Good and Evil in the Garden of Emerging Information Technologies

Good and Evil in the Garden of Emerging Information Technologies

Kenneth E. Kendall (Rutgers University, USA) and Julie E. Kendall (Rutgers University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-264-0.ch053
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This chapter explores the social, organizational, and individual impacts of emerging information technologies using the advent of recent technologies including push and pull technologies; DSS dashboards for decision makers complete with widgets and gadgets; and mashups that join together preprogrammed Web-based applications in new ways as examples to explore the question of good and evil as it applies to technology. The design, purchase, and use of emerging information technologies offers a double-edged sword; in that they can be deliberately designed and used for either good or evil purposes, however sometimes their use provokes unintended consequences. While many emerging technologies purport to improve the lives of workers, the quality of their work, and the overall productiveness of society, there are other consequences that belie grimmer, multifaceted impacts that can create malevolent outcomes or even disastrous consequences for their users. Our practical contribution is to formulate a series of questions to assist designers, users, and managers who purchase IT in considering the helpful or harmful consequences of emerging technology design decisions.
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Good and evil are essential differences of the act of the will. For good and evil pertain essentially to the will; just as truth and falsehood pertain to the reason, the act of which is distinguished essentially by the difference of truth and falsehood (according as we say that an opinion is true or false.) Consequently, good and evil volition are acts differing in species.

—Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274).

Summa Theologiae, I-II

[i.e., “First Part of the Second Part.”]

q. 19, art. 1 (c. 1077-1078).



In this chapter we explore ideas of good and evil as they play out in the arena of several emerging information technologies; we explore their intended applications and uses, as well as their unintended uses and consequences, and we compare and contrast potential good and malevolent impacts of innovations on individuals, organizations, and societies.

Many new technologies have been introduced in the last decade. To begin, we take the example of pull technology, or seeking out information on the Web. The term pull technology can simply indicate surfing the Internet or it can refer to an advanced technology that permits an ever changing, independent evolutionary agent to explore the Web for you. Push technology describes a range of information activities that send or push information to the user ranging from well-understood models such as broadcasting to selective content delivery via sophisticated evolutionary filtering using data mining techniques.

We will also detail the emerging information technology of dashboards, which are often designed to support individuals. A dashboard displays information in the form of metrics to help support a decision maker. We consider the deliberately designed uses and impacts of dashboards on individual decision makers, as well as the consequences of bias and unintended consequences of other display deficiencies on the organization and society. With the advent of customizability for many DSS dashboard displays, the potential for good as well as evil influences from these new technologies are increasingly unpredictable, but bear exploration.

New software innovations often termed “widgets” or “gadgets,” are now available to systems designers for designing desktops and dashboards. They can be user-customized, or they can be placed on a desktop without any user intervention. While the usefulness of calculators, clocks, “sticky notes,” weather forecasters and so on are superficially apparent, the discovery of how these items are useful, whether they serve as distractions to organizational goals, or slip by unnoticed as hosts of spyware, will also be explored.

Mashups are applications that take one preprogrammed Web-based application and join it with another to create a new application. There are five key areas that hold potential for good or evil in the design and use of mashups. They include reliability, legal concerns, the dynamic nature of the Web itself, the availability of user support for mashups, and the way in which development occurs (spontaneously versus systematically).

This paper is practically grounded by examining specific examples of emerging information technology design, use, and evolution. While we believe that emerging information technology is similar to other types of technology, there are two compelling views of what the future holds for designers and users of technology. The British author George Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. But his compatriot, Aldous Huxley, believed that what we love will be our ruin (Postman, 1985). This chapter explores the paradoxical possibility of negative and positive consequences, as well as deliberate and unintended consequences of the use of emerging information technologies. We offer questions for designers, users, and those who purchase IT for organizations to assist them in mindfully confronting the larger questions of good and evil precipitated by new technologies.

We take an approach labeled by Graber (1976) as the intuitive method of verbal analysis. (Verbal here refers to both oral and written material.) Our steps in analysis include establishing a goal for the investigation, sampling written and oral material for relevant clues, piecing together a picture and then interpreting what emerges. The complexity of this approach is evident when one considers that it demands a simultaneous analysis of the context afforded by the society along with the interactions of a multiplicity of writers, their opinions, and their objectives for the present and the future.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Design: Design is the process in which a person, often called a systems analyst or systems designer considers the needs and wants, opportunities and problems, balanced with technical and economic feasibility limits to describe or model a new system.

Widgets: These are small programs (sometimes called gadgets), usually written in JavaScipt or VBScript. They reside in a special layer on the user’s desktop. They provide a graphical user interface between the desktop and application. Some require user actions to function, while others, such as clocks or stock tickers, do not.

Emerging Information Technologies: Emerging information technologies are those innovations in computing, MIS, and ecommerce that are becoming recognized as beneficial and practical. They are technologies that are not yet generally accepted or in use. In the emerging stage, technologies may be carefully studied and shaped to be more reliable, practical, and helpful.

Pull Technologies: Pull technologies involve the seeking process of a user trying to get information. Pulling a piece of information from the Web is akin to pulling a book off the shelf of a library. The word pull connotes grabbing and yanking something from the Internet. Pull technologies can be simple or complex.

Decision Support System (DSS): An interactive information system that supports the decision-making process through the presentation of information designed specifically for the decision maker’s problem solving approach and application needs. A DSS does not make the decision for the user.

Dashboard: A dashboard is a display for decisionmakers including a variety of visual displays of relevant performance measurements. Dashboards often include dials or gauges.

Application Programmable Interface (API): Application Programmable Interface (APIs) are the essential building blocks for application developers to rapidly develop a software application. They are composed of sets of tools, protocols, and routines, that aid designers in developing software applications.

Mashups: A new application crated by combining two or more Web-based APIs, or application programming interfaces, together.

Push Technologies: Push technology describes a range of information activities that send or push information to the user ranging from well-understood models such as broadcasting to selective content delivery via sophisticated evolutionary filtering using data mining techniques with electronic media such as the Web or email.

Socio-Technical Design: Sociotechnical design is the representation and modeling of the interrelatedness of the social aspects of people, organizations, and society along with the technical aspects of machines, computers, and other technologies. It is argued that taking into consideration both the social and technical aspects allows for meaningful design that promotes efficiency, productivity, individual well being, and a benefit to society as a whole.

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