eSociety Program to Teach Social Aspects of Digital AgePosted on: February 2, 2013 in Research & Discovery
Many of the most significant, globally impactful companies and products recently created are tied to digital communications and computational technologies – wireless networks, social networks, smartphones and big data mining applications are among them.
Despite the pervasive nature of digital communications, few academic programs actively train students to understand and effectively manage the social aspects and implications of the Digital Age.
With that in mind, University of Arizona faculty members have developed the new eSociety program, which will be offered beginning in fall 2013.
"Technology is the most important revolution of our lifetime," said J.P. Jones, III, dean of the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
"It has completely transformed the way we interact with one another, learn new things, and form communities,” Jones said.
“It’s even changed the way we govern ourselves and the forms of protest we see today. Democracy is now technologically mediated," he also said. "And every social science discipline has a role to play in understanding these changes."
Understanding Emerging Social Interactions, Practices
Housed in the UA School of Information Resources and Library Science, or SIRLS, eSociety is an interdisciplinary intended to provide students with the social science and data management skills and theories necessary to engage in the world of Internet-based data and interactions.
To understand what is driving the need for eSociety requires a quick look at the evolution of companies and sites such as Pinterest and Netflix or the impact of social media on global events such as the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring of the last year.
Expertise in eSociety should lead to understandings of social media marketing or other networking skills, as well as more complex understandings about Web-users, such as their shared ideologies, typical human practices, interpretations of information or perspectives on differing modalities for receiving digitally based information.
"Blending all of these topics is very novel and exciting," said Catherine Brooks, an assistant professor with a joint appointment in SIRLS and the communication department who led the curricular development for eSociety.
In addition to learning how to find and analyze information, and while learning about social practices and cultural implications of digital practices, students also will learn how to manage and use large data sets.
"Data are laden with our philosophies of knowledge and laden with issues of identity, class and culture," Brooks said. "Data are more than just a thing and a product; they are laden with societal concerns."
Consider Don Fallis, a SIRLS professor, who proposed a course on knowledge in the digital world.
Fallis is an expert in the theory of knowledge and is concerned with the pervasive nature of disinformation – the intentional practice of misinforming others. Coupled with that scholarship is an interest in lies and deception.
"We have to look at the various ways in which information and information technology are affecting the ways in which we acquire knowledge," Fallis said. "There are so many ways information technology affects our ability to acquire knowledge."
Or to forget.
With the proliferation of surveillance of GPS tracking, it is increasingly impossible to be anonymous.
"Everyone might know where we are at all times. But there is the human right to forget," Brooks said. "With all of this information, we can catalog and track information on events; the way data is managed and archived makes it hard to forget.”
Potential Benefits for Individuals, Corporations
In addition to being highly marketable to students, eSociety already has captured the eye of top-level executives.
Last year, Pamela Coonan, the research support and enrollment manager for the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, sent Tucson and Phoenix companies information about eSociety while also seeking their participation in a roundtable about the degree's applicability.
"These firms were so excited to be a part of the talks that they've been in touch a few times just to make sure we still have them on the participant list,” Coonan said.
Bryan Heidorn, the director of SIRLS, emphasized eSociety’s importance for helping the workers of tomorrow understand social and political phenomena presented in digital communications.
"This is not just about putting messages out on Facebook or marketing to sell widgets. This is about analytics and helping you manage your operations," Heidorn said. "It's important to have the long-term view and to be able to interpret the consequences.”
Graduates of eSociety could one day be those helping to solve problems with the digital divide and addressing the pervasive nature of misinformation on the Internet, and they undoubtedly will aid in the establishment of new digital communities, practices and applications.
And the continued evolution of digital communications and infusion of technology in day-to-day interactions will only continue to have a strong impact, whether locally or globally, Brooks said.
"I see eSociety evolving as our historic milieu continues to shift,” Brooks said, emphasizing the importance of the program's interdisciplinary nature and future incorporation of other disciplines.
"To maintain a strong program, all involved departments will need to continue to be intellectually and programmatically flexible," she said. "By keeping an open mind to the ways that cross-department and multi-college endeavors can happen, we are really going to benefit the students at the University of Arizona."
Story courtesy of UA Communications