Does your family have a computer? Were they used in your schools? Do you play with them? If so, what have your learned from using computers? How have they changed your social relationships? The study of socail factors in computing looks beyond the immediate connection between person and machine to the consequences for the social institutions in which the technology is used. The effect of the computer in these institutions depends on more than the interface between individual and machine. It depends on the way computers are linked together into communications networks, and how computer-based communication alters social interaction among people.
The family and the school are the two most important socializing institutions. Within them, children are introduced to the intricacies of their culture. For older children and for adults, social networks and economic institutions are important agents of socialization, providing opportunities to learn new social roles and behaviors. As the commercial production of information expands, some of the socializing functions of family and school have been taken over by leisure activities and mass entertainment. In place of public interactions among communities of people, we often find private interactions between people and machines. But in the social interactions among people using computer networks, we find new evidence of social integration and community formation.
Consider, for example, the difference between a proposal of marriage by
computer mail and a proposal in person. Even when two users of an
electronic bulletin board fell in love via network, the marriage proposal
was made face-to-face ("Love, Computer Style", 1983). The emotional
overtones of social interaction are expressed through gestures, tone of
voice, and even through smell (with chemicals called phermones). Just as
the telephone removed vision and physical presence from human conversations
(giving us in return the ability to communicate over vast distances), so
most computer message systems remove the perception of sound and sight from
5.1.2 The Absence of Vision
In a review of the effects of the withdrawal of
visual contact on conversational outcomes, Reid (1977) concluded that there
was no measurable impact on people's abilities to exchange factual
information and cooperate in problem-solving tasks. These results suggest
that we may expect interactions via computer network to be as effective for
communicating technical information as direct contact. Although
experiments found people able to form accurate impressions of others'
traits, they tended to rate others less favorably when they couldn't see
them. In the absence of vision, they were also less confident in their
judgements of personal characteristics. This means that, even in the
absence of visual clues, we get accurate information about people from what
they say, but are less able to make positive, emotionally based evaluations
of them. This can mean the loss of emotional solidarity in computer
network communications, since feelings contribute to the strength of group
The absence of vision is an advantage for people who "look" low status
or unattractive. It is a well known social psychology research finding
that attractive people are preceived to be more competent, while "ugly"
people tend to be devalued. The telephone removed visual clues to a
person's age, sex, race, ethnicity, and social status. Computer networks
remove many of the verbal clues (for example accent and pitch of voice) to
status as well. If everyone has equal access to computer networks, we may
find ourselves paying more attention to what they are saying than to how
important they look and whether they appeal to us emotionally.
5.1.3 Multimedia Interfaces and Emotional Communication.
Multimedia interfaces that let you hear the person you are exchanging information with
and let you see them on television offer us the possibility of adding
emotional communication to computer netwoks. This could restore some of
the social control that now appears to be missing from computer
conversations. But this technological innovation will not necessarily
strengthen our perception that we are speaking to another human being.
What is most important in face-to-face contact is our ability to imagine
ourselves in the presence of another self. Because this is an emotional
response to another person, the addition of non-verbal elements to computer
messages can make it easier to preceive another's humanity. However, if
our emotional response to someone's accent, color, sex or status makes it
more difficult to imagine them as like ourselves, the quality of our
interaction will not be improved by multimedia interfaces. Multimedia
interfaces will certainly increase the distance over which we can present
ourselves to others; but they will not automatically supply us with the
cultural value that we should communicate with them.
5.2 Computer-Aided Conversation and the Problem of Trust
In a collection of essays on communication and social evolution, Jurgen
Habermas (1979) points out that communication involves claims on the part
of participants about:
The answer from artificial intelligence researcher Richard Bolt is that
we are engaged in a process of mutual self-disclosure: "The information
base discloses itself to you as you disclose yourself to it (1984:87)". If
this is the case, conversational interfaces not social activity. In place
of the intentions of another speaker we have the external "reality" of the
data base. This is an example of a reified social relationship. The
relationship between the programmer and the program's user appears to be a
relationship between the user and the program. As Kiesler reports from her
study of social interactions in electronic mail systems, the user's
attention gets focused on the message rather than on the people.
5.2.3 Computers and Conversational Norms
Studies of interruption patterns
in conversations show that, in America, women are interrupted by men over
80% of the time. Women, who make less than 20% of conversational
interruptions, are expected to allow themselves to be interrupted (Pfeifer,
1985). There are similar conversational norms allowing high status people
to interrupt low status ones. By interfering with our ability to tell if
we are conversing with a man or a woman, the computer interface could
change the social norm of interruption of women by men. An alternative
less favorable to women and low status people would be the establishment of
social hierarchies in the access and priority designs of computer networks.
Status differences can be preserved if our computer message systems tell us
who is more important than whom. For example, the system on which this
book was typed has several communications privilege levels. Faculty
members can send files across the system; students are restricted to a
subset of resources. The social history of the telephone gives reason for
optimism in the prospects for equality in computerized communications.
Early advertisements for the telephone depicted it as a device for giving
orders to employees or servants; it became a means for two-way
conversations between equals instead (Cherry, 1977).
There is also reason for optimism in Reid's review of conflict and
decision-making in the absence of vision. Although some studies report a
reduction in cooperation and a lengthening of decision-making time, others
report an increase in participants' willingness to change their opinions.
Emotionally-based arguments, which often sway opinions in face-to-face
situations, are less likely to influence the outcomes of computer-based
discussions. Keisler (1985) reports the negative effect of removing
emotion from discussion. Participants in her study were "out of control"
and violated the rules of polite conversation. We use emotional
expressions of approval or disapproval to exert normative power. With
these ordinary mechanisms of social control missing, participants in
computer based discussions are free to develop new conversational rules and
arrive at unconventional decisions.
