Being Human: Human-Computer Interaction

Computers are everywhere. Computers already pervaded the homes and offices of many industrialised countries. Computers used to be considered as mere machines, tools to help man become more efficient. A complex machine that is a great help when it comes to processing a considerable amount of data. Computers can be programmed to help manage a factory, an office or laboratory.

But those days are gone. Today computers are human-like with the capability to work tirelessly and unceasingly without the direct supervision of humans. This has prompted many to raise the question if living with technology can make us feel happier or will technology make us more “tiresome, frustrated, angst-ridden, and security driven” and “what will it mean to be human when everything we do is supported or augmented by technology?”1

Digital technology should be a force for good but ignorance of its functions and capabilities can cause security problems and make life extremely difficult for vicitims of identity theft. It is therefore important not only to appreciate the impact of Information Technology but also to be aware of its different consequences such as digital footprints.

Being Human

Man has gone from primitive to technical sophistication in just a very short time. In the latter part of the 20th century, his understanding of machines, electricity, microprocessors, and computer programming has improved tremendously to the point that it is already a cause for concern.

There seems to be no limit to his ability to create new technologies that purportedly aims to make life better. However, this argument has become debatable in recent years as more and more people have become alarmed with the negative impact of some highly advanced technologies. The power and pervasiveness of computers can be seen as a double-edged sword, meaning it is both beneficial and harmful at the same time.

Our Changing World

There are those who believe that technological advancement is beneficial and the predictable consequence of human development. The benefits come in multiple packages such as “healthier lifestyles, expansion of creative skills with digital tools, and instant access to information never available beforehand.”2

Every area and every sector of society has been affected by technology. Technological innovations in business, especially in supply chain management created significant changes in this field of endeavor. It is now possible for businessmen, corporate leaders and employees to work faster, at a more efficient rate than ever before. It is also the reason why competition is at an all time high but overall it helps in creating a more productive business environment. The root cause for all of these innovations can be categorized into two: computer systems and the Internet.

Being human compels scientists to leverage technology to change lives. This can mean different things. First of all, technology has transformed the way people study and learn. Researchers from Microsoft were able to describe this paradigm shift succinctly by stating, “the way teachers and professors engage with their students in class (e.g. use of online assessment tools to provide feedback and reports) is very different from the ‘chalk and talk’ model of the past.”3

Aside from learning changing lives also means the capability to save lives in a search and rescue situation. There is not enough space to discuss fatalities and mishaps that occur in many search and rescue operations because the operators could not see through the smoke, fog and even in heavy rains. Technology is changing all of that in favour of humans.

Being human means the necessity of finding ways to improve the quality of life. This can be seen in the creation of social networks. Aside from increasing interaction and making new friends through the World-Wide-Web new technologies are being used to monitor the activities of loved ones. When it comes to the elderly, technology makes it possible for them to remain active even in their twilight years.

Transformation in Interactions

In 2020 the human race will not only witness the rapid development in computer technology in terms of storage capacity and processing power but also in the radical evolution of computer-human interactions. Ten years from now people should expect “the end of interface stability” and “the growth of techno-dependency.”4

There is also the need to be ready when it comes to the consequences caused by the “growth of hyper-connectivity” and the “growth of creative engagements.”5 Today computer use is characterized by having a monitor in front of the user but ten years from now graphical user interface can easily become a secondary method for man to connect with machines and computers.

Ten years from now the phenomenon called human-computer interaction is no longer limited to user touching buttons on mobile phones or interactive monitors. This is made possible by “wearable technology such as the electronic sensing jewelry developed by Philips Design” that has prompted experts to remark: “the boundary between us and machines and the extent to which it is visible to us is now no longer as clear as when we interacted at the desktop or the terminal.”6 Ten years from now technology does not only come in smaller packages but can be also embedded within the human body.

HCI: Looking Forward

Although the rapid technological breakthroughs seem to occur at breakneck speed, it can be argued that the development of technology follows a certain pattern. This simply means that a particular technology is the by-product of discoveries made in the past and that scientist and inventors were merely in the right place and the right time to have the insight to develop solutions to problems, software and even electronic devices that enabled them to create something new.

This pattern of change is the same reason why one can fairly predict what will happen in the future. For example, there is a trend when it comes to developing smaller and yet powerful mobile phones. Tracing this pattern will reveal that in the future phones thinner and more sophisticated than an iPhone will be able to the public in the next few years or even in the next 6 months.

