some carriages are designated as “quiet zones”, and early on in the spread of mobile phones Groucho’s, the famous London club frequented by media types, introduced a rule requiring members to leave their mobile phones at reception before going into the members’ bar (although maybe that particular rule has changed by now). Other technologies show a similar pattern of “social constraint”: we could build cars that can travel at 120mph, indeed many of the cars on the road today can reach these speeds, but we’ve chosen to limit the speeds most of us drive at most of the time to much less than that: 70 mph as a maximum, often 50mph and commonly 30 mph. Planes can land and take off at any time of day or night, but commonly airports operate only during a window of daytime “reasonable hours”. And so on.

One pattern that seems to be common to lots of the ways that new technologies are introduced and then tamed is what might we might term the “this is completely different, there are no rules…. Oh well, maybe it’s not, and maybe we need some rules” life cycle. That is, when a new technology is introduced the inventors and promoters of that technology are convinced that it is so utterly new and different that the rules which apply to any comparable or competitive technology don’t apply. So, when you’ve invented a personal communication technology that means you can make and receive phone calls anywhere, you are keen to convince people that it is all right, indeed, that it is an enormous benefit to human beings that this is the case, and that’s exactly what you do. But as the technology spreads people work out that, for their benefit and for the benefit of those around them norms need to be developed and adopted to manage the balance between the benefits the technology brings and its costs.

Researchers at the University of Michigan have recently reported another study showing that the use of social media, specifically time spent on Facebook, can reduce young adults’ sense of well-being and satisfaction with life. Checking Facebook made people feel worse about themselves and their lives. And the more time they spent on Facebook, the worse they felt. Commenting on the study, Graham Jones, a UK psychologist researching internet use, noted that since Facebook was such a recent phenomenon, people were still learning to use the platform.

“As a society as a whole we haven’t really learnt the rules that make us work well with Facebook”.

Although undoubtedly useful, it seems that some people are unable to control their experience with it, and the lack of generally understood norms of good usage mean that for some people the costs outweigh the benefits. Data mining and the analysis of personal data is another example of new technologies creating technical possibilities which we are still struggling to socialise in a way which maximises the benefit to everyone, and distributes that benefit fairly. Google’s 425 million Gmail users have just learnt that there is “no ‘reasonable expectation’ that their communications are confidential” according to documents filed by Google in a court case in the US.

When people sign up to Gmail they get a free email service. And in return they agree to allow Google to “read” their email. Google scan their emails in order to target them with personalised ads. But what Google has now admitted is that it not only does that with the emails those people write, but they do that with the emails other people send to Gmail users, whether or not the sender is a Gmail user, and if they are a non-Gmail user, whether they have given permission for Google to open, read and make use of their email, or even know that that is what Google do.

We seem to have a clash of norms here. When I post a letter I have the firm expectation that the Post Office, or any other mail carrier, will not open, read and make use of the information that I put in that letter, and so does the person I’ve sent the letter to. They will simply use the information I’ve put on the outside of the letter or package to deliver it to a particular person in a particular location. (Interestingly, if the Post Office do for some reason, and quite unusually, have to open a letter they tell the recipient that they’ve done that, and explain why it has been done.) I think most people have transferred those social understandings and agreements to their use of email (perhaps particularly because it’s called eMAIL).

But Google seem to operate on the basis that, as a new technology, the old rules do not apply to email and they can simply invent a new set of rules (which appear to be close to “we can do anything we like with your email, whether you’re a Gmail account holder or not”). As Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, has been quoted as saying “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” (The “creepy line” being, it appears, the point where people realise what is happening and protest loudly and effectively.)

Consumer Watchdog, a US advocacy group, is now suing Google, claiming that: “Google unlawfully opens up, reads, and acquires the content of people’s private email messages” and that “Unbeknown to millions of people, on a daily basis and for years, Google has systematically and intentionally crossed the ‘creepy line’ to read private email messages containing information you don’t want anyone to know, and to acquire, collect, or mine valuable information from that mail.”

We appear to be watching a classic case of socio-technical “storming and norming”, where although everyone pretty much understands the technology, what hasn’t yet happened is discussion and agreement of the social rules that we want to govern that technology and maximise the benefits, (and minimise the costs) to everyone, rather than allowing specific groups and organisations to impose rules that are to their benefit and to the detriment of everyone else. It will be interesting to see how Consumer Watchdog’s case plays out. Watch this space!

A Google spokesperson said on Wednesday evening: “We take our users’ privacy and security very seriously; recent reports claiming otherwise are simply untrue.