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Global computing

The Value of Social Theories For Global Computing

The Value of Social Theories for Global Computing, illustration


If you want to use technology to help people improve their lives, in whatever community or country, you need to understand not only the technology but the people as well. This simple truth has brought computer scientists together with people like me—a social scientist. Theory helps: you may recall finite state machines from your computer theory course. In this column, I explain how social theories can help.

For instance, Actor-Network-Theory (ANT), developed by Michel Callon, Bruno Latour,5 John Law,6 and others in the 1980s (for more see Latour4), views socio-technical systems as networks of actors (actors include humans, technologies, and formal processes) situated in some relationship to each other. These actors affect each other based upon their linking relations. We can use ANT to analyze, for example, how a new software user interface "acts" within its network to enable or prevent actions of other actors (including human users) in the network. Design intentions do not always equal usage outcomes. For instance, consider an e-government system designed to stop corruption by "acting" in a network of actors, some human and some non-human. Depending on how other actors respond, corruption may indeed stop. However, if users find ways of subverting or circumventing the software, corruption might continue along altered channels.


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