From worrying if Twitter really is a useful business tool, to getting a pain in your neck from using your laptop in bed, we are all affected by socio-technical systems.
I recently contributed to the Handbook of Research on Socio-Technical Design and Social Networking Systems, a book focusing on how we combine our knowledge of technology and society to improve both technical performance and personal wellbeing.
There are no easy answers to how you design socio-technical systems, and this book presents an invaluable and unique overview of a vast and confusing field. But one reason why I think it is particularly difficult nowadays is that social relationships are so much more complex than they appear on the surface. Arguably all behaviour is social, as we observe ourselves and form opinions about how others see us.
Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is. William James, (1842 – 1910)
I also have the suspicion that social systems evolve and develop rather than allow themselves to be designed. Efforts to design socio-technical systems must allow and encourage this evolution but perhaps the more we try to actively design the social component, the less room there is for real social systems to develop.
Technologists are notoriously bad at predicting how people will use their technology over time. Technology demonstrations at conferences of how we will live in the future continue to be embarrassing after only a few years.
However, the more we understand that almost all systems are socio-technical, the more likelihood there is that we will be able to design and evolve systems to support real people living real lives. This book covers a wide range of views about socio-technical theory and I believe they will contribute significantly to our understanding of this complex and changing phenomenon.
Others working in the field have also been impressed:
Brian Whitworth and Aldo de Moor have gathered valuable material from an international panel of experts who guide readers through the analysis, design and implementation of socio-technical systems. It will be widely useful in defining issues in engineering, computing, management, organization, government policy, and ethics. The practical guidance and fresh theories can inspire a new generation of designers and researchers to catalyze even more potent forms of human collaboration. Ben Shneiderman, University of Maryland, USA