Served by quiet gossip – how comfortable can we be?

‘Humans need challenges to have a good life. We need challenges to develop and experience well-being. Right now, we are pressing hard on the border between what is human and non-human work’, says Jan Nolin, Professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Borås.

Constructive assessment

Jan Nolin, together with colleague and Senior Lecturer Nasrine Olson, has studied digitalisation’s emergence; both researchers can state that digitalisation is a forward-driving force that affects society on every level. Research on technical development possibilities is constantly underway, but in this kind of research, critical thinking and a social science perspective are often missing. To address this, Jan Nolin and Nasrine Olson use a method called Constructive Technology Assessment.

Facts on Constructive Technology Assessment
Constructive Technology Assessment (CTA) is a complementary component to classical technology assessment, in which technology is assessed after a technological tool has had time to have been used for a while. Today, technological development goes so quickly that there is not time for a proper assessment process before new technologies have been developed. CTA involves considering various scenarios and assessing the potential effects of the technology before it is even developed. 

’Those with the technical knowledge are often quite busy developing technologies that work well. It is easy to forget that technology can have complex consequences for society and social functions. Even if it can be difficult to know exactly what effect the technology can have, there are trends and consequences that can absolutely be foreseen. It is this perspective that social science and humanities research can contribute to the field’, says Nasrine Olson.

Quiet gossip

She describes how technology communicates on different levels. First, humans communicated to the machine with orders about what it should do. A further step was that technology accounted for some of the thinking itself, and now, finally, the machines communicate with each other—about their people.

’In working on our article, Jan coined the concept silent gossip. The machines gossip to each other about where we are and what we do—then they draw conclusions based on them. All this communication occurs quietly and who then owns the information that the machines have gathered we don’t know’, she continues. 

The gossip the machines spread can deal with a variety of different things. The activity bracelet tells the mobile phone how much you have moved or how much so have slept. Your car key tells your car when you get closer so it can unlock itself without your needing to think about it yourself. In the next step, the car will also know when you have slept poorly, but on the other hand, perhaps the car will be responsible for the driving either way.

Dangers of convenience

With convenience and efficiency as the main catchwords, new technology is driven forward, at times with national projects, with help of EU grants, through research policies and by software manufacturers and internet giants such as Google and Facebook. Jan Nolin notes that there is a danger in relying too much on the convenience that technology offers.

‘There are those that believe that 50% of the work that is done today will be gone within ten years. But with this new development of smart machines, it’s not any longer just repetitious work in question, rather work in which we need to think and use our creativity—the kind of word that actually promotes well-being in humans. Smart technology is, moreover, accessible everywhere, and that means that we use the technology to help us make decisions in situations where we earlier gave ourselves time to consider. We stop, then, using our minds and developing our own creative capabilities.

’Moreover, it’s the case that when it is technology that makes decisions, they are only made on rational grounds; we take away the aspects that are purely human. We can already see examples of when decision-making rights have been moved from human decision-makers to ‘rational’ technical calculations. But it is important to remember that technology does not possess its own moral compass', he concludes.