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Working Notes, in preparation for a conversation with
Prof. Fred Niederman of St Louis University MO
Version of 17 August 2022, revs 5, 20 October 2022
Roger Clarke **
© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2022
Available under an AEShareNet licence or a Creative Commons licence.
This document is at http://rogerclarke.com/DV/FSSS.html
Academic researchers have a strong desire for legitimacy. But many perceive that it can only be achieved if they value the rigour of their research methods far more highly than the relevance of their research work's outcomes. This leads them to focus on empirical research, and hence on the study of phenomena that exist, are detectable and are stable. This is in many circumstances entirely appropriate - but not where the need is for the study of phenomena that are not yet available for observation, or whose behaviour is volatile. In those circumstances, progress in business, government and society as a whole depends on researchers who are prepared to focus on relevance as the objective, and to treat rigour as a constraint. A research ecology is needed to support researchers who adopt that approach.
This paper conducts a meta-discussion about what has been variously referred to as futurism, future studies, and futures studies. The orientation of such research is not towards vague speculation but rather the useful application of imagination (e.g. Wells 1902, Kahn & Wiener 1967). Research domains in which futurism is a necessary approach exhibit a number of key characteristics. Important among those characteristics are emergent phenomena, culturally variable attitudes and adoption patterns, rapidly evolving forms of technological intervention, and hence instability and even volatility in the domain. I undertook an early foray into this non-conformist world, in the specific context of e-Business, in a Keynote at an IFIP TC8 conference in Salzburg (Clarke 2001c). At the time, IS academics were uncomfortable with the idea of conducting what they saw as 'research into the unresearchable'; and to a considerable extent they still are.
Another blind spot in contemporary research needs to be confronted. In the large majority of reported research in IS, the interests of a single stakeholder are prioritised, and the interests of all other stakeholders are treated as constraints on the achievement of the primary stakeholder's objectives. Further, in the large majority of that large majority, the primary stakeholder is the sponsor of a particular application of information technology (IT) (Clarke & Davison 2020, Clarke et al. 2020).
Stakeholder analysis is widely used to enable the identification of players and their needs (Freeman & Reed 1983). On the other hand, it is common for players to be seriously considered only if they have the Power to prevent the primary stakeholder from achieving its aims. Stakeholders' other attributes, conventionally Legitimacy and Urgency (Mitchell et al. 1997), are largely ignored (Achterkamp & Vos 2008). Futures studies cannot afford to ignore the marginalised players.
The focus of the discussion in these Notes is on 'the surveillance society'. This is a research domain significant segments of which cannot at this stage be usefully studied using conventional empirical research techniques. For significant contributions to be made, researchers therefore need to apply futures studies techniques.
Surveillance, in this context, is the systematic investigation or monitoring of the actions or communications of one or more persons. In a surveillance society, the monitoring is so pervasive and so intensive that data about each individual's interests, attitudes and past and current actions are available to powerful institutions, and inferences are capable of being drawn about each individual's potential future actions.
From the perspective of each individual, living in a surveillance society makes all forms of non-conformism risky, even perilous. From the perspective of society as a whole, the suppression of behaviour that powerful organisations perceive as being 'deviant' may (but may not) have positive benefits such as lower levels of some kinds of violent crime. On the other hand, it leads to stasis not only in politics - as powerful institutions probably intend - but also in culture, and even in economic terms. This is because innovation depends on new and risky ideas being articulated, and acted upon.
Studies of surveillance society are conducted through lenses offered by theories of political science, sociology, psychology, and various applied social sciences (see, for example, Foucault 1977, Marx 1985, Gandy 1989, Lyon 1994, 2001, 2007, and the journal 'Surveillance & Society'). An approach suitable for adoption in the information systems discipline is to focus on information technologies as interventions into social processes.
Surveillance has been conducted for millennia in a physical context, by spatial, visual and aural monitoring. Increasingly over the centuries, technological means have been developed to augment the human senses of sight and hearing. Surveillance of electronic communications emerged very shortly after the introduction of the telegraph in the 1840s, and expanded dramatically with telephone technology from the late 19th century, and digital data networks from the mid-20th century onwards. Although the various forms of surveillance may be of legitimate interest in IS research, they are not central to it, until and unless the results of the monitoring are recorded as data. That has been the case for the last couple of centuries, however, and the volume of surveillance data has exploded during the last decades of the 20th and the first decades of the 21st centuries. Despite this, surveillance is largely ignored by IS researchers. For example, of >17,000 refereed articles in the AIS eLibrary in August 2022, a search for the term in Titles finds only 8 items, and a search in Abstracts finds only 19. Among the >1700 items in the professional society's journal, Communications (CAIS), searches find 1 in Title and 3 in Abstract.
