Social Aspects of Digital Information in Perspective: introduction to a special issue

Roberta Lamb and Susan Johnson, special issue editors
University of Hawaii, Manoa

This special issue showcases a series of studies that are guided by the methods and perspectives of Social Informatics. This line of inquiry extends a research stream of the late Rob Kling, a pioneer in social informatics studies who strived for over 30 years to make social issues central to discussions about computing and information systems (Kling 1992, Kling 1996, Kling 1999).

Within the past decade, social informatics research has grown to encompass a widening and interdisciplinary interest in studies that carefully examine the ways in which information and communications technologies (ICTs) are bound up in everyday social and organizational structures. It draws researchers who focus on the inter-relationships among people, their institutional and cultural contexts, and their uses of ICTs. This focus on 'ICT use in context' diverts some attention from the task at hand to pay more careful attention to the power relations that shape the task and the setting, as well as the roles of the social actors who use ICTs to perform their situated tasks.

Social informatics research gives prominence to theoretically informed, contextually attentive methodologies that build theory from empirical data. This focus distinguishes social informatics studies from other socially aware or proactive approaches, such as community informatics, discourse analytics, and other descriptively rich research domains. It blurs the line between theory and practice in ways that allow concepts to transcend such boundaries. That conceptual flow encourages informatics researchers to interact across disciplinary boundaries in ways that acknowledge biases and differences, while at the same time recognizing when this diversity can be a source of intellectual strength.

The contributions of social informatics researchers are often characterized by a multiplicity of observations that gather conceptual momentum through a series of temporary bindings to local, time-dependent evaluations and iterative theoretical analyses. Their explanations of informatics contexts allow the complexity of situated ICT use to emerge and unfold as history. The inter-related observations and analyses of social informatics researchers like Rob Kling and his colleagues form a corpus of foundational pieces that we hope to build on by developing a social informatics theme within the Journal of Digital Information.

For this inaugural theme issue, we were particularly interested in presenting empirical examinations of ICTs that carefully depict and theorize about the cumulative influences of local histories on ICT use, with emphasis on the everyday aspects of living with digital information in the home, in the workplace, in research labs, in public places, and other social settings. We know that for many readers the contents of this issue will be very different from the types of articles they usually find in JoDI, but we hope this will be a welcome change. We feel it is very important to present theoretically guided examinations of everyday encounters with digital information to balance the more prevalent business-centric concerns and technology-focused projections about Information Society futures (Negroponte 1995, Gates et al. 1996, cf. Webster 1995), and we appreciate this opportunity to share these studies with JoDI readers.

It is often a challenge to tell the stories and to provide the examples that support social informatics studies in print-based journals. These kinds of qualitative research and ethnographic studies generate a wide array of data, collected via multimedia. Print journals typically impose page restrictions, and their limited graphic displays do not even begin to give authors the ability to convey important contextual aspects of digital technology use. In contrast, the online format of JoDI provides authors with opportunities to present their work in new hypertextual ways; and some of the authors in this issue have used that opportunity to present the reader with a rich array of supporting data and links to related work.

Although the studies in this issue cover a wide range of topics, they share basic concepts that guide social informatics studies:

It is often assumed that once people are shown "how easy it is" to use a new ICT, regular use will follow. As we can see (even in past JoDI issues), there are other constraints, like author skill-levels, academic formats, research methodologies, and even deadlines, that shape digital information and constrain its exchange. Digital exchanges shape and are shaped by community interaction, which also means that new ICTs can "push back". Raisinghani et al. ("Ambient Intelligence: Changing forms of human-computer interaction and their influence on people and organizational environments") carefully explain how new ICTs bring pressures to change some old and familiar ways of doing things. In fact, the authors predict that ambient intelligence "will revolutionize business, government, and everyday life" through a wide-ranging set of ubiquitous devices with adaptive interfaces that can "remember" the environments they (and you) have worked in. Ambient intelligence will undoubtedly be used, and is already being used, in many ways to enhance communication and to reshape human interactions.

McLean and Johnson ("How Oke-Ogun Crosses the Digital Divide - Study of a Nigerian Rural Development Project") elaborate on this theme, and also poignantly exemplify just how deeply history and context matter. Their story describes how two communities have struggled to establish and maintain links across geographic and cultural distances. It hasn't been easy -- the simple "information footpath" that now exists has been formed by the steady retracings of a few dedicated people who are slowly building a community network. This saga stands in stark contrast to techno-centric stories of extensions of the information highway. In their telling, McLean and Johnson repopulate the study of ICT diffusion and effectively convey the difficult reality of information infrastructure building.

