Future Technology and Society: An EC Workshop

I participated in a useful workshop on ‘Future Technology and Society’ in Brussels yesterday, 19 November 2010, organized by the Director General of the Information Society Programme (DG INFSO). I presented on ‘The Internet and Innovation for Society’ – my slides are available online through Slideshare at: http://www.slideshare.net/WHDutton/internet-and-innovation-for-society

Presentations ranged from sweeping historical treatments on coping with the complexity of evolving social and technical systems (Sander Van der Leeuw) and the rise of an information age (Luciano Floridi) to conceptually focused discussions of such issues as trust (Gloria Origgi). My presentation was more empirically grounded (almost out of place), as I focused on trends over the last decade with respect to the Internet that raised issues for the future, such as closing digital divides and responding to a rising push for greater regulation of the Internet in ways that will not undermine its vitality and openness. I of course noted some emerging developments of central importance to my own work, such as collaborative network organizations and the Fifth Estate. Most discussion was around issues of futures studies and visions, while everyone seemed equally skeptical of any ‘futurology’, which seems to be the catch-all term for undisciplined future gazing.

Albert Borschette Conference Center
Albert Borschette Conference Center

I found it especially useful in reinforcing my sense that the study of the Internet and related ICTs is reaching a new stage. It is moving from work that focused on whether the Internet or other ICTs will improve on old ways of doing things, to accepting the increasing centrality of the Internet and related ICTs, and focusing more attention on how the Internet and related ICTs should be designed, implemented and used. What kind of Internet will support pro-social and other societal agendas, whether privacy, freedom of expression, green technology or sustainability.

On a more instrumental level, the meeting provided a valuable perspective on the EC that was helpful and positive. Chaired by Robert Madelin, the Information Society and Media Director-General, we heard briefly on the views from major program heads. It was clear that there is a great deal of potential for synergy across the various programs, many of which are strongly oriented around developments in emerging ICTs and society, and an openness to multidisciplinary dialogue. Everyone appreciated the difficulties of fostering constructive dialogue across disciplines*, but also across those more focused on empirical inquiry and those with a strong orientation to futures research. The need to bring these perspectives together, such as around common boundary spanning objects, such as case studies or particular technical developments, seemed to gain support. The chairman kept reminding all that we need to be modest about our own views, and open to working with others, and this seemed to sit well with the whole tenor of the day. Generally, I came away with a far more optimistic view on the role that the social sciences can play in EC research on the information society.

*Dutton, W. H., Carusi, A., and Peltu, M. (2006), ‘Fostering Multidisciplinary Engagement: Communication Challenges for Social Research on Emerging Digital Technologies’, Prometheus, 24(2): 129-49.

Comments are most welcome