I coined the term 'dataveillance' in Clarke (1986), to refer to "the systematic monitoring of people's actions or communications through the application of information technology" (Clarke 1988). Key motivations underlying the adoption of dataveillance included the replacement of costly and unreliable human watchers by inexpensive and reliable artefacts, a considerable increase in capabilities and reach, the ready storability of captured data, and hence the ability to conduct retrospective analysis, and the ready transmissibility of captured data, and hence the conduct of surveillance 'in real time' and the prompt pursuit of deviants and even the interdiction of undesirable actions.
Beyond these rational drivers, the rate of adoption of dataveillance by organisations has been driven by the technological imperative ('we can, therefore we must') and by the marketing / fashion / bandwagon imperative ('the salesman says it can, and that everyone else is doing it; so it must be true, and we must do it too'). Mindless and largely unregulated adoption has enabled authoritarian regimes to sustain their power over the populace. Meanwhile, hitherto free nations have been sleepwalking their way into surveillance society (Clarke 2001a).
Since the mid 1980s, it has been necessary to further articulate the basic notion of dataveillance to encompass such notions as the digital persona, location and tracking, biometric identification, and the imposition of identifiers in such forms as chip-embedment in human-carried artefacts (such as mobile phones and anklets) and human-carrying artefacts (such as cars). Chip-embedment directly into people commenced soon after its use in animals, during the late 1990s (Clarke 1994a, 1994b, 2001, Michael & Michael 2009).
Further developments have been apparent, such as the emergence of 'experiential surveillance'. Around the turn of the 21st century, buying printed books, and tickets to events, for cash, reading printed books, watching and listening to human speakers, buying for cash storage media containing moving images, and watching and listening to them, were all rapidly converted from unidentified and unrecorded activities using 'analogue' artefacts, to recorded and identified activities dependent on 'digital' services, such as card-based payments; online-only ticketing; and activity-monitoring in Kindle-style products and on web-sites for text, audio and video. Location and tracking gave rise to the aphorism 'you are where you've been' Clarke & Wigan 2011). That has been joined by 'you are what you've been reading, listening to, and watching.
Another development has been an explosion in 'auto-surveillance', that is to say 'of the self, by the self'. Once-private diary-entries are now published on blogs and gifted to walled-garden 'social media' venues like Facebook. Other means of self-exposure include FitBit-style activity-monitoring, v(ideo-)logging, and mobile-device-carriage, commonly with promiscuous location settings, resulting in the term 'the quantified self' (Lupton 2016). Some of this is innocuous, and some is not. The panopticon effect, be it of Bentham (1791) or Foucault (1977), involves the watched never being sure when the focus of the watcher's gaze is on them. When powerful organisations (e.g. social welfare agencies, licensing agencies, employers) are known to utilise the available data to target penalties at deviants, a widespread, self-disciplinary 'chilling effect' arises. Depending on the context and the observer's worldview, it may be anywhere between highly desirable and highly undesirable that intentional acts by one party have a strong deterrent effect on behaviours of other parties (Schauer 1978, Penney 2016).
A further relevant notion is omni- or supra-surveillance, which refers to the coordinated use of multiple channels of surveillance data. Yet another is 'sousveillance' - literally, monitoring from beneath / sous, rather than above / sur (Mann et al. 2003). In this case, 'the watched watch the watchers'. One somewhat idealistic example involves installing cameras in CCTV-monitoring rooms, training them on the people monitoring the screens, and streaming the resulting video out into the public Internet (Brin 1998). A more familiar instance is the use of wearcams by demonstrators, to transmit and store video of the behaviour of police (Mann 1997). This gives rise to the idea of 'equiveillance', that is to say a balance between authoritarian and democratic use of monitoring technologies (Mann 2005).
This brief overview is sufficient to suggest that the application of powerful and impactful forms of IT may be ushering in a surveillance society with potentially very serious consequences for the next generations of people. If researchers wait until these technological interventions into society have already occurred, and changed or new phenomena are available for observation, the damage will already have been done.
