Why is social science so critical to our future? Engineer Jeff Patmore, former head of Strategic University Research & Collaboration, British Telecom, explains why. He will be speaking as part of the launch event for the “Impact of Social Sciences: How Academics and their Research Make a Difference”, published by SAGE, on January 29.
This post was originally posted on jeffsbuzz and is kindly re-posted here with his permission.
Why is the study of social science so critical to our future?
This is a question which has come up a number of times over the past few weeks , firstly at a meeting at the London School of Economics, then with a colleague at Goldman Sachs and more recently at a meeting with a Cambridge Experimental Psychologist, in the Department of Engineering.
The answer is yes, a resounding yes, but why?
My first real, and important, experience of working with a social scientist was in 2004 when I was introduced to a young social anthropologist, Xiaoxiao Yan, who had decided that her PhD research would focus on the impact of Broadband communications on the UK and China.
Xiaoxiao had a longstanding interest in the relationship between culture and technology and had been investigating the impact of broadband technology since 2002. Her supervisor, Alan Macfarlane, suggested that I might be interested in supporting her research and explained that her field work in China could provide me with valuable insight; the study a small start-up company in Beijing. She told me that her research would focus on how the company, in its very early stages, would build an on-line customer base for its product by developing a trusted relationship with its customers through chinese bulletin boards and IM. (The company sold refurbished second-hand laptop computers and its founders were keen to fulfill an ambition of entrepreneurship – a dream shared by many young Chinese people at that time).
I agreed and she spent 6 months working with and documenting the progress of this start-up in Beijing which, at the time, comprised just three people. When she returned to the UK she provided me with a video documentary, subtitled in English, which provided a rare insight into this new company and the way they worked with their customers.
Having spent quite some time living and working around the MIT campus I was struck by how similar the young entrepreneurs in Beijing were to those in Cambridge, Mass. They started their business while still students at Tsinghua University and when it grew too large to run from the campus they moved across the road into a building where they could rent just enough floor space and communications for their needs.
The study of the Chinese entrepreneurs provided real insight and understanding of the culture of the young chinese coming out of their best universities and I have to admit was something of a wakeup call at the time.
A secondary piece of insight which again surprised me was the speed at which the people in the company could communicate with their customers, using a combination of Instant Messaging and Pinyin, where the IM system quickly converted the typed Pinyin into Chinese characters for the opposite party to read.
I had assumed at the time that using Chinese characters in communication would be slow and laborious, but by using these technologies the Instant Messaging was actually much faster than if they had been using English! The IM system ‘guessed’ the Chinese characters as the user typed the Pinyin and then provided a number of characters for the user to choose from. (see: Wikipedia page on this)
Between 2006 and 2008 I worked with a remarkable young social scientist based at Victoria University Melbourne Australia, Natasha Dwyer. She was studying for her PhD – Trust in Digital Environments. While working with me she produced two great reports:
Her opening paragraph:
“Human communication consists of a wide range of verbal and nonverbal cues. Nonverbal cues can communicate intent, meaning and subtleties and have an intrinsic value. While digital technologies have dramatically enhanced the amount of opportunities of individuals to interact over space and time, these technologies do not contain this rich world of data people receive in the ‘physical world’ to help them make their decision. Thus when people make a trust assessment in the digital space they are not privy to the usual contextual cues used to interpret information.”
In this paper she makes these key points:
“As the ‘early-adopters of technology’, young people (16 -25 year olds) are defining how technology is understood in our society. New ways of gathering, critiquing and retaining information are being established ~ the ‘web generation’, the first generation to grow up digital, take on ‘new technology’ ~ these value systems regarding digital communication affect how the participants perceive trust, relationships and exchanges in the digital domain.”
Her examination of trust and privacy in the environments enabled by new technologies was quite groundbreaking and allowed me to really understand the nature of trust in our ‘always on’ new world and how this new generation of people who have ‘grown up digital’ perceive our world.
In 2008, after noting how quickly Facebook uptake was increasing, I arranged for a social anthropologist at Cambridge, Kathleen Richardson, to lead on a short research project looking at how Facebook might encourage people to be more sociable and to act as a form of personal biography. Additionally she examined the nature of ‘friends’ on social networks and how these differ from conventional friendships.
She worked with a British Telecom social anthropologist, Sue Hessey and together they produced a paper; “Archiving the self? Facebook as a biography of social and relational memory”, which was published in the Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society.
A key finding was that social networking sites can bolster past and weaker tie relationships as well as strengthen stronger tie ones. They also found that there appeared to be ‘rules’ developing around Facebook use, for instance, people had to have met a Facebook friend at least once physically before they were accepted as a friend on the social network.
Another interesting finding was that participants rarely interact with the majority of their Facebook friends and “it is this dormant archive of relationships that hold the most interest as it provides an archive of relationships that would have dissipated without these technologies”.
Again social scientists had provided real insight into how people interact with new technologies.
Since 2008 I have worked closely with many social scientists across a multitude of disciplines and their knowledge and insight has allowed me both to understand the impact of modern technologies and to help teams to design better technological solutions for people.
Recently two global research initiatives have demonstrated the strategic value of this type of work.
This report examines the phenomenon in teams from the UK, US, Australia and China and produces recommendations on how these meetings can be more effective.
About the author: Jeff Patmore is an engineer, entrepreneur and researcher specialising in information and communications technology. He is the author of many articles and short papers on communications and how people adapt and use new technologies associated with the Internet. During his 30+ years in industry he worked in both the United Kingdom and the United States (Massachusetts and the San Francisco Bay area) and was responsible for several key developments in on-line communication, the Internet and broadband.