#WebSci20 – Keynote: Professor Gina Neff by Sebastien Combret

Posted on behalf of Sebastien Combret

Keynote talk: Whose Web? A call to action for doing web science in uncertain times.

Keynote speaker: Professor Gina Neff; Pauline Leonard: Programme Chair.

Professor Gina Neff is a Senior research fellow and associate professor at the Oxford Internet Institute and department of sociology at the University of Oxford. She is a pioneer in the area of human-centred data science. The keynote given by Professor Gina Neff really helps to put in perspective what Web Science has been so far, and what are the questions we should be asking to make the discipline relevant for now and the future.

The central topic of the keynote was about the role of scientists and in particular web-scientists and the underlying normative assumptions that are at stake, in the web-science field of study. The current context of ‘infodemic’, in relation to the COVID 19 pandemic, showed that there is a flood of poor quality information. This is a shift from the idea of digital divide (although still a relevant question for parts of the world) and the notion of lack of information, and brings us towards the need to think about the quality of information.

It raises questions about the role of web-scientists in regards to large social problems, as the web has become the infrastructure of society. We need to recognise that technology is structuring social life.

Professor Gina Neff then raised the following point: “Can we take up this challenge about technology that we study, as actually structuring the world around us?”

To do so, there is a need to look into the main assumptions that have been made in the field of Web-Science.

The sociology of technology’s perspective

Neutrality of technology

There is a need to question the notion of ‘neutrality of technology’, our positivist, objective view of what empirical evidence is telling, and what is lost when committing to this kind of neutrality. The notion that information science has been predicated on the political assumption that access to information and “connection” are “good” has deep implications. The use of “good” takes us away from the scientific stance and brings us in the world of normative values.

Professor Gina Neff encourages us to ask: What kind of political assumption is built into the notion of thinking that the web is ‘good’ overall? Having at the core of our research, unexamined political, normative assumptions has enormous implications for our work, and it is, therefore, essential to ‘examine it’, ‘name it’, and have discussions about it.

Emphasising previous point Professor Gina Neff talks about the following:

  • Individuals are linked, mediated by technology, to one another, to build something bigger than the individual
  • The notion that more information helps people make rational and informed choices, that lead to better engagement, democracy, and economic participation) is contradicted by the current fragile states of democracy in the U.S. and parts of the E.U.

Professor Gina Neff concluded this part of the keynote with the following statement: “We should put forward in our work a much more normative stance in the kind of web we want to see and the kind of future we want to build, ensuring we help to build the best technology possible that has an impact benefiting society”

[The second part of the keynote focused on practical points and examples]

Perceptions and affordances

As affordances are inherent to an object, it provides a new lens to talk about how technology structures our social life and individuals’ social choices.

“Imagined affordances emerge between users’ perceptions, attitudes, and expectations; between the materiality and functionality of technologies; and between the intentions and perceptions of designer” (Nagy & Neff 2015)”]

Professor Gina Neff then talked about the fact that, because features are built-in to a particular tool, it doesn’t necessarily afford users the possibility of taking those up. Therefore, instead of asking about our technologies, what are the affordances, we really need to be asking, “for whom, and under what circumstances?; but also, when, where, and how?”

Gendered affordances

Gendered affordances are “affordances that enable different users to take different actions based on. The gendered social and cultural repertories available to users and technology designers (Schwartz & Neff 2019)

Professor Gina Neff explained (based on her research) that the affordances of privacy on Craigslist afforded different users different kinds of actions, based on a whole host of cultural and social repertoires of actions. In the example given (Sex for Rent ads), the platform affordances support women and landlords in very different ways, as men and women have different and unequal position in society, the affordances of privacy played out very differently in these exchanges.

The key point of this section was that getting back to the notion of “technology is neutral” if we fail to think about those inequalities of social power, we miss those nuances and dynamics, of how different users take on different kinds of technologies.

Conclusion: Whose web?

Professor Gina Neff emphasises the idea that, instead of thinking about the neutrality of technological objects, we should deepen our understanding around the following: for whom; where; in what situation; to what ends; for what kind of power in society. Additionally, she highlighted the fact that scientists have a responsibility in shaping people’s perception of technology, which deeply and fundamentally shapes and plays into the social structure and social inequalities.

The keynote concluded with a call for web-scientists to think about how technological infrastructure, be part of making sure the infrastructure for society is improved and ensure the world becomes a better place. “What would a web-science that put this kind of normative values at its centre look like?

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