Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Contentious Definition of "Social Good" in Computing

What does it mean for a computing project to be good for society? It depends upon who you ask. The question is inevitably loaded. In part this is because of the vagueness of the terms "society" and "good" - there are cultural contexts that affect what each word means to the speaker. It would be nice if we could resolve this question of definitions, but it isn't likely to happen any time soon. What would you answer right now if asked to explain the phrase "computing that is socially beneficial" in 3 sentences or less?

As a result of the difficulty of coming to a common understanding, some computing projects are considered socially beneficial by some people and socially destructive by others. Hindsight always helps answer these questions. But that ignores the present and we don't have the benefit of future-sight. Why is this important? Because we have to decide on an ongoing basis what cutting edge computing initiatives to support and/or become involved in. The worst option is to display Ostrich Syndrome. That lets others decide for you.

Take for example the highly contentious Google Books Library Project and the Google Books Partner Program . If you follow this issue at all, you are aware of the vociferous arguments (and legal battles) over these initiatives. For those who may not be familiar with some of the arguments pro and con, here are a few by no means all inclusive, points.

Those in favor of the projects or a variant of the current Google projects, point to:

  • The potential benefits of having an online library available anywhere on the globe that has Internet access
  • The potential benefits of shared knowledge ("knowledge is power")
  • Access to out of print and other rare books 
  • Digital publishing and e-books are coming anyway, and let's be on the forefront of this technology
Those not in favor of the projects, or desiring a major realignment of their instantiation, point to:
  • Will authors of in-copyright books be fairly compensated for sales? How do we verify this?
  • There will be a disincentive to purchase traditional books, with economic ramifications for a variety of groups already struggling to adapt to the digital future of reading and writing
  • Can any large and powerful for-profit organization (Google in this case) be trusted? e.g. is there a "dark side" based upon monopolization of the e-market?
For a seriously detailed set of information, arguments, and resources, see The Public Index.

Important and fascinating as the twists and turns of this case are, the bigger picture of what is socially beneficial goes beyond Google and their book projects. 

It is incredibly hard to define what is "good" for modern society when it comes to technological innovation. Computing innovation in particular. That is why when I ask people for examples of socially beneficial computing projects, their first response is almost always a reference to a project that uses technology in an underdeveloped country. It is easy to label something as socially beneficial if lives are being saved. There are some fantastic projects out there and I hope we keep right on doing them.  But once my discussant and I have gone over some of those projects and I ask for other ideas, she or he tends to get stuck. 

However, if we want to put computing to its maximal use to make the world a better place, we need to get unstuck. 

If we don't consider, discuss, debate, and initiate "beneficial" computing projects in our own back yard we have several problems:
  • Corporations, non profit organizations, any other group you can think of, will be free to make their own decisions about what is socially beneficial, and the rest of us will be left crossing our fingers that it all works out nicely. Maybe it will; but is this the approach we really want?
  • We miss out on the opportunity to use our professional skills and experience to shape the future application of computing technology. Hey, we studied and trained a long time for our expertise - let's put it to work!
  • We miss the opportunity to grapple with the reality of necessary compromises and accommodations. This is simply life. Multi-colored and faceted, and we should view that as a good thing.
As fast as we can read our computer screens, there appear computing opportunities that will affect our lives. How are we going to steer projects in a positive direction?

First we need to ask and discuss : How do you define a project as "socially beneficial"? 

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