Web Science & Digital Futures

In a world where society and technology are developing rapidly, writers, scientists and individuals alike have long since asked, how exactly will this affect our futures? This represents one of the core principles of Web Science and is the focus of a recent presentation from Professor Susan Halford, who highlights the ways in which Web Science makes a difference to our futures.

Professor Halford was a co-Director of the Web Science Institute at Southampton and continues her research in the interdisciplinary field between sociology and computer science at Bristol University as the co-Director of the new Institute for Digital Futures. The presentation, hosted at the University of Southampton, sought to scope the benefits that Web Science has provided to the world, as well as speculating on its future contributions.

“The future is upon us, or so it seems. Not for the first time, and surely not for the last, bold and far-reaching claims are being made about how new technologies will change the world.” – Professor Susan Halford.

The presentation follows three main steps, which Professor Halford argues are the main ways in which a Web Science approach can have tangible benefits for digital futures. The first of these is the use of social science theories to establish a “socio-technical” approach to the future. By this she explains that technology is a product of social development, having been created by humans. Technology, however, shapes the everyday lives of humans, thus merging to form a socio-technical loop.
A socio-technical approach further emphasises that the way in which we think about the future itself, in the past and the present and shapes how particular features, tools, and services will emerge. For example, our perception of Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be developed to solve a range of complex problems in the future, such as climate change and cancer, or could instead lead to the downfall of the human race.

The second step is to evaluate current thinking about potential technologies, using AI as a prime example. This seeks to take into account many of the possible future outcomes of such technologies. In doing so, we must find the gaps and uncertainties of possible outcomes and allow them to be scoped for intervention if needed. This means that we may target problems early on to avoid future scenarios which may be less than ideal.

“At present, our capacity to intervene in these potential futures is limited by the separation of expertise into discrete disciplines within the Academy, and beyond.” – Professor Susan Halford.
Finally, the third step considers how we may approach these futures differently, again using the example of AI. This challenges the theory that all events and choices are determined entirely by previously existing causes. Instead, Professor Halford argues that methods such as speculative design, inclusive capacity building and public dialogue play an important and valuable role in the future of all technology.

However, if such methods are to become the foundation of a new collective approach, they must first be underpinned by interdisciplinary Web Science. Particularly given the context of the digital age. Professor Halford concludes that our responses to technology and its socio-technical roots must be placed at the centre of future developments in order to continue to improve our futures.

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