Social ideas like freedom seem far removed from computer code but when computing is social, they are the difference between success and failure. That technology designers are not ready, have no precedent or do not understand social needs is irrelevant. Like a baby being born, online society is pushing forward, whether we are ready or not. And like new parents, socio-technical designers are causing it, again ready or not. As the World Wide Web’s creator observes:
“... technologists cannot simply leave the social and ethical questions to other people, because the technology directly affects these matters” Berners-Lee, 2000: p124
One cannot design socio-technology in a social vacuum. Fortunately, while virtual society is new, people have been socializing for thousands of years. We know that fair communities prosper but corrupt ones do not (Eigen, 2003). Social inventions like laws, fairness, freedom, credit and contracts were bought with blood and tears (Mandelbaum, 2002), so why start anew online? Why reinvent the social wheel in cyber-space (Ridley, 2010)? Why re-learn electronically what we already know physically?
As the new bottle of information technology fills with the old wine of society, the stakes are raised. The information revolution increases our power to gather, store and distribute information, for good or ill (Johnson, 2001). Are we the hunter-gatherers of the information age (Meyrowitz, 1985) or an online civilization? A stone-age society with space-age technology is a bad mix, but what are the requirements for technology to support civilization? Computing cannot implement what it cannot specify.
We live in social environments every day, but struggle to specify them. Just as bird does not see the air or a fish water, we are social environment blind. e.g. a shop-keeper swipes a credit card with a reading device it is taken for granted that it was designed not to store credit card number or pin. It is designed to the social requirement that shopkeepers do not steal customer data, even though the machine is quite capable of doing this. Without this social choice, credit would collapse, and social disasters like the depression can be worse than natural disasters. Credit card readers support legitimate social interaction by design.
Trying to gather all the information you can is information greediness. Likewise, if online computer systems take and sell customer data such as home addresses and phone numbers for advantage, users will lose trust and either refuse to register at all, or register with fake data, like “123 MyStreet, MyTown, NJ” (Foreman & Whitworth, 2005). The way to satisfy online privacy is not to store data you do not need. To say it will never be revealed is not good enough, as companies can be forced by governments or bribed by cash to reveal data. One cannot be forced or bribed to give data one does not have. The best way to guarantee online privacy and trust is to not to store unneeded information in the first place.