Influencing the Design of Information Technologies

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Rajiv Shah
University of Illinois

The design of technologies is not autonomous, but shaped by various social forces in the form of institutions. Institutions, such as universities, the open source movement, and firms, differentially shape information technologies. The problem is how we can use this understanding to allow the creation of information technologies to meet societal concerns?


A number of scholars, such as Lessig, have noted the importance of code or the technological infrastructure for information technologies. We define Code as the hardware and software of information technologies. Code is important, because it is a means of regulating behavior in cyberspace. It is analogous to the law of cyberspace. In discussing online societal concerns such as free speech, privacy, and trust we must consider the role of code. Our research seeks to provide a better understanding of code.
One aspect of our project is to understand the origins of code. Code is not produced in just one institutional framework, but in a number of different ones. These institutions include universities, firms, the open source movement, and consortia. To study these institutions we chose four historical case studies. They are: NCSA Mosaic developed at the University of Illinois; cookies developed by Netscape; the Apache web server developed by the open source movement; and the Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS) developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Based on these case studies, we have analyzed how these institutions tend to embed different values in code.
We found that code is materially affected by the institution it is developed within. For example, firms tend ignore unprofitable societal concerns in the design of information technologies. For example, when Netscape introduced the cookies technology, it did not attempt to design the code to consider privacy. Instead, it focused on how cookies could be used to generate revenue through electronic commerce. However, other institutions, such as the open source movement do consider unprofitable societal concerns in the development of code. This led us to develop some normative proposals to ensure code meets the need of society. It is these normative proposals that we seek to present.


The design of information technologies is important and within society's control. Society can influence the design of information technologies to meet societal concerns. For example, society should consider using public oriented institutions such as universities and the open source movement, which are susceptible to society's influences. These institutions can develop information technologies that meet the needs of society's that are overlooked by the commercial sector.

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