The Social Impacts of Ubiquitous IT


Jonathan P. Allen


This paper will analyze the potential social impacts of what has been called ubiquitous IT: extremely low cost computing, communication, sensing, identification and location-aware technologies that make information available from almost any place, at almost any time. Already, over 90% of all microprocessors are not used in computers at all (IEEE Spectrum, 12/01). Instead, they are embedded in the automobiles, appliances, and buildings through which people lead their everyday lives.

There have already been speculations about the potential social impacts of these technologies. Some of the more obvious include privacy and surveillance issues. Traditional concerns about surveillance in the workplace, or in public spaces, are expanding to include surveillance in almost any location. These concerns are being prompted by the upcoming adoption of technologies such as Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags by major retailers such as Wal-Mart in the USA. Security issues are another obvious area of concern. Using ubiquitous IT to create nationwide sensor networks for monitoring potential terrorist attacks could have dramatic social consequences. The potential security vulnerabilities of connecting automobiles, appliances, and buildings to the global internet create other societal risks. Usability questions have also been raised about ubiquitous IT. How can ubiquitous IT be designed to seem natural and helpful without being intrusive? And how can the workings of ubiquitous IT be made more visible, and more easily controlled, by individuals? At the same time, many have commented on the seemingly limitless potential of ubiquitous IT to make all kinds of products and services more effective, providing information and intelligence right at the point of use.

Our approach to exploring the social impacts of ubiquitous IT will be to draw upon the sociotechnical approaches that have been developed by sociologists of technology (e.g., Bijker 1995). Sociotechnical theories find it most useful to analyze both the material and symbolic aspects of IT (e.g., Orlikowski and Iacono 2001). IT has material properties that offer certain affordances, but these affordances cannot be understood in isolation from the goals, key performance criteria, potential problems, and potential solutions that designers and users employ as they interact with, and through, a technology. To consider these symbolic aspects of IT requires an analysis of the various technological communities that interact with the technology. In this paper, we will use this sociotechnical approach to examine the potential social impacts of ubiquitous IT not only in terms of its generic technological capabilities, but also in terms of how relevant technological communities are trying to shape the use of ubiquitous IT.

The simplest form of sociotechnical analysis requires a specification of the relevant technological communities related to ubiquitous IT. Each community brings to ubiquitous IT both its vision of the material aspect of ubiquitous IT, and its symbolic vision of what the technology is all about-what the technology is supposed to accomplish. The material vision can be described as a community’s exemplary artifact: what physical form a technology should take, and how should it be built. One important symbolic aspect is captured in the key performance criteria a technological community assigns to a new technology. As the analysis of exemplary artifacts and key performance criteria emerges, it often becomes clear that there is substantial disagreement over what form a technology should take, and what its purpose is. The diversity of interactions illustrate that the future form of ubiquitous IT, and thus its likely social impacts, are still to some degree in flux.

A preliminary sociotechnical analysis of ubiquitous IT reveals a number of different technological communities:

  • The embedded computing community sees ubiquitous IT as inexpensive microcontrollers and web servers embedded in consumer products and control systems. Their key performance criteria for ubiquitous IT are small, cheap, and low power, with connectivity and custom built.
  • The ubiquitous/pervasive computing community sees ubiquitous IT as anywhere, anytime devices that disappear into the background, yet offer intelligent assistance to users. Their key performance criteria for ubiquitous IT are ease of use, awareness of context, and comprehensive architectures that have knowledge of the environment.
  • The mobile/wireless community sees ubiquitous IT as additions to mobile phones and wireless computers. Their key performance criteria for ubiquitous IT are to increase network traffic, and to support mobile commerce.
  • The sensing community sees ubiquitous IT as a network of sensors that blanket a large geographic area. Their key performance criteria for ubiquitous IT are low cost and accurate sensing.
  • The identification community sees ubiquitous IT as remote ID tags and swipe cards. Their key performance criteria for ubiquitous IT are low cost and identification accuracy.
  • The location-based applications community sees ubiquitous IT as location-based services. Their key performance criteria for ubiquitous IT is simply that it takes advantage of location information.

In the end, we argue that a sociotechnical analysis will help us to better understand the social impacts that are likely to be of concern for ubiquitous IT, as opposed to an analysis which relies on generic statements about what social impacts might emerge. Because of the many forms that ubiquitous IT can potentially take, understanding the social impacts of ubiquitous IT requires making some claims about the forms that are likely to emerge, and how relevant technological communities will seek to apply ubiquitous IT to the real world.