Addressing complex problems today, at any scale of human interaction or accomplishment, must grapple with the ways our lives, practices, and institutions are thoroughly “sociotechnical.” People and their technology are thoroughly entangled, in ways that cannot be separated. Work is sociotechnical; politics is sociotechnical; knowledge is sociotechnical; creativity is sociotechnical. Human endeavors depend on their tools, and tools do not exist separate from the people, communities, and cultures in which they are embedded. That means if you care about technology, or you care about the ends to which it is put, you must think in terms of the sociotechnical: you cannot separate people from things, users from tools, values from materials, or aspirations from infrastructures.

What does it mean to study the sociotechnical? It means, first, that if we study only the technical (or only the social) we invariably miss something essential. Research that examines only the technical, forgetting the human components that are inextricably wrapped into them, will always misapprehend their subsequent dynamics and consequences. Technical projects can fail because designers do not attend to the human elements; efforts to model user activity can fail because humans are social, in ways that are complex, fluid, reflexive, and situated. “Remember the social!” has long been a rallying cry for this kind of work; too often, in technical design, policy, and research, the human is an afterthought, a dependent variable, or an abstraction.

In recent years, these calls to remember the social have been heeded… a little. Designers do think about users, and they are beginning to think about communities, cultures, and societies as well. As our industry recognizes its impact — on different parts of the world, and on different parts of a given community — it grows ever more aware that these sociological elements must be an essential part of the enterprise. But there are questions that need follow on this awakening. What happens when systems designed in one context are taken up by users situated somewhere else? How do the values of designers or the biases of a dataset get built into the materiality of technologies themselves, to exert bias elsewhere? How can recognition of the failings of sociotechnical systems translate into change? Which kinds of users are more successfully heard, and which are still regularly ignored? What do the operators of sociotechnical systems do with the responsibility they have over what goes on with them? What happens to traditional social, political, and institutional arrangements when they are recast in new sociotechnical garb?

Starting in 2009, a network of social science and humanistic researchers in anthropology, communication, economics, information, law, media studies, women’s studies, science & technology studies, and sociology disciplines lead the research to solve these complex sociotechnical challenges.

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