Professor Geoffrey Bowker is passionate about “values in design” — the ways in which social, cultural and political values affect and are shaped by information technology. Consider today’s mobile phone technology: “Cell phones can be liberating devices, but they don’t tend to work for people challenged by age or infirmity,” he says. By pinpointing how technology design only gets it partially right, his research provides insights that prioritize underserved communities and facilitate more universal designs.
For Better or Worse
Technology can tell us almost anything we want to know about our genetic makeup. As Professor Bowker points out, increasingly affordable genetic tests can affect everything — for better, by helping us moderate what we eat, but also for worse, by increasing health insurance premiums for people at higher risk. “We’re accessing and sharing information without considering the effects it can have,” he says, “and it is time we learn how to design technology that balances our values about access and privacy.” Professor Bowker now finds himself part of a national team inflecting public debate and influencing policy on these and other issues surrounding big data.
New Forms of Expression
Professor Bowker expresses similar concerns about how technology is enabling and inspiring changes in how we write, publish and collectively advance our thinking. He sees the world as being in “a seismic shift on par with the invention of the printing press.” It’s a shift with immediate practical implications. “We’re going away from single-authored texts to documents with multiple authors and attached to databases that everyone can access and update on the web,” he says. “This has a profound effect on how knowledge is generated, disseminated and shared not just among scientists — leading to new ways in which we perceive the world and live our lives.”