Social Media, the Power of Inference and the Case for Digital Interdependence

Dr Ann Light


As a world, we have never had such effective tools for showing cause and effect and the impact of activity in one place in terms of social, environmental or economic change elsewhere. This ability to trace actions and manage attribution is particular to the applications we have become able to build in the last few years. We can now combine the power of computation to infer from datasets with digital networks as a platform for generating global data.

Several new kinds of potential are relevant here. The first is social, characterized by Web2.0 tools. Anyone with the right access can now find and organize people with specified characteristics across time and space – be that globally or in our own locale – and engage in generating materials with them. The second kind involves combining information sources. This might mean using specialized sensors or tagged products to collect localized information which can then be assembled in global datasets. Searching and cross-referencing datasets to gather inferences is already providing insights into physical, social and economic challenges. For instance, inference is used to combat fraud by monitoring spending patterns; to join patients with suitable organ donors within a viable distance; and to throw up adverts targeting our particular characteristics and desires. Turned on the quantities of data that an actively data-gathering world could produce, our power of diagnosis would increase many times. The Personal Genome Project is an example of this form of public collaboration (, while examples of mass data gathering also exist, for example, the search for extra-terrestrial life (, a global project to assess water quality (, etc.

The new capabilities bring with them new ethical challenges. We are being exhorted to live more responsibly with the fragile and diminishing resources of the Earth. If this is indeed a more ethical path (and this abstract will assume so) a number of new accountabilities come into being.

One type of accountability exists with designers. They have the potential to look beyond designing tools that appeal to individualistic values and incorporate more social models of interaction into the systems they propose. This course of action is supported by the increasing trendiness of sharing, reusing and loaning rather than owning artefacts (see, for instance, They can use a synthesis of the forms of networking described above to provide applications which show interconnectedness more clearly and offer a means to interpret and evaluate impact. Smart metres have had a mixed reception (eg Price 2011) but careful design of applications can make monitoring into a social good rather than something perceived as an intrusion, a labour or a cost. While it is disingenuous to suggest that we can now produce certainties about complex phenomena by collecting more information about them and mining for patterns in the data, such activities would produce more adequate diagnostic tools, which could impact on how we treat the health of both people and environment.

These tools would equip members of world society (Beck 2000) with the means to sample, test and report on their circumstances and what they see, or can trace or sense through electronic means. This is a very different use of the same functionality that data mining is enabling for major commercial interests (Bove and Mallett 2004), with its centralisation of information – and power. Thus, another challenge is to the individual consumer, to take an interest in the source of what is consumed, to acquaint themselves with the impact stories that are beginning to appear for products, to help in the logging of resources and the pooling of wisdom, to be an active member of society and to share in the reach of global research.

Last, a substantial challenge relates to governance and corporate social responsibility. The record of many countries and corporations as social and environmental custodians will inspire some cynicism. However, if we collect public data on the impact of political and economic choices and share the processed information with the people who have helped contribute to its gathering, there will be an implicit critique in the public domain of many existing policies and practices. There will be large numbers of invested people and a commensurate expectation that something happens based on the findings, ie that companies and governments act to improve their image/accountability. Whether motivated by ethics or expedience, any need for accountability would require change.

Given the conference theme of social computing, the paper will focus on the role of the application designer, developing the author’s earlier work on designing for interdependence (Light 2011). This recent work looked at characteristics of tools that would support world society data gathering and applying the political and economic pressure needed to act on the results, such as the need to design beyond any single ‘community’, to support negotiation across different groups and consider social justice and complex resource sharing issues (Light 2011).

The ethical argument for greater consideration of interconnectedness is not new… it has been repeatedly made (Buckmaster Fuller 1969, Papernak 1985, etc.). But it is timely to reconsider it because of the potential that networks offer and to look at ethical factors that arise from the greater potential to evaluate what responsible behaviour with resources might involve.


Beck, U. What is Globalization? Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, 2000

Bove Jr, V. M. and Mallett, J. Collaborative knowledge building by smart sensors, BT Technology Journal 22 (4) 2004

Buckmaster Fuller, R. Operating manual for spaceship earth, Southern Illinois University Press, IL (1969)

Fogg, B.J. A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design, Persuasive’09, 2009

Light, A. Digital Interdependence and How We Design for it, Interactions, Mar/Apr (2011)

Papanek, V.J. Design for the real world: human ecology and social change (2nd edn), Academy, Chicago (1985)

Price, A. Smart Meters, Dumb Backlash, Good Technology, January 15, 2011: