New ITU professor: "We should be careful not to get dumber as technology gets smarter"

Brit Ross Winthereik has been appointed Professor of Science & Technology Studies at the IT University of Copenhagen from January 1, 2018. In her research, she investigates how we build and use IT infrastructures – and she warns against letting the technologies and platforms we have already built limit our imaginations.

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Since the late 1990s, Brit Ross Winthereik has been researching human interactions with IT and the role of technology in society. The red thread in her research career is a focus on how people organize and share information. In particular, she is interested in the efforts and compromises required in order to make IT infrastructure work in practice.

Much has changed in the world of technology since she conducted field studies in gaming cafes in Nørrebro in 1999.

"When I began studying IT, the fact that children in gaming cafes were playing on network computers was quite advanced. Later, I researched the use of IT among GPs and saw how IT systems affected doctors’ work routines. At that time, there were many discussions about how doctors could share more information more effectively for the benefit of patients. The IT systems were no longer to be stand-alone systems, but connected in networks, and this was complex and very political," says Brit Ross Winthereik.

Setting the imagination free

Today, IT is a natural part of both our work and private lives, and technology's almost seamless integration into everyday life makes it harder and harder to see how it affects us, says Winthereik.

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IT really has become infrastructure in the sense that has become a natural part of our work and everyday lives. Today we see the world through the infrastructures we have built.

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"IT really has become infrastructure in the sense that has become a natural part of our work and everyday lives. Today we see the world through the infrastructures we have built. Therefore, we must be careful not to let our thinking become limited by what we already know," she says.

A current example of how IT can create limitations, according to Winthereik, is the hype that big data can revolutionize both businesses and public organizations in a short period of time.

"Public authorities and companies in Denmark are working hard to investigate opportunities with data, and while this is excellent, visions need to be longer-sighted than simply optimizing production, finding new markets or making services cheaper. There is a challenge for companies and authorities in setting the imagination free and thinking both about the data and platforms that already exist and beyond that," she says.

IT needs humanistic methods

Humanistic methods such as ethnography can help here, with interpretative and narrative aspects that add context to data, open up the imagination and awaken our critical sense, Winthereik believes.

According to her, IT is an area of ​​research and application that needs social scientists and humanists, as they are trained to question the consequences of, among other things, design and implementation of technologies.

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If we do not keep questioning technology, we risk losing our critical sense.

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"If we do not keep questioning technology, we risk losing our critical sense. IT is the epitome of change and is strongly oriented towards the future. We need to ensure that we do not lose our common sense and inventiveness and become dumber as technology gets smarter," she says.

The state has a responsibility

Brit Ross Winthereik currently leads the VELUX-supported research project Data as Relation: Governance in the age of Big Data, which deals with digitization and big data use in the public sector. In this project, 13 researchers are exploring different aspects of how digitization and new ways of using data are changing government institutions from within.

She believes that the public sector has a special responsibility for ensuring a responsible development of digitization.

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Government institutions must remember to take good care of citizens’ data instead of striving towards doing the same as big tech companies.

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"Government institutions must remember to take good care of citizens’ data instead of striving towards doing the same as big tech companies. Just as we citizens are responsible for the data we share with others, the state has a responsibility for the process of digitization and data use. When public authorities in Denmark uses our data, we may shrug and think that it does not matter. But it does matter. IT is much more than hardware and software. It is the social, political and physical infrastructure for our work, life and activities. We should never shrug and say that the technological culture we are creating does not matter,” concludes Winthereik.

Further information

Brit Ross Winthereik, Professor, phone +45 7218 5326, email brwi@itu.dk

Vibeke Arildsen, Press Officer, phone 2555 0447, email viar@itu.dk