The understanding of the social impact of technology has a long history. Recent developments are indicative of advances in understanding of Knowledge Economies, the nature of information, and its relation to communication, meaning and action. These advances draw on a range of sources, which consistently are mentioned in the literature. These include:
  1. The importance of accounts of social reality (or social ontology) in the context of the study of technology and information and the causal relations between them (Mingers (2006); Brier (2008); Hayles (1999); Feenberg (2010))
  2. The relationship between communication systems, technology, social systems and innovation (Leydesdorff (2006), Krippendorff (2005), Luhmann (1984), Giddens (1984), Latour (2005))
  3. Accounts of information from an analytical perspective which incorporate social dimensions (Luhmann (1984), Floridi (2011))
  4. The integration of biological thinking in the understanding of information (Hoffmeyer (2008), Deacon (2012), Prigogine and Stengers (1989), Kauffman (2001))
In line with the developments at a), The Boundaries Observatory is concerned to create theoretical accounts for real events and the regularities among those events. The Boundaries Observatory develops themes addressed by Mingers and Brier in directly exploring the relationship between knowledge and action. Because the Observatory is explicitly concerned with understandings, and the processes of explaining and communicating that accompany them, it provides a practical context where theories of the relationship between knowledge, action and understanding may be explored. Recent developments in the application of Shannon’s Information Theory (Shannon and Weaver, 1948) at b) to the understanding of meaning have given rise to empirical work concerned with analysing the semantics of everyday life (see Krippendorff (2005)) and the dynamics of meaningful communication in the knowledge economies of Europe and elsewhere (Leydesdorff (2006)). The Boundaries Observatory will exploit some of these techniques, including Leydesdorff’s Triple-Helix analysis of University-Government-Industry and his recent work on information ‘redundancy’ (Leydesdorff and Ivanova, 2014) in its analysis of data. It will also create scenarios where meaningful engagement can be analysed in terms of the emergence of new skilled performances – either with theoretical explanations, or with technological practices. Shannon’s theory remains the only directly empirical approach to information, and The Boundaries Observatory will be connected to developments in the application of those theories to the understanding of how humans relate to one another. Fundamental analytical thinking about information, semantics and communication at c) have recently produced significant new work on information and technology, with Luciano Floridi’s (2010) seminal contributions highlighting critical issues that must be addressed in order to get to grips with the nature of information and its social and ethical import. The Boundaries Observatory will provide opportunities for contributing to this discourse from an approach grounded in everyday experience and practice. The research into information is necessarily inter-disciplinary, and the Observatory will contribute to empirically-based models exploring the critical issues of truth, semantics and ethics that Floridi addresses. Connected to this research effort is the biologically-related work of Deacon, Hoffmeyer and Brier mentioned at d). For example, the dynamics represented in Deacon’s ‘autocell’ can be explored in interventions within The Boundaries Observatory, and these in turn might address some of the issues raised by Floridi (for example, the “Symbol Grounding Problem”). In embracing this work, the Boundaries Observatory represents an opportunity to expand work which has largely been analytical into the real social domains of education and society.
Whilst the Boundaries Observatory is not exclusively focused on education, the education sphere provides the initial source of data and focus of study as well as “education”, understood as the facilitation of interpretation, discussion and understanding. To do this, the aim is to exploit the technologies of open education. The barriers between high level academic research and lay understanding have undergone significant shifts in recent years. Not least, the rise of open educational courses, video-based content, simulation software and visual analytics have all seen changes in the ways in which people can teach themselves with available information. Currently, open educational platforms and open research platforms are distinct entities with no connection between them. Furthermore, open research platforms like MyExperiment are largely focused on data from the physical and biological sciences. The Boundaries Observatory will extend the use of open research platforms to the social sciences. In so doing, it will incorporate aspects of open educational platforms as well, since The Boundaries Observatory mission requires the embrace of accessibility of its learning resources. Furthermore, since every participant in the observatory is also a contributor of data and theories, the work will help to break down barriers between formal academic work and non-academic work.
