Patrick Feng
Department of Science and Technology Studies
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, NY 12180-3590
518-276-6413 (Main Dept. Number)

Title of Presentation: Private values and public infrastructure: Who's responsible for setting technical standards?

I will discuss three related issues in my talk. The first is who about makes decisions about standards and infrastructure. I will argue that much of the "design" of technology occurs outside of the public sphere. The task of designing technology (including standards) is usually delegated to engineers, computer programmers, graphic designers, and other "experts" who in turn work for private entities: architecture firms, marketing firms, Internet startups, etc. These entities are, to be sure, influenced by public sentiment, but they are nevertheless members of the private, rather than public, sphere. What happens, though, when private entities build a technology that is so useful and important that it becomes accepted as part of the basic infrastructure of a society -- should such the design of technologies remain within the private sphere?

The second concerns the "promise of design": the idea that by bringing values explicitly into the design process, one can design better, and even go so far as to use technology to solve social problems. The twin problems of privacy and security, in particular, have been fertile ground for this idea, with many a cypherpunk trying to hack their way to online privacy, for example. Yet, as I shall argue, the failure of privacy-enhancing technologies to catch on among the general public suggests there are subtle and complex barriers to "designing better." What stands in the way of socially intelligent design?

The third idea concerns technological trajectories. If we accept that some technologies are important enough that they should be subject to public (as well as private) design considerations, and that there are numerous barriers to designing better, when and how should the public "intervene" in the design of technologies, so as to steer them towards more democratically-acceptable outcomes? Are standards-setting organizations a viable "control point" for steering technology development? What mechanisms now exist for public input into the design of technical standards, and what changes would be needed to make standards-setting processes more accountable to the public? [More Information]