With mobile technologies increasingly weaving themselves into the fabric of our communities, it would be beneficial to increase our understanding of how these devices will affect our quality of life. This chapter presents a case study where a set of prototypes of future social technology concepts were generated and used by groups of backpackers in a mobile community. One of these concepts, which facilitated viewing the locations of other group members, is evaluated with regard to how it might affect community development. This and other examples illustrate that communication technologies form a social path which guides individual and emergent behavior of societies. Determination of where these paths lead can be accomplished through the creation of development projects with positive social aims. Using collaborative research methods, considering design outcome spectra, and adding features with implicit cultural values are promising strategies for influencing future communities.
Technology. That’s always been your Achilles heel in this part of the world.
—Obadiah Stane to Raza, Iron Man, 2008Top
Social Goals For Compelling Products
It is increasingly common to find software and Internet companies building creative business models around community-based products with charitable and socially responsible goals. For example, Google has expressed an interest in building platforms and APIs which empower local communities to rapidly build technologies to help themselves. During the 2007 wildfires in and around San Diego, CA, several organizations utilized the Google Maps API to communicate which areas of the city were currently burning or where evacuation orders were in place (Wagner, 2007).
Similarly, several sites on the web help communities operate by providing forums for user participation and community interaction. These tools implicitly build in the ideals of free speech, satire, whistle-blowing, personal empowerment, and helping others. For example, YouTube has had Egyptian users post videos of police abuse which led to jail sentences for officers (Anderson, 2007).They are similarly facilitating education and debate around the 2008 US election process (“CNN/YouTube debate: Video streams,” 2007). Another ratings site, Yelp, gives users a forum to rate and comment on everything from restaurants to religious organizations (“Yelp.com,” 2007). They also have a section for Health and Medical to support rating doctors and other medical professionals. These sites help provide a degree of oversight and community advice which would otherwise be lost in the anonymity and complexity of large cities.
There are also non-profit corporations that produce mobile technology products with social aims; these indirectly compete with and influence profit-based corporations. For example, the non-profit OLPC project started with the goal of “providing children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves.” (Teletico, 2007) OLPC founder, Nicholas Negroponte stated that “It’s an education project, not a laptop project.” (“One Laptop Per Child,” 2007).
These examples demonstrate that technology design has the potential to facilitate and thereby encourage certain values and behaviors amongst user communities. With Internet access becoming more widespread daily, it is possible for a web application to be rapidly used all around the planet shortly after development. This brings with it entirely new opportunities for the spread of cultural values.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Low-fidelity Prototyping: Creatively iterating on design concepts, typically using paper, whiteboards or other artifacts which permit rapid creation and modification.
Mobile Community: A group of mobile, and often distributed, people with social ties which can be used by members to obtain various kinds of resources.
Socio-Technical Systems: Networks of people and technological components which interact in the course of usage or deployment of designed processes or products.
Social Path: A technology, which, regardless of intent, embodies political, cultural, and moral ideals in its design, and encourages or enables certain resulting behavior by large numbers of people.
Social Networks: Groups of people who communicate with each other, and who often have shared interests and stronger social ties.
Community Planning: Social networks come into existence and some point, and typically go through various stages of development. Vision statements, guidelines, tools used, and environment greatly affect how the community develops and how it acts.
Mobile Ethnography: The detailed study of small numbers of subjects who frequently move, which typically requires novel methods of recording observations, tracking subjects, and analyzing data.