Written by Peter Craigon, Research Fellow, Horizon Digital Economy Research
I’ve found it quite a challenge to try and put into words why I am interested in Responsible Digital Futures, the suggested starting point for this blog, but here goes.
‘What do you do?’
I imagine that pretty much everyone has been asked this question at some stage in their life, and probably so often that they have a set answer ready in response adapted for context. This is often easy in the context of academic work, when meetings may begin with a ‘shall we start with a round of introductions?’ and people go around the room, screen, and reel off their, name, job title and perhaps some of the stuff they are working on, confident that they will be understood and accepted.
If you are asked the same question by somebody in a different context, perhaps a family member, neighbour, someone in a local shop or a stranger, then I imagine the answer you give might be a bit different. I tend to answer in a truthful but non-committal way, unsure of how much I want to or should say, or how interested the person genuinely is.
‘Oh I work at the university’
‘What do you do?’
‘Oh I work in research’
‘Oh cool – I know someone . . .’
The conversation often goes onto how they have some personal connection to somebody involved with the university or university generally, and that is often as far as the conversation goes. Sometimes they ask more questions, which is where my response becomes more challenging. I might give more detail, perhaps mentioning things such as Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), ethics, research ethics and integrity, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), Artificial Intelligence (AI), personal data, cards and ‘tools’, things that I work on. I usually soon realise that these things often mean very different things to the person I am talking to, if they seem to have any meaning at all. Some people, often family members, may be more patient, however it usually is not long before it seems that we are not really talking the same language. If someone takes an interest, then I feel that I should be able to talk to them about what I do and why it is important, in a way they can engage with and understand and I am frustrated when I cannot. They may still find it massively boring of course, people are mostly too polite to say so, but I still wonder what they think.
On one occasion which sticks in my mind, a stranger asked a little more than was usual:
‘What do you research?’
‘Oh I do research on maps’
‘What? . . . Like the A to Z? (laughter)’
I was glad that I made them laugh but the conversation did not really go much further. I realised I did not know how to respond, and I presumed they were not very interested. I was left thinking why should they be? The seemingly confused laughter and reference point highlighted to me that seemingly for many people, things we research may not even register as something to think about. This brief conversation stayed with me and came to mind when I was thinking about why I am interested in Responsible Digital Futures.
Questions which stem from conversations such as these: ‘How would you explain your work to somebody?’ ‘Why should they care?’ – crystallise to me a vital aspect of what is grandly titled Responsible Innovation. They hopefully make researchers and technologists pause, think more widely and consider an alternative perspective on their work, different from the often privileged and insular world of academic research or technology development. For me this outward looking stance, asking people to look up from their work and consider other views is central to a responsible approach to digital futures.
Whilst I agree there is a wide range of valuable research which (often thankfully) may never impact or interact with most people, when it comes to digital technology its ubiquity, malleability and pervasiveness means that this is often not the case. You may be less likely to strike up a random conversation with a stranger than in times gone by. A person may for example, have a smartphone to enable them to find directions, communicate with whoever they want to anywhere in the world, access information – true or otherwise – from various sources on any subject, whilst monitoring their health and potentially participating in a meeting with people in different countries. They may even ask Artificial Intelligence (AI) to write something or draw a picture for them. You may also never encounter certain people and many people may not have smartphones, for whatever reason, but the growing expectation of the universality of such technology shapes our engagement with services that are increasingly necessary to our day to day lives.
We therefore already live in a digital future, and it continues to develop incredibly quickly. I am struck by how I had already finished university before such seemingly mundane everyday things (to me at least) as YouTube, Facebook and the iPhone even existed. Is this current digital future a responsible one? Is it, desirable, sustainable and ethical? I do not know and I am not sure how this was considered at the outset. Is it what people wanted? I’m not sure either and am sceptical of the idea that because so many people use social media or smart phones, it shows this is what they ‘wanted’. My adoption of technology usually follows a pattern of reluctance (‘why would I want that?’), until my reluctance is overcome by (in)convenience, a pattern which I imagine may be more widespread. I can find plenty of examples, highlighted by news stories, to bolster my reluctance, yet maybe I take the doubtless benefits for granted or they are less significant, to me at least. When thinking about questions of the desirability of such things, beyond my own experience I cannot speak for others, and I need to have more conversations like the one sketched above. My own views are no more important, expert, informed or worthy of consideration than anyone else that you might chat to for example.
For me Responsible Digital Futures involves engagement and inclusive conversations. Appropriately engaging with a wider variety of perspectives both human and non (non- human animals?, the environment?) will hopefully enable them to participate in and contribute to the next technological future and not be overlooked and ignored. I hope to help develop ways to (and help others to) foster inclusive conversations with different voices and potentially for example: have people laugh at research, see what we collectively value and what worries us, be prepared for research or technology to be seen as undesirable, see what we together ‘want’, what is acceptable and sustainable for us, and see how our collective view on a desirable, ethical and sustainable future can be integrated within research into technology (or what these things mean in the wider world in which technology plays a part) amongst other things. Working on Responsible Digital Futures will ideally enable us to facilitate ways of having these conversations and shape research and innovation accordingly. I do not know if this will lead to a more desirable future, but hopefully pausing, looking up, asking questions and having conversations should help it be a more responsibly considered one.