Human society is in the process of losing the ability to choose its futures by permitting surveillance technologies, and the powerful institutions that develop and deploy them, to dictate society's directions. If the public is to retain scope to influence the emergent high-tech, corporatised-government State (Schmidt & Cohen 2014), the 'precautionary principle' needs to be applied. This places the onus on proponents of interventions to demonstrate that the potential impacts are justified and proportionate (Wingspread 1998).
This section has considered the surveillance society as a research domain that is of legitimate interest to IS researchers - despite the attention paid to it to date having been minimal. It is contended, however, that this is merely one of many IS research domains that require the application of futures studies techniques. Where information systems researchers place value on relevance, what research techniques can they use in order to gather understanding in advance about the possible impacts of technological interventions?
A wide range of techniques have been applied to research about the future. The early notions of 'trends', and 'forecasting' by projecting statistical data along a timeline to postulate future time-series data, suffered from the confusion of correlation with causality, and made implicit assumptions about underlying stability of both processes and the environment in which they occurred. The focus switched to modelling, initially in the econometric arena, but this was confronted by challenges of complexity and of obscurity, and the need to discover or invent suitable concepts and constructs. Again, assumptions were implicitly made about some kinds of at least second-order stability. Even modelling that featured multi-layer feedback loops, could not fulfil the needs (Forrester 1961). Gradually, acceptance emerged for less quantitative approaches, and there was increased focus on discontinuities (Drucker 1968) or shifts, shocks and divergence (Toffler 1970, 1980). For one relatively recent view of relevant research methods, see Glenn & Gordon (2009).
This section provides a brief overview of research techniques that have at least some reasonable degree of recognition within the information systems discipline, commencing with conceptual research, and encompassing various forms of quasi-empirical, business case development, and risk and impact assessment tools.
In the absence of a real world that can be subjected to observation, it is common to resort to 'conceptual research' or 'arm-chair reasoning'. When undertaking such work, there is a dire risk of drifting far into speculation. This occurs in works of fiction, most spectacularly, but also most valuably, in the 'sci-fi' genre. It is also evident in some inadequately-grounded work in the social sciences.
Drawing on work of Rob Kling, I coined the expression 'instrumental futurism' to refer to categories of conceptual research that appear capable of delivering informational value (Clarke 1997b). One such approach has been described as 'visionary depiction' (Kling & Lamb 1997). A description of an imagined future is commonly 'utopian' (strongly emphasing 'good' aspects), sometimes 'dystopian' (strongly emphasing 'bad' aspects), and occasionally balanced, ambivalent or intentionally ambiguous. An example of a 'balanced' 'visionary depiction' of a static future situation, in this case of university administrative computing, is in Clarke (1992). (This was a 10-years-ahead snapshot, written overnight for a university committee, shortly before the availability of the Internet for other-than-research, and 6 months before I became aware of, and shifted my focus to, the then-not-quite-usable World Wide Web).
Examples of the primarily dystopian form of 'visionary depiction', applied in a surveillance society context, include analyses of the impacts of the imposed digital persona (Clarke 1994a), of chip-based ID cards (Clarke 1997a), and more recently of AI applications Clarke (2022). However, a great many examples can be found, across many disciplines.
A related technique, with an express 'agenda', is critical theory research. This directly addresses the value-conflict challenge, by recognising the effects of power, and the tendency of some stakeholders' interests to dominate those of other stakeholders (Myers 1997, Alvesson & Deetz 2000, Cecez-Kezmanovic 2005).
Conceptual research can offer a great deal of value, provided that the writer and readers all remember that all propositions are of necessity speculative and untested. It can provide what might be termed 'bootstrap hypotheses', which fall somewhere between 'ad hoc hypotheses' and 'theory-based hypotheses'. It can also underpin the development of research frameworks, which provide structure to themes and issues, including descriptions of fundamental concepts and processes, and of research agendas, which combine a broad conceptual framework, a process model, a set of broad research questions and a research program whereby those broad questions can be further articulated and addressed (Wand & Weber 2002, Ahuja 2002, Avgerou 2008, Newell & Marabelli 2015, Clarke 2019).
