You Put Your Tech in My Social Science

The other day a friend of mine, a technology entrepreneur, said to me at lunch, ‘I’ve been reading your posts about social science and technology. Something that stands out to me is that these social scientists define problems really well but don’t offer solutions.’

I giggled. He’s right. In fact, I have a new friend — an anthropologist who teaches design. And she admitted this to me just a few weeks ago, ‘We do great field research and map problems really well,’ she said, ‘But we never build anything.’

On the flip side, there’s a similar critique about technology. The critique is that technologists are extremely solutions driven. So much so that they often lose sight of the problem that they had set out to solve.

Kodak’s focus on building higher and higher resolution cameras in the face of digital photography is an example of this phenomenon. The opportunity there wasn’t about image quality. It was about the immediacy of processing and distributing images and how that immediacy inspired people to share pictures with their friends in a new way (online). Sure, hindsight is 20/20. But I wonder what would have happened if they had taken their social scientists a bit more seriously.

So I’m interested in this gap — the gap between the deep problem framing that’s going on in the humanities and the elegant solutions being built in the technologies. My gut tells me we should bridge that gap and my work experience from the past ten years tells me that it’s really hard.

What do you think? Should we build a bridge? If so, how? And if we do, what might be the benefit?

“Perhaps, the way past the problem of human unpredictability may be to work with it and through it rather than to ignore it.” DR

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