April 23, 2014

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Introducing Myself: Technology, Society, and Public Policy

I’m a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton this year. My first months here have already been amazing. I’m pleased to be joining this blog as well!

My conceptual toolkit and my method comes mostly from sociology, but I’m also a former computer programmer. That means that I feel welcome in a place where policy people and computer scientists collaborate. My interests revolve around how technology and society interact, and I’ve been enjoying having these conversations with many new people. I research a variety of topics concerning the social impacts of technology — things like social interaction, collective action, and privacy & publicity. I’m also enjoying teaching a course this Fall at the Woodrow Wilson School called “New Media and Social Movements: New Tools for an Old Game” (syllabus here – PDF).

As the saying goes, technology is neither good nor bad — nor neutral. To make it even more complicated, it is also neither fully flexible nor completely pre-ordained in its consequences. Design always incorporates values and choices. Furthermore, I don’t think that studying social impacts of technology is a spectator sport. I’m drawn toward the policy implications of what I study because I believe we can design technology to better serve human values and priorities.

The emergence of social media platforms has been especially fascinating partly because it has become pervasive so quickly. I started looking into social impacts of Facebook when a lot of college students were just signing up back in 2005, and already there are about a billion users! In just seven years! This kind of dizzying pace of diffusion makes it harder to study a phenomenon. On the other hand, study is also easier because the changes are recent and the inflection points are relatively obvious. In any case, it is all very much an evolving complex system. That means that the process of research, analysis, and publication feels simultaneously too slow and premature. It’s always a little too late to make a point because it’s probably become somewhat outdated, but it’s also too early because full impacts whatever I’m studying are all still developing. Fun!

The Arab uprisings of 2011 were a strong example of how the changing media ecology is influencing the experience of politics and collective action. I was fortunate enough to visit many countries in the region in 2011 — including Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon and Qatar. I continue to work on this topic, and I’m sure that scholars will study it for decades to come, in the way the 1848 revolutionary waves are still studied. My own paper on media use by Tahrir protestors (“Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square“) demonstrated that social media use was especially significant in terms of the crucial “early protestors” who can keep a protest going until a critical mass is formed and a strong cascade starts. It also showed that interpersonal forms of communication, led by face-to-face and Facebook, were key to disseminating protest information among our sample. In my year at CITP, I’m planning to write more about the role of the emergent media ecology in the “Arab Spring” and other forms of collective action.

I also blog at http://technosociology.org/ and can be found on twitter as @techsoc. I look forward to blogging here as well as in my own blog and welcome feedback, comments and also drop a line if you are in the area! One of the things I’m enjoying most here is meeting new people working on cool and interesting projects.