Fundamental personal notions such as identity, privacy, trust, reputation, responsibility, community, gender and fairness appear to be undergoing shifts in the digital society. In order to adapt to these shifts, which is vital in numerous sectors, – education, health, justice governance and culture, to name but a few – it is necessary to understand them. The purpose of the Boundaries Observatory is to provide a locus of coordination between theory and practice in the exploration of technology in society, and especially of changes in these fundamental notions that are provoked by the increasing digitally mediated nature of our social interactions. This is challenging but necessary since the two-way relationship between technology and people is a highly complex feedback mechanism that is difficult to understand not least because there is no vantage point which excludes the role of any observer. Furthermore, deep understanding of the impact of technology cannot arise through economic or academic abstractions alone or from the optimistic affirmations of technology providers. As Feenberg (2010) argues, “The economic significance of technical change often pales beside its wider human implications in framing a way of life”. There is a need to coordinate theoretical inquiry and understanding with grounded, practical insight gained from direct contact with the ways of life that might be affected.

The domain of study of the relation between technology and society is contested: many discourses including philosophy, sociology, social cybernetics, biology, psychology and economics provide differing, and sometimes overlapping accounts of how technology is changing the way we live, behave and work. This contested theoretical setting is coupled with the heterogeneity of human communities, and personal identities whose agency is increasingly oriented around similar technological practices, but whose identities, values, histories, and tendencies remain distinct and irreducible. The situation is more complex than earlier in the 20th century when grand theories (for example those of Keynes or Hayek) could be used to ground reliable interventions by policy makers. Now policy makers have to absorb knowledge from a vast range of theoretical contexts, and gain insight into the diverse communities with which they seek to intervene, many of which may have conflicting demands and ideas. At the same time, practicable policies have to be produced, bearing in mind the need for political pragmatism and the development of policy which resonates with popular (rather than academic) understandings.

The Observatory’s position is that the dynamics of technology entail transformations in social structures that are of such plasticity that formalised models and academic grand theory will increasingly be compromised in their ability to explain and predict events, not only in everyday life, but also within their own academic terms. In order to address this problem it is necessary to put in place continual experimentation processes, coupled with the collection of data, production of explanations, accessible communication of these explanations and the facilitation of their interpretation by different social groups. The Boundaries Observatory aims to have an impact on policy-makers by helping them to engage in an interpretive and adaptive process, rather than produce a closed product to be used for speculative calculation.