How to make sure digital technology works for the public good


AMHERST, Mass. – The Internet of Things (IoT) is completely woven into our daily lives, a network of connected laptops, phones, cars, fitness trackers, even smart toasters and refrigerators, which are increasingly able to make decisions for themselves. But how do we ensure that these devices benefit us, rather than exploit or endanger us? New work, led by Francine Berman of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, offers a new framework, the ‘impact universe’, that can help policy makers keep the public interest at the center of the rush. adoption of ever-new digital technologies.


Francine Berman, research professor at UMass Amherst

“How,” asks Berman, Honorary Stuart Rice Professor and Research Professor at UMass Amherst’s Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS), “can we make sure technology works for us, rather than the other way around?” Berman, lead author of a new paper recently published in the journal Patterns, and his co-authors outline what they call “the impact universe” – a way for policymakers and others to think “holistically potential impacts of societal controls on systems”. and devices in the IoT”.

One of the marvels of modern digital technology is that it is increasingly making decisions for us. But, as Berman says, “technology needs adult supervision.”

The impact universe is a way to holistically sketch out all the competing implications of a given technology, considering environmental, social, economic and other impacts to develop policies, laws and other societal controls efficient. Instead of focusing on a single desirable outcome, such as sustainability or profit, the impact universe allows us to see that some outcomes will come at the expense of others.

“The model mirrors the mess of real life and the way we make decisions,” Berman says, but it brings clarity to that mess so that decision-makers can see and debate the trade-offs and benefits of different social controls for regulate technology. The framework allows decision-makers to be more deliberate in their policy-making and to better focus on the common good.


internet of things
The Internet of Things connects many digital technologies in our daily lives. Credit: Jae Young Ju/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Berman is at the forefront of an emerging field called Public Interest Technology (PIT), and she is establishing an initiative at UMass Amherst that brings together students and campus scholars whose work is enhanced by technology and focused on social responsibility. PIT’s ultimate goal is to develop the knowledge and critical thinking needed to create a society that can effectively manage the digital ecosystem that powers our daily lives.

Berman’s co-authors, Emilia Cabrera, Ali Jebari, and Wassim Marrakchi, were Harvard undergraduates and worked with Berman on the paper during his Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard. The fellowship gave Berman a chance to work broadly with a multidisciplinary group of scholars and thinkers, and to appreciate the importance of designing, developing, and framing societal controls so that technology promotes the public good.

“The real world is complex and there are always competing priorities,” Berman says. “Addressing this complexity head-on by considering the universe of potential technology impacts is essential if we want digital technologies to serve society rather than overwhelm it.


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