Editorial for Creating, Changing, and Coalescing Ways of Life with Technologies

Marty J. Wolf, Alexis M. Elder, Malgorzata Alicja Plotka

Research output: Contribution to JournalEditorial


“Congealing” is a word that evokes senses of unpleasantness where perhaps something inviting had once been. It also implies that things are becoming less fluid and more rigid.

As we began organizing ETHICOMP 2018, we wanted a theme that reflected the impact of technologies on human cultures, practices and lives. Our initial draft of the theme was “Creating, Changing, and Congealing Ways of Life with Technologies.” And while we were eventually persuaded to use a more congenial way of putting the idea (it became “Creating, Changing, and Coalescing Ways of Life with Technologies”), in some ways, it remains true for us that “congealing,” and its connotations of something less pleasant, gets at the original idea. As we incorporate technologies into our practices, much attention is paid to how they change our ways of doing things. But technologies can also help ways of life set-up and harden like yesterday’s leftovers – not appealing, yet difficult to budge and sometimes quite unhealthy. Once a particular process is built around a piece of technology, it can become entrenched and increasingly difficult to change. For a historical example, consider how difficult it was to adapt records and software on the eve of the 21st century in response to the so-called “Y2K” problem. In early software development, efficient use of memory was an important design consideration. It had become a standard practice to use a 2-digit field for the year, which would roll to from “99” to “00” in the year 2000, causing problems for date dependent functions. Technologies can also reflect and reinforce existing cultural tendencies. For a recent example, consider the human resources software created by Amazon that used its existing hiring data to train a machine-learning system to rate applicants. The resulting system turned out to be biased against women applicants, downranking resumes that included the word “woman” or “women’s.” Amazon ended up scrapping the project altogether. Because of these kinds of effects, we wanted to encourage people to think beyond well-worn paradigms like “technologies are disruptive” to consider other kinds of effects they can have.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 4 Sep 2019
Externally publishedYes


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