No sooner had I posted news of the HCI event Design for Life conference call than I found (via the CIRN list) that the European Media Technology and Everyday Life Network - objective to "investigate the realities and dynamics of the User Friendly Information Society" - has published its research. I know it's an easy shot at academics to complain about the impenetrability of their papers to other mortals, but when it is our taxes, and the subject is user friendliness, it would seem reasonable to ask for more understandable summaries. One of the main themes is inclusion and exclusion in the Information Society. Hmmm. How about accessible research findings as a start?
The vision statement sets the tone: "If we accept the argument that developing technological capabilities does involve a complex, endogenous process of change, negotiated and mediated both within organisations and at the level of society at large, it is obvious that policies cannot and should not be limited to addressing the economic integration of technological change, but must include all aspects of its broader social integration. We thus reject the notion of technology as an external variable to which society and individuals, whether at work or in the home, must adapt (Building the European Information Society for Us All, Final Policy Report of the High-Level Expert Group, European Commission , 1997)."
I think that there are probably valuable insights in papers including "The Web Generation? The (De)Construction of Users, Morals and Consumption" and "A social and technological view of Ambient Intelligence in Everyday Life: What bends the trend?".
But is it likely that the findings will make much impact if they are expressed only in these terms?
I think that one of the fundamentals of user-friendly research and design should be that the beneficiaries (or at least those acting on their behalf) should be able to understand what is going on and have some influence.
There is some hint of this in the the group's initial proposal, citied in Professor Roger Silverstone's paper "Media and Technology in the Everyday Life of European Societies"
“The social acceptance of new information and communication technologies is not just important from the point of view of social policy but it is crucial to the development of a broadly based information economy. Indeed innovation is a social process, not just a technological and an economic one. Technologies do not emerge without active involvement of the consumers and users who have to accept them as relevant and useful in their everyday lives. Technological change is itself mediated. Technologies change in their social acceptance, and societies change as new technologies are accepted. But some technologies are resisted and some groups within society are excluded from participating in the benefits that are expected”.
And the paper itself says, in arguing the need to move beyond simple access to technology: "Knowledge is participative. A key term and a key ambition at the heart of the knowledge society is literacy: the skills and capabilities which all citizens will need fully to participate in it, and fully to take advantage of the resources released by the Internet, mobile telephony and broadband delivery."
Adding: "It is a truism to suggest that society is not possible without communication, and that communication must, morally and sociologically, precede knowledge, which in turn presumes information. Without the capacity to communicate, neither knowledge nor information has much meaning."
End of easy shots... however, I have a genuine concern and question. Is it impossible to research and communicate findings in the spirit of participation and accessibility to policy makers and practitioners in terms they can understand and act upon? Is it that the European funding institutions (and others) demand this type of output? Is it that academics who can usually explain the interesting stuff in the conference bar are prevented by prevailing cultures from talking straight in public? Is this one of the major barriers to a more knowledgable society for us all?
Or is it me being dumb? Probably just that. I've mailed the research team to see if they do indeed have a user-friendly version, and will report any response.
Update Rover Silverstone emails me in reply - see comment below.