Technology not value-neutral

As an iSchool student of Value Sensitive Design, Lisa Nathan's focus is the adaptations people make when they interact with information technology.

"Engaging human values and technology together to evolve better solutions for human society" is how Professor Batya Friedman, director of the iSchool's Value Sensitive Design Laboratory, characterizes those students and faculty who work in this multidisciplinary lab. Theirs is work of moral import that addresses questions of privacy, trust, sustainability and other human values implicated during interactions with information technology.

Nathan chose to visit two ecovillages, one in the Pacific Northwest and another in the Midwest, for her doctoral dissertation research.

Imagine what it would be like to live in a village where 43 people share three cars, where the community converts a dead refrigerator into a passive solar food dryer.

"The people in these ecovillages come together to develop non-mainstream practices that are more sustainable. They're not separatists. They strive to create educational sites that demonstrate ecological lifestyles," says Nathan, who is completing her Ph.D. in Information Science.

As unconventional as these ecovillages might be, their information practices depend on mainstream tools such as e-mail, Wikis and bulletin boards, Nathan notes.

"But they forget about the materiality of these communication tools," she says.

Information sharing in the ecovillages is often asynchronous, Nathan observed. She visited a community garden where colored plastic ribbons tied on stakes were intended to signal areas that needed weeding or watering.

"By the middle of the harvest season, there were stakes with five or more different colored ribbons tied to them. Villagers lost track of what the ribbons stood for, a non-digital case of information overload.

"It has been easier for these ecovillages to adapt mechanical technology to their values than information technology. I had hoped to find that their values influence their use of information tools, but that breaks down. Being able to articulate these problems is the beginning of solving them, though," Nathan says.

Friedman says Nathan's research suggests people may come together around a set of values, yet value tensions do emerge.

"Nathan's findings," Friedman notes, "point to the challenges of holding true to one's values when information technologies are involved - in part because those technologies are so deeply embedded in mainstream social as well as technical infrastructure."

Friedman's pioneering role in Value Sensitive Design began about 20 years ago. Today, its use extends beyond information technologies into other fields. Stanford University's Center for Biomedical Ethics recently sought iSchool help in Value Sensitive Design methodology to better define and guide its life sciences research.