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Cautionary Tales and Better Futures for Social Technologies

John Cain
Visiting Professor, Institute of Design in Chicago


Newell-Simon Hall 1305 (Michael Mauldin Auditorium)

Video link


This talk will explore the "human" in HCI, and offer ways to bring what people (just plain folk) care about (their passions and frustrations) into how we make and evolve social technologies.

In the field of HCI, technologists and designers are increasingly engaged in projects that go beyond "interface" and singular points of interaction. We create services, organizations, systems, and platforms, all with an honest desire to improve everyone's “experiences." In this way, practitioners are engaged in the creation and curation of complex socio-technical networks, that is, collaborations among constituencies and stakeholders that form around problems, issues, and controversies with distinct politics, values, and ethics.  

Across these admittedly exciting frontiers, HCI practitioners are often positioned to address problems beyond their traditional practice and toolsets.  In creating new services and systems practitioners are defining both the present and the future where sometimes the stakes are small (which route to take on our way to work), and sometimes enormous (Boeing’s 737Max tragic disaster). In abundant evidence today are the unforeseen and unintended consequences stemming from gaps in the design of these complex socio-technical systems starting from the scale of Facebook, to other scales where the list is much longer: clumsy voice-enabled systems, app-based solutions that don’t require apps, AIs that reinforce bias, automation of all sorts invading our homes, and so on.

These challenges are forcing HCI and design practitioners to reconsider how technology is implicated in larger social contexts, and how we might redirect our creative, developmental and management processes towards outcomes that are can be deemed to be more wise, fair, just and equitable.

Speaker's Bio

John Cain is Visiting Professor at the Institute of Design in Chicago where he is devising courses for a new graduate curriculum at the intersection of design, data and technology. Cain is a design strategist, serial entrepreneur, and educator whose career has focused on creating new business, products and services that draw deeply upon social science, engineering, and design traditions.  Cain was co-founder of the pioneering human-centered design and research group e-lab, the first consulting firm to hire anthropologist to inform the design strategies of its clients.  Cain is also co-founder Iota Partners, a firm that combines innovative sensor technologies with advanced analytics to create a new source of business insight for its clients.  His craziest yet is a new design for a rain umbrella –patent pending. 

Paul Pangaro