Intelligent and smart? Undoubtedly. But meaningful? Rarely.

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Digitalisation is often described as the process that will inevitably lead us to a smart world enabled via intelligent optimisation. But what about the meaningfulness of such current and future technological solutions? Most technologies ultimately are operated or monitored by human beings for which meaningfulness is an important part of their working lives.

Many digital tools and systems are characterised as either intelligent or smart: artificial intelligence, intelligent personal assistant, smartphones, smart factories, smart cities, smart speakers, etc. ‘Intelligent’ is generally used to describe systems and tools that can make rational calculations and optimise their responses, while ‘smart’ mostly means that these systems and tools are connected to other tools and systems, enabling them to perform and coordinate actions in chorus, at times without human intervention.

In addition to the rational and systemic approach to technological development, increasing attention is being given to the human and societal aspects of living and working with technology. For example, artificial intelligence is being developed to incorporate emotional intelligence and smart cities are, at least partly, embedding normative values of sustainability. At the same time the many ethical issues raised by such technological developments are also being discussed. Such developments are promising, but this is not quite the same as asking critical questions regarding the meaningfulness of many of the technological solutions being developed.

Why then is there a lack of debate on the meaningfulness of technology? It may partly be due to the debate being dominated by the role of intelligent and smart tools and systems (commonly described as robots) in the future performing activities humans do today. Questions focus on whether robots will replace human workers on the shopfloor, in the office or even in the boardroom. The debate rarely discusses the work required alongside the robots which allows them to be intelligent and smart. As Antonio Casilli  described in a keynote speech at the 16th European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work in June, artificial intelligence needs to be trained, supported and sometimes even be replaced by humans.

Human replacement of robots is often undertaken as so-called micro-work, performed in countries with weak labour-rights legislation, via platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk. Micro-work is about allocating small and repetitive tasks to non-specialised workers, on-demand, at very low rates of remuneration and with no long-term commitment for either party. Examples of such tasks include clicking on signs in a picture to train self-driving systems to better recognise signage or reviewing images and classifying them as pornographic or not. Even in more traditional industrial settings, as we saw in a recent research project reviewing digitalisation in the Swedish steel industry, human workers are performing many tasks that are about serving machines. For example, reviewing multiple screens to ensure that the information that the machine sensed was happening reflected exactly what was happening on the production line, or taking information from one machine and loading it into another machine.

Bearing in mind this development, should the debate be less centred on whether robots will take our jobs, and instead ask whether we really want humans to become servants for robots. Would that really be meaningful technology?

The day to day reality of using technology can also impact its meaningfulness. Those who develop technology often do not understand the everyday practice of those using the technology and this can make it difficult to use at best, or completely ignored at worst. Technology is always built around a belief of how the user would perform and experience a certain activity. But those designing the technology have often no first-hand experience of the users’ practices, preferences and needs. The developers, living and breathing technology at the cutting edge, cannot understand the fears, attitudes or day to day lives of end-users. For example, we have all experienced mild frustration completing a digital form that makes no sense to us. More seriously, technology designed to save a life, for instance in the case of GPS alarms for older people, may end up ignored because the aesthetic design is stigmatising or the usage logic makes no allowance for the target user’s inexperience with technology.   

Striving for the development and introduction of meaningful digital technology should be a priority and the DigMa project aims to bring this concept to the fore. Several of our previous projects show that there are good examples of technology modified to enhance meaningfulness already in play. For example, we recently saw a Swedish factory in which employees, instead of simply monitoring individual components, were made collectively responsible for the entire automated production process allowing job enrichment, building a more meaningful sense of team responsibility. In this case, meaningfulness was deliberately built in to the design of the process.

To further advance our understanding of how to make technology meaningful to those who work with it, we need to develop a new lexicon designed to better describe the nuance of how work practices and technology inter-relate. Even before we develop this, however, designers can already start to ask themselves how digitally enabled work processes can be modified to provide meaningful roles for the people who will work with it week in, week out. Surely the benefits associated with a happier, more engaged workforce are worth the investment?