BMS Research Themes

Emerging Technologies & Social Transformations

Draft research program

Working group members:

Peter-Paul Verbeek, Philip Brey, Stefan Kuhlmann, Kasia Zalewska, Pricivel Carrera, Menno de Jong, Adri Visscher

DOMAIN CHALLENGES

Our technological society is in a continuous state of transformation. Technological developments have important social, economic and political  implications and are sometimes even disruptive. The Internet of Things is rapidly changing our material environment – from public spaces and schools and hospitals to scientific laboratories and homes – with major implications for the relations between governments and citizens, practices in management, healthcare and education, and social interactions. Artificial agents like robots and algorithms fulfill ever more complex tasks, and challenge existing notions of agency, expertise, responsibility, and employability. The huge volume of data from increasingly instantaneously communicating devices and machines across platforms and networks is testing not only present day security and privacy mechanisms but is also challenging norms of ownership. Gene editing technologies are changing our responsibilities to future generations and our relations to our own bodies. How to understand these transformations? What ethical and societal issues do they raise? And how to give technological innovations a responsible direction? These are the main questions guiding the research program ‘Techno-social transformations’.

The program is strongly connected to the other four research programs of the faculty of Behavioral, Management, and Social Sciences (Industry, Learning, Resilience, and Health) as well as to the central research themes of the University of Twente (personalized healthcare, digital society, smart materials, resilience engineering, intelligent manufacturing). These connections have a twofold aim: (1) addressing generic and reflexive questions regarding the interactions between technology and society that emerge in the other four BMS programs, functioning as a foundational and reflexive program, as illustrated below; and (2) providing a basis to apply for funding in collaboration with technical researchers.

SCIENTIFIC CONTRIBUTION

The research program ‘Emerging Technologies and Social Transformations’ (working title) has a descriptive, a normative, and an interventionist dimension: it aims to provide the conditions for responsible innovation, by analyzing, evaluating, and governing the close interactions between technology and society. The central questions guiding research activities within the program are: How do new and emerging technologies affect society, culture, and human existence? How can we evaluate the quality of these implications? And how to take these implications into account in governance, policy-making, and design?

‘Techno-social transformations’ occur at the micro, the meso and the macro level: the level of individual users and human-technology relations; the level of social practices (education, healthcare, organizations, industry); and the level of societal and political structures and processes, such as power relations, democratic institutions, and legal regulation. Each of these levels raises its own, specific academic questions and societal challenges, and for this reason, they define three separate lines of the program. In each of these lines, the triad of analyzing, evaluating, and intervening plays a central role: how to understand the relations between technology and social transformation at the micro-, meso-, and macro-level?; how to address the normative aspects of these transformations?; and how to intervene in them in an effective and responsible way?

a)      Human-technology relations
New technologies affect human beings in new ways, by influencing people’s behavior, perceptions, motivations, and frameworks of interpretation. E-coaching systems influence the lifestyle of users. Smart shopping windows have an impact consumer behavior. Augmented reality glasses affect interpersonal relations, and even change our notion of privacy. Telecare technologies change our relation to our bodies, and our doctors. How to understand these new configurations of humans and technologies? How to rethink central notions in the humanities and the social sciences like agency, responsibility, perception, social interaction? How to evaluate the quality of these human-technology relations, and the impacts of technologies on human beings? How to determine the social acceptance and acceptability of new technologies? How to enable users to develop a critical relation to the influences of technologies? And how to take the impacts of technologies on users into account in practices of design and policy-making?

b)      Technology, values, and social practices
Technologies transform social practices. Learning analytics, teaching robots, and telepresence technologies change practices of teaching and learning. Carebots, diagnostic algorithms, and wearable technologies change practices in healthcare, and shift responsibilities from doctors to patients and vice versa. Production robots and algorithms change practices of labor and work. How do these technologies require a rethinking of central concepts in education, medicine, and economics, like ‘Bildung’, ‘health’, ‘patient autonomy’, ‘human resources’, ‘expertise’, ‘skills’, ‘profession’, et cetera? How to analyze the character of the influences of these technologies, and what are their ethical implications? What ethical theories do we need to address the social implications of these technologies? And how to take these implications into account in design and policy-making?

