Center for Social Computing Launched!

Intel announced on June 26th a new Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing, the 7th in a series of partnerships between the corporation and leading US universities.  The University of California, Irvine will be the main site for this distributed research organization, in collaboration with research groups at Cornell University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Indiana University, and New York University.  The center is co-lead by principal investigators Paul Dourish (Professor of Informatics, UC Irvine) and Scott Mainwaring (senior research scientist, Interaction and Experience Research, Intel Labs — that’s me).  Bill Maurer (Professor of Anthropology and Associate Dean of the School of Social Sciences, UC Irvine) serves as academic co-PI.

Social Computing is the study of information technologies and digital media as social and cultural phenomena.  While this has always been the case since the beginnings of the computing industry, the rise of social networking systems, Web 2.0, cloud and embedded computing, and the proliferation of ways and places to access digital media, this value, indeed necessity, of this perspective is increasingly clear.  For example, the tremendous success of Facebook and Twitter can only be understood as much the result of social processes as technological ones.  This and many other cases point to the pervasive entanglement of the social and technical worlds, and a pressing need for new paradigms for the design and analysis of technologies, paradigms that are rooted in the theories and methods of the social sciences and humanities as much as they are in engineering and the hard sciences.

For too long, social scientists and technologists have worked as if their domains were essentially independent.  In certain special cases the two communities have come together, productively, to understand and build devices, products, and services that could not be realized without such collaboration.  In the 70s and 80s, as time-sharing and PCs brought computing power to mass audiences, we saw the rise of human-computer interaction, and new or newly prominent professions like “human factors engineer” and “interaction designer”.  Likewise in the 90s and 00s, the rise of the consumer-based internet economy required and built upon different kinds of dialogs between technologists and people-focused disciplines like “ethnographic consumer research” and “experience design”.

Technology is now instrumental in defining who we are, how we think about ourselves and our lives, and how we act individually and collectively.  With sensors, clouds, and pervasive possibilities of access, we no longer have to actually use technology to be affected by it.  Can you really remain unaffected by Facebook even if you opt out of it, if your friends, relatives, and future employers increasingly rely on it?  As a culture can we afford to accept as given the trending topics algorithm on Twitter or the search algorithms of Google, if these substantially shape what gets noticed and what gets bypassed by our attention and interests, individually and collectively.

The time is ripe, for Intel and for our industry, for new ways of thinking about, managing, and creating technology.  The technology-infused worlds we live in, and our children will live in, demand different, more productive conversations between engineers, architects, producers, and regulators of the technologies that will underlie tomorrow’s organizations, societies, and cultures, on one hand; and the anthropologists, cultural theorists, science and technology studies scholars, and critical design researchers who are centrally concerned with the nature, origins, and futures of these organizations, societies, and cultures, on the other.

The mission of the Social Computing center is to help create these new dialogs and collaborations.  It is organized around five research themes:

  • Materialities of Information:  re-thinking “information” as grounded in materials and physical objects.
  • Subjectivities of Information:  moving beyond “the user” as the center of user-experience and user-centered design.
  • Information Ecosystems:  How we relate to each other in, around, and through data.
  • Creativity and Collectivity:  Group-embedded technical creativity and how it can change the world.
  • Algorithmic Living:  Digital representations and algorithms that change how we understand ourselves.

Research activities will span across one or more of these themes.  For example, as part of a project looking at food security and cyberinfrastructure, center researchers will be conducting a case study of Benefits CalWin, an e-government initiative of the State of California to provide services to the state’s food-insecure populations.  By evaluating the design of the online application portal, ethnographically engaging with the practices of outreach workers, and designing and building technologies to support these workers in helping their clients, this project will contribute to the Materiality, Ecosystems, and Creativity and Collectivity themes.  And beyond the question of food and responsibilities of states, it may also produce insights applicable to Intel’s efforts to reach out and provide service to different stakeholder communities.

We look forward to engaging with stakeholders across Intel who are planning for and building tomorrow’s products, services, and infrastructures.  For more information, please contact us or consult our website, socialcomputing.uci.edu.

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