What these findings for telephone and computer network decision-making suggest is that computer-aided decision-making will be more rational in terms of the information available to participants, but less strongly controlled by shared (or conflicting) emotional evaluations. For low status participants, and in technical decisions where shared emotions are less relevant to the outcome than questions of fact, this should be an improvement. For decision-making about human goals, however, the absence of face-to-face contact can be a problem. The same non-verbal processes that reinforce feelings of inter-personal solidarity or antagonism also act to affirm shared values or to arrive at new ones. Therefore, it is possible that computer-aided conversation will loosen the "glue" among groups of friends, but also facilitate conversations among strangers.
The negative effects of computer-based communication -- loss of face- to-face contact, strains on trust, and a reduction in normative social control -- are balanced by the possibilities for social integration in communities formed around electronic networks.
Thomas Malone (1985,ref) defines an organizational interface as the parts of a computer system that connect human users to one another. A text sharing system, for example, is an organizational interface. The computer system I used during the mid 1980's for teaching had common storage areas for each class, so that students could use the same files. Assignments and exam questions were "read-only" to discourage unauthorized modifications by class members. An announcements and current events file was available for everyone to write in. For hackers and people planning careers in computer security there was a protected file called GRAFFITI. At the start of every academic term it contained the single line: "Students may read this, but they can not write in it." Today, the Graffiti file is kept on the GnuClassroom Blackboard.
Other kinds of organizational interfaces are management tools for keeping track of resources and tasks (Fox, et. al., 1983ref ; Kedzierski, 1982ref; Sluizer and Cashman, 1985ref). The design choices for such interfaces are an important macroergonomic issue. If, like telephone conference calls, they are made for cooperative interaction, the organizational interfaces will integrate individual activities and facilitate the development of group goals. If, on the other hand, organizational interfaces are designed to monitor activities and allocate tasks to people, they become the instruments of managerial control. They will supervise and coordinate individual activities without providing the social interactions that produce group solidarity.
In a review of organizational interfaces allowing many-to-many communication, Chandler Harrison (1981) identified several attitudes that inhibit people from using computer networks in social ways: o Feelings of isolation and powerlessness o Inability to understand the information available on the network o The belief that important decisions should be left to expert decision makers o The expectation that information comes in pre-made packages, rather than being exchanged through social interaction o The belief that competition is more advantageous than cooperation These attitudes are relevant to organizational interface design. If users are restricted to small subsets of system resources and given few choices, they will be isolated and powerless. If the interface is not user- friendly, people will have difficulty understanding what is availble to them from other people on the network. If the belief that only experts should make decisions is assumed by the designer, it may not be technically possible to use the system for any other form of decision-making. If information comes in packages supplied by the system, the "nature of external reality" cannot be negotiated by those using it. Finally, if those who build organizational interfaces do not believe that coopertion is worthwhile, it may be difficult to use the interface for cooperative purposes.
Our traditional concept of a community has a geographical base, with people in regular face-to-face contact with one another. Yet widely scattered people have maintained their social ties through letters, phone calls, and periodic gatherings. My family of several dozen aunts, uncles and cousins has an annual reunion; the professional community of American sociologists gathers at the end of every summer to go through the ritual of delivering papers and talking to colleagues.
One kind of computer network that facilitates solidarity within groups is the electronic bulletin board. Community bulletin boards like Berkeley, California's Community Memory Project, are experiments in social integration and democratic participation. Terminals in public places provide access for individuals who do not have computer terminals at home or work. Commercial information utilities like the Source or CompuServe offer bulletin board services to a variety of special interest groups (Glossbrenner, 1984). Churches and informal religious groups -- from born- again Christians to mystic pagans -- hold study classes, communicate with parishioners, and exchange information over computer networks ("Churches Move into the Computer Age," 1984).
But computer based social networks, like other communities, can generate conflict between groups. From the Aryan National Liberty Net, identified by the FBI as sponsored by a right-wing terrorist group believed responsible for several murders, you can get a list of America's enemies (New York Times, February 15, 1985:11). Hacker bulletin boards are the target of U.S. software and credit companies, who blame them for promoting credit-card fraud and software piracy (Newsweek, April 15, 1985:17). In their enthusiasm to do away with software pirates, some companies have suggested outlawing all non-commercial bulletin boards. In their defense, many of the bulletin board operators point out that they are encouraging free speech and social interaction, not theft.
Even the best interface design for an organizational or community interface has its limitations. As Scragg (1985) points our by comparing his company's electronic mail system to Post-It notes, sometimes we want to put a message in a place, not send it to a person. If the message shown in Figure 12 were put in everyone's electronic mail box, it would not be as effective for group communication as a note on the door. The door is a public place; comments on it are group property. In most interface designs, there is no provision for public places or public commentary. And, without public social interaction, we cannot have communities (Sennett, 1974 ref.)
It is not enough to have public places where common information is stored and retrieved. As Jane Jacobs pointed out in The Life and Death of the Great American Cities, social interaction in public spaces provides social control over what goes on in them. Without norms for public conversation, public messages collect graffiti -- individual expressions of art, obscenity, philosophy, or protest. Figute 5.1 is a public message:
What about YOU and Nancy?
I don't drink coffee -- Nancy
Who is YOU and why don't you turn it off yourself? - B.G.
To everybody, from M. Lee:
would the last person to leave the lab *please* make sure that the last coffee drinker turned off the pot (so we won't have a fire) Thanks