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Introduction and overview

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Any glance at the contemporary intellectual landscape would make it clear that trust, society, and computing are often discussed together. And any glance would also make it clear that when this happens, the questions that are produced often seem, at first glance, straightforward. Yet, on closer examination, these questions unravel into a quagmire of concerns. What starts out as, say, a question of whether computers can be relied on to do a particular job often turns into something more than doubts about a division of labor. As Douglas Rushkoff argues in his brief and provocative book, Program or be Programmed (2010), when people rely on computers to do some job, it is not like Miss Daisy trusting her chauffeur to take her car to the right destination. But it is not what computers are told to do that is the issue. At issue is what computers tell us, the humans, as they get on with whatever task is at hand. And this in turn implies things about who and what we are because of these dialogues we have with computers. I use the word dialogues purposefully here because it is suggestive of how interaction between person and machine somehow alters the sense a person has of themselves and of the machine they are interacting with, and how this in turn alters the relationship the two have – that is, the machine and the “user.” According to Rushkoff, it is not possible to know what the purpose of an interaction between a person and a machine might be; it is certainly not as simple as a question of a command and its response. In his metaphor about driving, what come into doubt are rarely questions about whether the computer has correctly heard and identified the destination the human wants – the place to which they have instructed the machine to navigate them. The interaction we have with computers lead us to doubt why a particular destination is chosen. This in turn leads to doubts about whether such choices should be in the hands of the human or the computer. © Richard H.R. Harper 2014.