If one will apply the same technique in predicting technological advances in the near future the result would be something that can excite and terrify at the same time. It has resulted in the emergence of at least three groups of people. The first group are composed of those who believe that technological breakthroughs must keep on coming because man’s survival depended on it. However, there is a high probability that computers can bring harm to families and individuals as well.

The second group are those who are thankful for technology but has shown concern with regards to some of its more obvious negative consequences such as the loss of privacy, the loss of jobs due to mechanization of labour, and the weakening of human-to-human interaction as face-to-face communication has now been replaced with various wireless human-computer interaction.

The third group is comprised of those who are totally unconvinced that rapid technological improvements in the field of business, transportation, healthcare, agriculture, entertainment, and research can significantly improve the quality of life. These three groups of people will further tackle divisive issues now that technology has evolved from electrical-mechanical to digital technology.

It is therefore important to look into the link between technology and human values. Technology can be misused or abused and in some cases people can offend others by simply ignoring cultural differences. It has to be made clear that computers are not neutral and therefore it can be used in ways overlooked by designers and programmers. Thus, there is a clamour to extend the research and design cycle and add another stage which is entails conceptual analysis.7 This will ensure that designers are able to anticipate the full implications of releasing a new type of technology into the world.

Digital Footprints

UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology revealed that, “A carbon footprint is the total amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, emitted over the full life cycle of a process or product. It is expressed as grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour of generation (gCO2eq/kWh), which accounts for the different global warming effects of greenhouse gases.”8 The concept labelled captured the imagination of many people because of two reasons.

First, there is now a way to understand the extent of human culpability when it comes to climate change. Secondly, there is a way to measure carbon emissions through the burning of fossil fuels. This ability to track down and monitor a city’s carbon footprint also provides the framework to make people accountable for actions that are viewed as detrimental to the environment.

The revolutionary concept known as carbon footprint is an inspiration to those who tried to comprehend and deal with the proliferation of personal information in cyberspace with the real owners unaware that a total stranger can study their habits and tendencies without having to see them face-to-face.

Decreasing Cost and Increasing Capacity of Digital Storage

Today, the principle behind the tracking and monitoring of something as omnipresent – and yet at the same time undetected by human senses – as carbon dioxide gas, is now used to label a phenomenon in cyberspace. It is not physical but digital and therefore aptly labelled as digital footprint.

According to research analysts at Microsoft, “huge amounts of information are being recorded and stored daily about people’s behaviour, as they walk through the streets, drive their cars and use the Web… while much of this may be erased after a period of time, some is stored more permanently, about which people may be naively unaware.”9 Digital footprints are generated each time a person uses a social networking site and post comments and pictures on it. A close-circuit camera can record human activities and store it in a security firm’s database etc. This is another way to generate digital footprints.

Before digital footprints became a major issue the main problem is all about the lack of storage space and therefore limitations when it comes to the need to record important information.

Nowadays, the problem is not the capability to record voluminous data but how to manage it and at the same time destroy it when it is no longer practical to keep it hidden in computer hardware or stored in a database somewhere in the world. However, it was discovered that in the 21st century it is easy to leave digital footprints but difficult to remove it from a system as vast and interconnected as the World-Wide-Web.

According to one commentary on digital footprints, “The big difference between paper and digital trails is that the tracks left in cyberspace are extremely difficult to destroy… written, photographic, audio, or video content of any kind abut a person that finds its way into cyberspace forms that person’s digital footprints and unlike footprints in the sand, a digital footprint cannot simply be washed away.”10 This is a problematic issue based on theft-identity and the prevalence of bullying on the Internet.

The existence of a digital footprint has two major implications. First of all computer users may not give a thought to where their digital information are stored and who can access it. Thus, there are users who will post pictures, comments, and other personal information without considering the fact this digital footprint can be stored forever in a database somewhere.

It is possible that a teenager who posted something embarrassing in a social networking site the action could never be erased and accessible 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Secondly, the digital footprint left in cyberspace may contain something more valuable than an embarrassing photo, it can be personal information that unscrupulous people can use to victimize the naïve.

A recent survey asking employers their strategies on hiring people revealed something that should make everyone extra careful when visiting websites.

Researchers from a popular job site inimated that “26 percent of hiring mangers said they had checked a job seeker’s digital footprint and of the hiring managers who admitted making these checks, 63 percent said they found something that made them decide not to offer a job to an applicant.”11 There should be a follow-up question but unfortunately the same researchers did not elaborate on what the hiring managers found that made them decide not to hire these people.

