Innovation as social experiment

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March 15, 2016 by Kate Bowles

The social responsibility of university researchers investigating is typically governed by codes of conduct and processes of approval, to make sure that the people being researched know what’s happening and are able to give informed consent to participating in the research.

A lovely example of large scale collaborative research examining the impact of social media around the world is detailed here. Watch this introductory video to this complex global project, Why We Post, in which 15 ethnographers studied social media use in 9 different field sites.

There’s a brief post about their ethics protocol here.

But researchers aren’t the only ones have research-like impact. In a really critical, long read post, the Philosophical Disquisitions blog looks at the way that technology companies themselves are engaged in many forms of social experimentation when they introduce new technologies.

They use the Apple iPhone as a case study, and argue that tech companies should have some kinds of constraints placed on them, similar to the constraints placed on pharmaceutical and medical research companies who experiment by testing products on users.

Medical experimentation has been subject to increasing levels of ethical scrutiny. Detailed theoretical frameworks and practical guidelines have been developed to enable biomedical researchers to comply with appropriate ethical standards. The leading theoretical framework is probably Beauchamp and Childress’s Principlism. This framework is based on four key ethical principles. Any medical experimentation or intervention should abide by these principles:

Non-maleficence: Human subjects should not be harmed.

Beneficence: Human subjects should be benefited.

Autonomy: Human autonomy and agency should be respected.

Justice: The benefits and risks ought to be fairly distributed.

These four principles are general and vague. The idea is that they represent widely-shared ethical commitments and can be developed into more detailed practical guidelines for researchers.

This is a question for anyone concerned with the social responsibility of those who research in formal research capacities, as well as companies and corporations (and universities) who research their users by trying out new things and seeing what feedback they get.

And as universities collect more and more data on their student populations, we need to ask carefully: what steps are universities taking to ensure that those who are the subject of this research are full participants in what happens next?


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