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:
- 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))
- The relationship between communication systems, technology, social systems and innovation (Leydesdorff (2006), Krippendorff (2005), Luhmann (1984), Giddens (1984), Latour (2005))
- Accounts of information from an analytical perspective which incorporate social dimensions (Luhmann (1984), Floridi (2011))
- 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.