The Boundaries Observatory ambition is to raise the profile of education as an opportunity for society to learn about itself. What happens in school happens between human beings who (apart from being younger) are little different from everyone else in society. When technologies are implemented around them, when they engage in internet services, and speak of their understandings of these they are telling us something about the world. Current work on the relation between society and education considers innovative pedagogies and methodologies including Action-Research and Inquiry-Based learning (Whitehead, 2006) and Service Learning (Berger and Kaye, 2010). The connection between educational activities and activities in broader society will help to stimulate these developments by creating new opportunities for inquiry, and richer ways of relating learning to social action. For example, since all engagement with the Observatory is an experiment, a learner in school may investigate their own experiences with accessing the Observatory learning resources, document them and then find ways of explaining them. Similarly, a business employee or public service worker may engage with a Boundaries Observatory activity discovering new theoretical explanations for problems that face them which help them to address those problems. In supporting these connections, the Boundaries Observatory will present opportunities for academics and non-academics to deepen their inquiries, collecting evidence and theory to support work for higher learning (for example, PhD). For PhD students, this will serve to participate in the community in ways that meet their needs, whilst for non-academics, it presents the opportunity for accreditable work-oriented Inquiry-based learning.
Theory-practice gaps have long been critiqued particularly in economics, where the gap between formal models and social reality was first addressed by Menger in 1871 (Menger, 2007), and later by Hayek (1937). More recently, research in institutional economics (Lawson (1997, 2002); Hodgson (1988)) has highlighted the problems with formal modelling (particularly mathematical modelling) and pinpointed the problem within underlying conceptions of social reality. This work has built on the methodological critique represented in Bhaskar’s Critical Realism (1978, 1979). The Observatory presents an opportunity to explore the bringing together of theory and practice in a process of continual critique and exploration of the gaps between formal theoretical ideas and what actually happens to real people. The methodological processes are allied to the basic realist position (also expressed by Mingers and others) that theories and methodologies carry implicit ideas about the nature of social reality (social ontologies) and that in doing research, it is necessary to explore these different philosophical positions. The Boundaries Observatory will extend the research around theory and practice by challenging theorists with results from interventions, and creating a platform where assumptions about social reality can be explored. In this context, critique is a continual process where even the processes of research and methodologies of the project count as instances of practice which may challenge theory.
There is much sociological research examining the relationship of technological development of democratic processes. A particular concern is the way that technological innovations by governments and institutions give rise to technocracies which can create alienation and disenfranchisement among the population. Beck argues that technological progress can be understood as “legitimate social change without democratic political legitimation” (Beck, 1992, p214). Heinz Von Foerster argued that even in his world of 1970 there was not so much a “world of technology” (as many argued) but rather a world of technocracy. He went on to explain “we have, hopefully only temporarily, relinquished our responsibility to ask for a technology that will solve existent problems. Instead we have allowed existent technology to create problems it can solve.”  (Von Foerster, 1984, p212) In addressing this issue of what amounts to ‘undemocratic’ social change, Feenberg argues for a deeper politicising and democratising of technology. He says “Technology can deliver more than one type of technological civilization. We have not yet exhausted its democratic potential” (Feenberg, 2010, p29). The Boundaries Observatory actively seeks to explore the ways in which alternative forms of technological civilization might be possible. In order to do this, it is focused on describing the real properties and causal power of technology so that these can be understood. The Boundaries Observatory asserts that deeper understanding of technology’s causal tendencies by policy makers will result in a more democratic approach to technology. The observatory is about understanding what technology does and what people do in relation to it, and as a consequence how their understandings of the fundamental notions relating to human relations that are the focus of the work may be changing. These relations will involve issues of identity, privacy, trust, reputation, responsibility, community, gender and fairness. The aim of the The Boundaries Observatory inquiry is to produce new knowledge, new ways of conveying that knowledge and new stimuli to ask deeper questions among policy makers and anyone else who has to make strategic decisions. In this way, technocracy can be exposed as irrational. Technocratic policy tends to ignore the deep aspects of human experience, focussing on behavioural change produced by technological implementation, at the expense of more nuanced exploration of changes in the understandings of fundamental notions that drive these behavioural changes. Though this may give an impression of scientific rationality, the deeper relations between human understandings, human behaviour and technological implementation are more complex.