Beyond conceptual research approaches, a second cluster can be reasonably described as quasi-empirical techniques. These commence with some more or less formalised model of current circumstances, and some degree of appreciation of the nature of a new technology (including its intended impacts and its apparent affordances). They then postulate the effects that the technological intervention might have, based on previously-observed or theorised processes of political economy, and of social and psychological behaviour. By utilising such empirical base as is available, and placing constraints on the speculative component, the outcomes are less likely to be 'flights of fancy', and more likely to deliver value to the analysis team, to society as a whole - and indeed to system sponsors. Examples of such techniques are:
There are also well-established techniques that are much-used in individual business enterprises and government agencies, including:
However, business-case and RA techniques are myopic, in that they are dedicated to the interests of a single player, with interests of other stakeholders ignored or marginalised, except where they are perceived as threatening the primary player's interests, e.g. through non-adoption, active resistance or even countermeasures. That weakness is serious and even fatal, at least for the purposes of the present discussion. The scope may exist for refining RA, however, in order to deliver an effective Multi-Stakeholder Risk Assessment (MSRA) technique (Clarke 2022).
Finally there are techniques used in public policy contexts, loosely referred to as 'impact assessment'. These evidence multiple flavours, depending on the degree of emphasis on a technology, a project, the impacts, or compliance with particular regulatory requirements. The techniques include:
These Notes have considered the role of futures studies approaches to information systems research. Although the focus has been on research in relation to the surveillance society, the discussion has identified a number of attributes of research domains that indicate futures studies as an approach that is at least tenable, potentially valuable and arguably even essential. The key atttributes are emergent phenomena, rapidly evolving forms of technological intervention, culturally variable attitudes and adoption patterns, and hence unstable and even volatile phenomena.
In domains in which those atttributes exist, it is often the case that an organisation that sponsors a technological intervention may lack the power to impose its will, because one or more other stakeholders have the capacity to determine outcomes. This greatly increases the importance of not only conducting stakeholder analysis, but also of enabling multiple parties to participate in analysis, design and implementation, so that they can protect and advance their interests alongside those of the system sponsor. This imposes on researchers the need to shift beyond conventional, single-perspective approaches that privilege the interests of one stakeholder. Dual- and multi-perspective research is challenging; but it is necessary if research work is to provide adequate understanding of the context.
With the growth of IT 's power, and of the reach and scale of its application, a considerable number of information systems research domains may be in need of futurist approaches of the kinds discussed above. There are many circumstances in which two players have important interests, and adequate power to influence outcomes. Supplier-customer relationships within supply chains is one such context, but there are many other dyads for which a win-win approach has advantages, and may even be the only way in which a patricular form of technological intervention may be feasible. Examples include buyers and sellers in balanced markets; traders and the operators of exchanges; service-providers to large government agencies; and powerful regulators taking steps to rein in the behaviour of corporations within a particular industry sector or segment. From the point of view of researchers, dual-perspective approaches can deliver in circumstances in which conventional, single-perspective methods are inadequate and deliver misleading and even harmfully wrong inferences.
The even greater challenge of multi-perspective approaches is needed in win-win-win environments. Some supply chains feature powerful organisations at each step in the chain. No one pair can make arrangements to suit themselves if the predecessor and/or successor organisations are in a position to undermine or even veto the deal. Non-linear arrangements have long been dominant in such sectors as health care and international trade. Economies have been experiencing increasing incidence of network architectures in electronic services, such as online advertising, and the travel and accommodation industries. Similarly, one-with-one outsourcing arrangements are giving way to complex interlinkages among multiple business enterprises and government agencies.
Meanwhile, technological interventions of a public policy nature, in health, social welfare, public infrastructure, energy, and environmental sustainability, are all inherently multi-perspective. In these important contexts, I contend that conventional, single-perspective information systems research is untenable because it is at best of low value and at worst it is harmfully simplistic.
Empirical research featuring the careful application of rigorous methods is highly desirable where phenomena are relatively stable, and technological interventions impact behaviour only at the margin. Some research domains fit those criteria. On the other hand, the important and dynamic domains that have been scanned in this brisk review feature architectural complexity, unstable and even volatile phenomena, and technological interventions that are at least transformative and in many cases disruptive. In those circumstances, researchers who over-commit to empirical rigour can deliver no value.
In these circumstances, future studies techniques need to be adopted if research is to be worth funding by business enterprises and government agencies, or of any societal value. I accordingly contend that the relevance of the discussion in these Notes is not limited to unfamiliar topic-areas such as the surveillance society, but extends across a substantial proportion of the field of view of information systems research.
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Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor associated with the Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation in UNSW Law, and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.
The content and infrastructure for these community service pages are provided by Roger Clarke through his consultancy company, Xamax.
From the site's beginnings in August 1994 until February 2009, the infrastructure was provided by the Australian National University. During that time, the site accumulated close to 30 million hits. It passed 65 million in early 2021.
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