The editors would like to thank Pam McLean for generously inviting Susan Johnson to help her "interpret" the story for a more academic audience. Sadly these stories are not often heard, because even in flexible formats like JoDI, the constraints of what is academically suitable are often less flexible (as Rob Kling often lamented.) We were reminded just how difficult it can be to collaborate across distances and cultures, as we worked on this article with Pam. She was simply not available by phone or email when she was in Nigeria, and we also had the usual difficulties in coordinating across 12 time zones. However, the most difficult part was "getting the story right", and we hope that we have not put too much of an academic "gloss" on the Oke-Ogun story to obscure the real message. To keep the story straight and up-to-date, readers can follow the continuing saga on the Web site of the Committee for African Welfare and Development.

Other community members who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with digital information are the elderly, home-bound and underprivileged people that social workers service. As Stam et al. show ("Employee Resistance to Information Technology Change in a Social Service Agency: A Membership Category Approach"), the introduction of new ICTs, like laptop computers, into the home context can change the way people view the visit, and how the social worker is perceived. ICTs can also introduce some unexpected issues, like increasing the danger of theft in high-crime neighborhoods in an already difficult situation. As these authors examine this case of new ICT introduction, it becomes clear that the effort was undertaken primarily because a change in policy had led to a new reporting requirement. Laptops were a "logical" solution to that problem, but that solution clearly precipitated some consequences that had not been adequately considered.

The relatively simple and widely-used technologies discussed in these articles contrast with the highly sophisticated ICTs used in the electric power industry. However, Klashner ("ICT and the Deregulation of the Electric Power Industry" to be published) also shows how history and context matter, and how policy changes can precipitate unanticipated long-term shifts that shape the possibilities for ICT use and the exchange of digital information. While focusing on the information-side of this story, Klashner richly conveys the complex social and economic context of energy politics. He has done this through good scholarship and writing, but also through an integrated multi-media presentation. JoDI readers should enjoy reading this piece.

While these articles are refreshingly honest about the difficulties of introducing and using new ICTs, they largely reflect the assumption that these technologies will be used with "good intentions" -- things may go wrong, and problems may result, but no ill will can be attributed to the implementers. Unfortunately, this assumption is not always valid. Ekbia ("How IT Mediates Organizations: Enron and The California Energy Crisis") returns to many of the themes that other authors in this special issue have addressed with a different perspective. As his article shows, ICTs can be used with "bad intentions", but that does not mean that dystopian perspectives are therefore appropriate. Ekbia shows how a different theoretical approach, actor-network theory, can explain the misuse of ICTs by Enron. This presentation shows how going online may have precipitated new organizational and economic opportunities to mislead investors and internal auditors with "up-to-the-minute" digital information. Ekbia's rich depiction of the energy industry "climate" helps to situate ICTs in action at Enron; and further emphasizes that history and context matter.

This collection of articles will give JoDI readers a sample of the insights that social informatics studies can bring to understanding digital information design, use and implementation. It is a vibrant field that draws contributions from academics and practitioners in a wide range of disciplines. It is sometimes difficult to find these works scattered among the many journals in which they are published. However, there are some journals that regularly present socially-rich views of ICT development that interested readers may want to explore. For further reading in social informatics, we recommend the following publications and Web sites, as well as future issues of JoDI that feature social informatics articles:


Gates, Bill, Myhrvold, Nathan and Rinearson, Peter (1996) The Road Ahead, revised edition (New York: Penguin Books)

Kling, Rob (1992) "Behind the Terminal: The Critical Role of Computing Infrastructure In Effective Information Systems' Development and Use". In Challenges and Strategies for Research in Systems Development, edited by William Cotterman and James Senn (New York: John Wiley), pp. 153-201

Kling, Rob (ed.) (1996) Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices, second edition (San Diego: Academic Press)

Kling, Rob (1999) "What is Social Informatics and Why Does it Matter?". D-Lib Magazine, Vol. 5 No. 1, January 1999

Negroponte, N. (1995) Being Digital (New York: Alfred A.Knopf)

Webster, F. (1995) Theories of the Information Society (London: Routledge)


Committee for African Welfare and Development