In recent years, the combination of cheap modular open source hardware (for example, Arduino, JeeNode, Raspberry Pi), rapidly emerging data analytical techniques including Granular Computing(see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granular_computing), Rough and Fuzzy Set Analysis, machine learning and real-time data protocols for facilitating communication between hardware devices and web-enabled devices and applications has led to a range of new devices, techniques and applications. These include bio-sensors (for example, the OpenEEG project, http://openeeg.sourceforge.net/doc/), Virtual Reality (the Oculus Rift, http://oculusvr.com) and interface control (e.g. the Leap Motion controller, http://leapmotion.com) which produce rich data. Techniques like Granular computing can also be very powerful in identifying patterns (for example, the identification of patterns in the electrical signals in the visual cortex). In the case of a device like the Oculus Rift, whilst its visual impact may excite end-users, the richness of the data which captures every head movement in a controlled environment has far greater potential for exploitation. Similarly, simple bio-feedback devices are being used in a commercial setting to support mindfulness programmes (see for example Deepak Chopra’s Iom device: http://www.wilddivine.com/) The Boundaries Observatory will experiment with these techniques investigating whether they can provide new forms of quantitative data about individual experiences. Such data may reveal new kinds of regularities which we would then need to explain within the project. For example, we will explore how the data emerging from use of the Oculus Rift might correlate with particular kinds of user experience. Or, to follow Deepak Chopra’s example, we can investigate the biological signals that can be picked up when individuals engage in mindful (or non-mindful) activities. In the Boundaries Observatory, the exploitations of these technologies is itself an experiment, and in some cases the experiments will fail or be ethically proscribed. In  cases of success and failure, our challenge is to ask “what is going on?”
Smith (2010) argues that a good society is one where it “facilitate[s] and foster[s] through its institutions and structures the development and flourishing of human persons as they are by nature.” The Observatory’s greatest ambition is to contribute towards realising this. This entails addressing the issues of technocracy mentioned above, but also of understanding the real causes of social change, and the role of technologies in those causes. Smith (2010) identifies a number of factors:
  • Social change occurs when new relationships between different groups are initiated and when old relationships are weakened or terminated.
  • Social change occurs when the categories of understanding of prevailing social structures change. For example, social structures change when people no longer think in terms of “lords, peasants and knights and imagine life instead in terms of burghers, citizens, traders and entrepreneurs”
  • Social structures change when sustaining material resources are significantly reduced (and sometimes when then are increased). Political structures, in particular, become vulnerable with a reduction in material resources.
  • Social structures change when material objects that instantiate and express social structures (like, for example, church buildings, pubs or post-offices) fall into disrepair or become irrelevant.
  • Social structures change in response to changes in moral and normative beliefs in the practices, procedures, rules and laws those belies underwrite.
  • Social structures change when enough of their participants simply – for whatever reason –    stop sanctioning noncompliance, deviance and rebellion.
  • Social structures change when new or newly mobilized systems of communication decrease the intractability of coordinated interactions.
Social structures change as a result of disruptions of normal reiterated body practices and collective activity patterns. Mere behavioural changes of this sort, literally the doing by some people of unexpected things with their bodies can exert significant causal forces of social structural change. The Boundaries Observatory relates to each of these factors. Through its own processes, new connections will be established where received ideas and practices are challenged. The Boundaries Observatory achieves this through the shared critique of ideas: new relationships are formed because new patterns of communication are established and new categories of thinking introduced.