Before the advent of the Internet and powerful computer systems there is a simple way of managing data. It is filed and kept in secure storage only accessible to those who have the correct set of keys or combination to a safe. Information that may prove scandalous and carry the risk of tarnishing the image of celebrity, businessman or politician can be sent to the shredder. For those who are paranoid with security and confidentiality documents and photographs can be burned. There would be no evidence or any trail left behind. In the Age of Information this can never be the case.

In a digital world, statements posted in a website and the photographs submitted to an online site can be downloaded and copied without permission. The same data can be reproduced, passed on to others and other people can post it to other websites and the cycle goes on and on until a particular data is already multiplied several times in cyberspace. But the most problematic thing about it is that there is a great possibility that an embarrassing photo can remain inside a database for decades to come and it can be stumbled upon many years from now.

A digital footprint can also be understood as some form of a floating curriculum vitae that is floating around and anyone can grab it, study, manipulate and use to defame or blackmail someone. The problem is that the digital footprint is comparable to a fingerprint; it has plenty of information that links it to a real person.

It does not matter if someone hacked into a particular system and assumed the identity of another person; the more important thing is the fact that the digital footprint left behind can be an incriminating evidence that can destroy the reputation of an individual. In the past there is a way to escape negative criticism and there is a proven strategy to overhaul a bad reputation and most of the time it simply requires a suitcase and a one-way ticket out of town. But nowadays the only safe place to hide is an island without computers and Internet.

Digital footprints are also created through the implementation of government mandated security procedures. The idea that the government can spy on people is nothing new but in recent years, technological advancements in monitoring human activities has elevated the discussion into a whole new level. Consider for example what IT experts are saying regarding this subject matter:

Identity cards and passports have increasing amounts of digital information embedded in them that can be read at passport controls. Opinions about what information

governments need and ought to have, and what citizens ought reasonably to provide are changing. In many ways, technology is making the relationship between government and the individual more complex, not least because it is often difficult to know how much information is being gathered, how it is being used, and who has control of it.12

The concern with regards to the degree of digital footprint that can be left behind comes in the wake of increasing human-computer interaction. Part of the reason is the reality that more and more people are living in a networked society. According to experts there is now a “higher interconnection of networks and systems between individuals and organizations.”13

In the words of one IT practitioner, the 21st century is characterized by the migration from “accepted systems and procedures (commercial, administrative, technical) to new ones (electronic commerce, digital cash, tele-working, electronic mail)” and it is increasingly difficult to live outside the grid of digital networks.14

Global interaction as well as the use of new technology is fuelling the desire to transmit information through the World-Wide-Web. It is time to consider the consequences of creating digital footprints. Policy makers must look into this issue and develop strategies as well as ratify laws to mitigate the impact of unauthorized access to a person’s digital footprints.

Conclusion

The rapid development of technology is both a blessing and a curse depending from which perspective it is viewed. The quality of life is greatly enhanced but on the other hand threat to security abound especially when it comes to the phenomenon called digital footprints. There is no way to reverse the evolution of human-computer interaction and the best way to deal with it is to simply upgrade or extend the development cycle.

There is a need to add one more step and it is to give room for conceptual analysis so that developers, programmers, IT experts, government officials and interest groups will have a clear idea of the future implications of a new technology before it can be accessed by the general public.

Bibliography

Baldwin, S, Carbon footprint of electricity generation. UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2006. Web.

Dowland, P. et al, Security management, integrity, and internal control in information systems. New York: Springer Science, 2005.

Grayson, R, Managing your digital footprint. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2011.

Harper, R et al., Being human: human-computer interaction in the year 2020.

Microsoft Research Ltd., Cambridge, 2008.

Pathak, J, Information technology auditing: an evolving agenda. Springer, New York, 2005.

Footnotes

  1. R Harper et al, Being human: human-computer interaction in the year 2020. Microsoft Research Ltd., Cambridge, 2008, p.10.
  2. Harper, p.11.
  3. Harper, p.25.
  4. Harper, p.34.
  5. Harper, p.35.
  6. Harper, p.36.
  7. Harper, p.59.
  8. Baldwin, S, Carbon footprint of electricity generation. UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2006. Web.
  9. Harper, p.21.
  10. Grayson, R, Managing your digital footprint. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2011.
  11. Grayson, p.9.
  12. Harper, p.29.
  13. P Dowland et al., Security management, integrity, and internal control in information systems. New York: Springer Science, 2005, p.262.
  14. J Pathak, Information technology auditing: an evolving agenda. Springer, New York, 2005, p.107.

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