“If it weren’t for all of you I would have lost my mind at my job.” Its a familiar refrain that I hear at lots of small conferences and, occasionally, on Twitter backchannels. Its an amazing compliment to hear that your weak tie with someone means so much, but its also an immensely troubling prospect. Hundreds (maybe thousands?) of highly trained professionals have serious misgivings about their professional associations, their home institutions, and maybe even their life’s work. I had heard variations on this theme most recently this past week when I helped out at the (really, really cool) Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace Conference hosted here in Troy, New York. The conference was attended by an array of people: engineers, educators, activists, and social scientists like myself. Some people worked in industry, others in academia, and a significant portion worked for NGOs like Engineers Without Borders. And again, I just want to reiterate: No single person said the exact phrase above, and I certainly don’t want to (mis)characterize any of the attendee’s personal feelings about their jobs or work. Rather, what I witnessed at ESJP is more accurately characterized as a feeling of “coming home.” Think of it as the positive side of the same disaffected coin. This anecdotal trend was in my mind when I read this Seattle Times article about social scientists finding new and inviting homes in tech companies. Are social scientists finding better intellectual homes in industry than in academia? Or am I connecting two totally separate phenomena? Is it just the pay? More to the point: can social scientists do more and better things for the world working in Silicon Valley than the Ivory Tower?
Social scientists of all stripes —from qualitative anthropologists to quantitative sociologists— are using their skills and (sociological) imagination to develop new iPhone apps and xBox hardware. Personally, I’m pretty torn on whether or not this is a good thing. I think all social scientists should be working toward a more egalitarian society through a better understanding of our shared human condition. Can someone do that by making sure we never see the likes of Clippy again? Kinda…? How does the profit motive factor into the scientists’ methods? What does this do for social science departments if the well-known end game for graduate students (or even undergraduates) is a life redesigning the Office software suite? Here are some tentative answers:
Social scientists working in product design labs have the potential to bring about real and immediate benefits to underserved groups. Linda Layne, in the edited volume Feminist Technology, describes through example how home pregnancy tests could benefit from the observations of social scientists:
At first glance, it appears that a home pregnancy test takes power/knowledge out of the hands of experts and places it in the hands of women. Notably, opposition to these kits came from professional laboratory technicians who saw the tests as undermining their authority. However, despite the fact that these tests boast a very high accuracy level, accounts by users and representations of use in popular culture indicate that they are not considered authoritative by women or healthcare providers.
If we adopt a liberal feminist stance and concede that more choices are better and that commercially available, hormone-based kits will hold some benefit for some women under some circumstances, then we should work to improve them to better serve women. AT present, even though home pregnancy tests measure hCG levels, they do not reveal this level to the user. Even the expensive digital ones do not actually tell women what their hCG level is, only whether it is high enough to indicate a pregnancy is likely. The actual level (especially tracked over time by using repeat tests) can be an important indicator of many things, including whether a pregnancy is likely to end in miscarriage.
Layne goes on to describe the range of technologies and practices used to determine whether one is pregnant or not, and how a test that gives actual hCG levels empowers women in a way that helps them understand their bodies beyond a decontextualized elevated hormone level. Its important to note that the technology itself isn’t necessarily the fix, rather design interventions change how products and users configure one-another (to borrow a phrase from Ruth Schwartz Cowan). This is a crucial distinction: The designed technology is not fixing a social problem, rather social observations are informing the design of a technology that has social influences in the world.
When I pondered whether or not one could make an Anti-Racist Reddit, I was thinking along similar lines. Could social scientists equipped with Nancy Fraser and Sandra Harding redesign Reddit in such a way that majoritarian voting was just one of many ways stories got to the front page? How do we make a better “report abuse” button on Twitter? Should different Facebook users have access to completely different privacy settings? These are the sorts of problems and questions that Silicon Valley social scientists might sort out. Unless, of course, their bosses don’t want them to.
This is the big question: would social scientists actually use their positions in industry to make more egalitarian social networks and more empowering products? Of course there’s always the “for whom?” question when it comes to products and services. Social scientists that study technology know that it isn’t just the people that own, use, or consume goods and services that are affected by their existence. iPhones effect everyone, including those that do not own one or are part of the global assemblage that produces them. Acting in this space as a social scientist butts up against all sorts of confusing and complex social phenomena: the profit motive, techno-utopianism, ludditism, and consumerism just to name a few. For now it suffices to say that such roles are highly contingent. Working for Elsevier is categorically different from working at Microsoft Research Center. I’m not even convinced that working in academia versus working for a corporation is a morally or ethically meaningful distinction.
When weighing the overall gains and losses of social scientists in the for-profit section, we should keep in mind that universities are not bastions of anti-capitalism or mutual aid. Even if you aren’t working in a department that is directly funded by DARPA or Dow Chemical you’re still materially benefiting from your University’s ties to those organizations. As a social scientist you’re probably not getting paid as handsomely as your colleagues in aerospace engineering, but would your employer be solvent without those contracts? Of course corporations and governments have produced a situation in which universities have become financially reliant on problematic institutions, but for the purposes of individuals choosing in the here and now where the greatest good can be done, I think how we got here is a moot point.
For some approaches and pedagogies, I think employment with for-profit enterprises might actually be better than universities if for no other reason that your work might actually effect more people. The hard part is making sure what gets propagated isn’t compromised by problematic interests. Right now, I think academics have a lot of bad options and a handful of acceptable ones that zigzag across academia and industry. Color me naive, but I think the excellent options —the new sorts of organizational forms that will shatter academia as we know it— are right around the corner. So long as we can seek each-other out and come together in small groups through in-person conferences and social media we can build our own academic homes and let the old bureaucracies wither away.