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Social Informatics in the 21st Century

The exponentially increasing levels of computing intelligence, agility of processes, and the ingenuity and creativity with which these advances are being applied are revolutionizing every aspect of society today. The individual, organizational and societal impacts of information technology (IT) require frameworks that measure their collective impact on employment, the quality of work and the formation and strengthening of a nations' competitive advantage (Ang, Pavri, 1994). As Ang and Pavri observe, when these three factors are taken in contextual reference to each other, a new appreciation of the need for a global plurality of perspectives is needed (1994). As Web 2.0 technologies are today the technological foundation for social networks (O'Reilly, 2006) (Bernoff, Li, 2008) illustrate, technologies cannot be cleanly demarcated into individual, organizational or societal areas. In defining where IT has made the most significant impact across these three areas, concentrating on which has the greater potential to act as a growth catalyst in the future while sustaining widespread societal change needs to be taken into account.

The Era of the Empowered Individual

In assessing the exponential growth of information technologies over the previous 21 years, the sheer number of patents produced and technological advances is formidable and could easily be construed as having the greater impact. As Dr. Michael Porter remarked in his classic study of nations' competitive advantage that technologies alone are not sustaining and permanent enough to ensure any nation's long-term permanent competitive advantage, but educated workforces are (Porter, 1990) was prescient in its insights regarding the era of the empowered individual. Dr. Porter's assessment in The Competitive Advantage of Nations is that when citizens of nations define their national identity from a continual improvement and accomplishment, long-term strategic differentiation and competitive advantage is attained (Porter, 1990). Technologies of the last 21 years have matured from being centered only on personal productivity to group and enterprise-wide collaboration, communication and shared project accomplishment (McAfee, 2006). Societal norms and values support greater collaboration and communication due in large part to mobile devices and the ubiquitous adoption and use of social networks by literally billions of people globally today. Apple's latest financial results and the record fiscal quarter of iPhone sales delivered in 2014 reflect just how pervasive mobile phones and tablets are as integral to the communication habits and modes of collaboration billions of individuals interact with daily (Apple, Investor Relations, 2015).

Technology adoptions' inflection point began and continues at the individual level, forcing change throughout organizations and society as well. The most potent force for stopping any technological advance cold is resistance of change. In organizations, not having a well thought out, tightly orchestrated change management plan can crush any IT initiative before it begins. Apple's senior sales management realizes this threat to their future growth in the enterprise, and architects their Apple operating system, development and iTunes platforms to scale to support individual, group and enterprise-wide needs (Cusumano, 2008). By concentrating on user adoption of their widely successful iPhone product family, Apple is in essence accomplishing at a microcosm level what mobility technologies have accomplished on a far greater global scale.

Mobile devices, from the myriad of smartphones to tablet PCs, is an indispensable element of the empowered individual. These devices are now redefining existing and often legacy, outmoded systems designed for a different series of organizational and societal needs. Mobile devices and the software platforms are among the most potent economic catalysts in nurturing and growing emerging nations' Gross Domestic Product (GDP) levels (James, 2010). Mobile devices as a catalyst of global economic growth and a contributing factors of stabilizing GDP levels in emerging nations further supports the contention this is the eras of the empowered individual. Today venture capitalists evaluate nascent mobile technologies based on their adoption into third-world nations and the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) as well (Kefela, 2011). The focus of these efforts by venture capitalists is not on the technology, but its congruency with the most basic fundamental needs of nations where limited personal financial resources force trade-offs of spending. When individuals in these third-world and BRIC nations choose to invest a large percentage of their disposable incomes in mobile technologies, they are in actuality voting with their dollars for a change in organizational and societal systems and structures to support a more connected -- and empowered -- lifestyle (James, 2010). These shifts in organizational and societal structures is evident in how the widespread shifts in integrated marketing communications (IMC) strategies are now primarily designed for prospective customers on mobile devices first (Porcu, Barrio-Garcia, Kitchen, 2012). Marketers today are more concerned with the performance of their smartphone and tablet applications compared to any other communications channel with their prospects, sales leads and long-time loyal customers (Porcu, Barrio-Garcia, Kitchen, 2012). This reordering of marketing priorities is a significant influencer of new iPhone designs as well, as Apple strives to provide larger screens, quicker processors and more agile rendering of complex images to ensure their platform is favored by the global ecosystems of mobile developers and the marketers who rely on them (Tariq, Ishrat, Khan, 2011). Mobile is a technology that has forever revolutionized the organizational and societal structures that today are melding and changing as fast as they can to meet the needs and therefore stay relevant to the empowered individual and consumer.

The advent of Web 2.0 technologies in the last decade of the 20th century set the foundation for organizational and societal scale shifts that no one could have predicted. Social networks as diverse as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others have all relied on the Web 2.0 framework shown in Figure 1, Web 2.0 Design Objectives and Meme Map.

Figure 1: Web 2.0 Design Objectives and Meme Map, Source: (O'Reilly, 2006)

The Web 2.0 framework shown in Figure 1 is the roadmap social networks use for constructing platforms that are egalitarian enough to ensure inclusion of people in 3rd world nations at the same level as those from the most prosperous nations (McAfee, 2006). Social networks' initial use was primarily in desktops and laptop computers yet the adoption of mobile devices by empowered individuals -- signaling the current era of technology adoption -- drive an entirely new series of requirements onto social network providers (Bernoff, Li, 2008).

Combined with mobile devices, software networks and their myriad of applications designed to provide access to them are powerful catalysts of scaling the communications power and clear voice of the empowered individual. Revolutions and civil unrest across the world's most troubled turbulent and unstable nations are now reported literally within seconds on social networks. Libya and Egypt sought to completely shot down their mobile networks, with both nations installing a "kill switch" for all mobile traffic. This is an excellent dynamic however for civil liberty and the preservation of individual freedoms.

The role of social media made possible by the ubiquitous adoption of mobile devices and lighting quick, connected social networks are empowering individuals to report what's going on not from totalitarian governments' propaganda-based spin but from citizens' reality. This became very clear with the coverage of Egyptian government officials attempting to silence protests in Tahrir Square that quickly became a rallying point for citizens to rise up against a very corrupt Egyptian government (Srinivasan, 2014). For Egypt's leaders their global reputation was immediately affected, forcing widespread changes in their organizational systems and a lingering effect of transparency in their societal systems, norms and values today. The Tahrir Square incident is a microcosm of how mobile technologies and social media software are emerging as the two most powerful catalysts of empowering individuals to a level of influence that has never been possible before (Srinivasan, 2014).


Individual adoption of mobile and social networking technologies are making the 21st a revolutionary time in technology adoption that will further lead to greater transparency on the part of global governments as well. As the Tahrir Square incident illustrates, empowered individuals can and will change organizations and society very quickly and with a strong passion for having their voices heard. The adoption of technologies starting at the empowered individual level are in turn driving massive changes in all aspects of organizational and societal systems, processes and workflows meant to serve citizens and grow economies. The value of mobile technologies as a growth catalyst in 3rd world and BRIC nations is abundantly clear, with its contributions to GDP (James, 2010) and agility of entirely new business models in these nascent, emerging economic regions of the world (Kefela, 2011). Mobility is now a critical aspect of how people communicate across all global socioeconomic strata, thanks in large part to the adoption of Web 2.0 technologies (McAfee, 2006) as the basis of social network design and development (Apple, Investor Relations, 2015). In the era of the empowered individual the role of technology as enabler vs. control mechanism emerges. This is especially evident in the level of social change that is being driven by these technologies today, providing an accurate microcosm of how… [END OF PREVIEW]

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