These technologies are developed by various actors, being e.g. research universities, R&D institutes or companies. How to guide these actors in designing and building (socially) responsible products and services? How to guide these actors to prioritize the user and their needs? Furthermore, given the broad access to personal data on individuals, what can we advise companies so that they do not violate human dignity with their products and technologies?

c)       Society, Politics, and Technology
Technologies transform social structures, power relations and democratic institutions. The fourth Industrial Revolution brings challenges that seem to equal those of the first Industrial Revolution, including transformations of labor, the rise of new forms of inclusion and exclusion, and new economic structures. How to analyze these implications, and how to evaluate their quality? Social media, algorithms for news collection and legal practices, and the rise of smart cities challenge fundamental characteristics of our liberal democracy. How to conceptualize these challenges, and how to deal with them in politics, in innovation, and in law and regulation? What new relations between states and citizens do they bring, and how are they related to global power structures and socio-economic structures and characteristics?

SOCIETAL IMPACT

The main goal of the program in terms of societal impact is to contribute to responsible research and innovation, by developing frameworks and tools to analyze, evaluate, and govern the social implications of technological developments. In order to achieve this goal, we choose various routes:

  • Developing frameworks for the management and governance of innovation
  • Developing tools and methods for responsible design
  • Participating actively in public discussions in order to stimulate critical reflection and deliberation among citizens and policy-makers
  • Imagination and future telling, in order to support anticipation of future implications of new and emerging technologies
  • Developing research project with companies and societal organizations – for which the DesignLab is a suitable environment – in order to make research outcomes relevant for societal practices and organizations.

 INFRASTRUCTURE

In order to study the relations between emerging technologies and social transformations, the program builds on (a) a research infrastructure; (b) a set of methodologies that will be developed as part of the program; and (c) an infrastructure to connect the social science and humanities to technology.

a)       BMS Lab
In order to study the interactions between technology and human beings, the program ‘Emerging Technologies and Social Transformation’ combines theoretical conceptualization with empirical research. The BMS Lab offers a crucial technological infrastructure for this, including:

  • Observation and recording technologies: two rooms connected by a two-way mirror, with high-quality audio and video recording facilities to study human interactions with technologies, and to record discussions and interviews (for conversation analysis, ethnographic research, and Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis).
  • Virtual Reality Technologies: simulating potential use practices, social practices and societal transformations can offer new insights in the relations between humans and technologies at the micro-, meso-, and macro-level.
  • Sensor and tracking technologies: the BMS Lab offers sensitive technologies to study how people interact with technologies, or change their behavior and have new perceptions and experiences in interaction with technologies, offering insights in human-technology relations and -interactions that serve as a basis for further theoretical conceptualization.

b)      Methodologies
Because of the way it confronts theoretical approaches to technology with actual developments of emerging technologies, the program makes use of hybrid, and mainly qualitative methodologies. These include:

  • ‘empirical philosophy’: combining philosophical analysis with empirical investigations of actual or emerging technological developments, not to apply or test existing philosophical theories, but to investigate to what extent existing theoretical concepts and frameworks need to be extended, revised, or replaced in relation to the new technological realities they aim to conceptualize.
  • research through design: some elements of the research in the program are conducted as design projects that raise theoretical questions, e.g. by conducting artistic research into human-technology relations, or by engaging in design projects that affect intimate relations between human beings.
  • scenario-based research: research based on methods for scenario writing in order to anticipate potential future developments in technology, society, and their interactions.
  • ethnographic research: qualitative research on the ways in which human beings implicitly construct frameworks of interpretations, in order to unravel the dynamics of the interaction between humans and technologies.  
  • <to be complemented>

c)       DesignLab
In order to be closely connected to actual technological developments and the social challenges related to them, the program explicitly makes use of the infrastructure of the DesignLab of the University of Twente. The DesignLab is an infrastructure for multidisciplinary cooperation, connecting scientific research to societal challenges. Researchers from all disciplines of the university are connected, aiming to work on technological innovation from the perspective of society: responsible innovation and value-sensitive design. Various researchers in the program are fellows of the DesignLab. The DesignLab operates as a creativity- and interaction-stimulating research environment and a meeting place for interdisciplinary research teams, working on grant proposals or research projects.