Welcome to What that Means with Camille Morehart.
Camille Morhardt 00:04
Hi, and welcome to what that means socio technical systems Today we have with us, Maria Bezaitis. She is Fellow and Chief Architect Socio Technical Systems at Intel. Welcome to the show Maria.
Maria Bezaitis 00:18
Thanks for having me, Camille, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Camille Morhardt 00:20
The first thing I want to do, of course, is figure out what the heck are Socio Technical Systems? I have to admit, I don’t really know what that means. But I do know that we want to get into the intersection of the social and the technical, and also look at where that overlays or intersects with security. Can we start with you defining what is the socio technical system, and when did that concept emerge on the planet?
Maria Bezaitis 00:44
It’s not a new phrase. The phrase has been used for years in areas like organizational design and workplace research. I’m bringing it to the fore for tech in part because our lives are no longer strictly social, nor are they exclusively focused around technology. And yet, technology companies I think, are still working towards the importance of that intersection. We’ve often thought about people as entities that have needs, who we need to understand to inform our innovation and development processes. And sociotechnical, I think lets us bring that concept and paradigm forward. To really think of the two as much more inextricably linked when we’re talking and thinking about technical requirements, we really need to understand the social is inextricably linked. And when we look at our own lives as social entities on the planet, it’s really hard, at least if you’re in a lot of the developed world, to really think about them as somehow without technology or outside of technology.
Camille Morhardt 01:48
I’ve heard the concept of user experience and we’re looking at in that case, maybe the flow of one person who’s using a piece of technology, and how easy is it for that person to interact with the technology? I think what you’re talking about with socio technical systems is how is that one person interacting with their social circles via the technology? How are you separating those two concepts?
Maria Bezaitis 02:16
I see user experience as something that at least in the tech sector has moved much more closely to help people physically interact with things like interfaces and products. So it’s moved much closer up to the thing being designed or developed, in part, because there are lots of requirements that we need to understand at that super close up interface or level, those are technical decisions for me allows us to pull back on that super microfocus between a user and a thing and does exactly what you said. Which is to say there are layers to this problem. Individuals exist in contexts, which include places and environments and other people. And technologies do as well. In order to understand how these things evolve, we really need to be looking at the intersection and the coevolution of people together with technology.
Camille Morhardt 03:05
Let me look at the two angles to me, there’s the online social circles that we have. And then there’s the social interactions that we have inadvertently with people we don’t know. And maybe some of this is in the future more in the IOT world with self driving cars, or smart parking in the city I’m now interacting with people I maybe never am planning to interact with again. Are you embracing both aspects of that? Are you totally the future of moving one way versus the other?
Maria Bezaitis 03:39
I think it’s both of those things, even in the online environments that are really familiar to us or to our kids. If you happen to have teenagers at home, which I do you know that the people that they’re interacting with aren’t just people that they know that they’ve developed incredible fluency and comfort with these environments that involve both people who are familiar to them in the physical world and have a presence online. But people who really entered into their lives from the digital world from the internet, and who they’ve come to know in these environments, which are important and familiar, but who don’t necessarily have a reference point for them in the real world. The IOT space that you’re describing is similar. There are more people who we don’t know who come in and out of our lives at different moments, we interact briefly, and then they’re gone. And in some respects, you could say, that’s always been the case. Imagine yourself in a city, in a pre COVID world, where you’re walking around and countering strangers, those may or may not lead to actual interactions. But that notion of being proximate to things that we don’t know is not new to us. What the Internet has done and with what tech evolution has done is to diversify and bring more robustness and even depth to those interactions.
Camille Morhardt 04:52
That is very interesting to me, because you gave a talk a few years ago, a TED talk on strangeness and essentially, potentially using technology to help not homogenize the group of people that you’re interacting with what I’m picturing when you describe walking through the city, or say, walking through Central Park and stopping and listening to a musician, and then maybe having a conversation with somebody else who’s there, and maybe even making a friend, you guys could be from completely different parts of the world, totally different backgrounds, and yet come together over an experience that you just like literally stumble upon. Whereas I would have said, in the online world, mostly, if we’re being safe and secure, we’re trying to avoid clicking on things that we would stumble upon. And instead, we’re really staying with who’s the source? Who do we know, are we within this group, and a lot of the things that are being presented to us are already from within sources and groups that we’ve clicked on, or we’ve got some kind of a connection to. So I might have said it was the opposite. So I’m trying to understand how technologies may be helping us reach out more broadly.
Maria Bezaitis 06:10
This is why we love cities, because cities have always been these incredible environments for chance encounters, and for very quickly moving us into places and into moments that somehow are not foreseen by the trajectory of our lives. Up until that point, there was this moment in tech. And I’ll kind of take that back to the sort of period between about 2009 and 2013. So just after the iPhone was introduced, and apps kind of took over everyone’s lives, there was that early moment, when the sharing economy was just really coming together, where we looked at these tools that were enabling us to take our things, and to put them into digital circulation, and to participate in crowdsourcing activities. That felt extremely optimistic. So you’re talking like Airbnb, Airbnb, I’m talking about Kickstarter, I’m talking even about Uber, in the very, very early days, this kind of concept that you could jump into someone’s car, and share a ride with them, and talk with them, and then get dropped off at your preferred location was kind of miraculous. And I had more than a handful of those encounters myself, where I just thought, This is crazy. And it’s beautiful, and it’s brilliant. And I think that that was a moment. And that moment probably closed for most of us, for the most part, meaning what happened was that all of those applications and startups became real businesses that had to scale. And that’s led to a whole host of conversations we’ve had to have about the sharing economy and the gig economy. And what that’s meant for people who participate in it, that early moment, have a potential for something new, and a potential for encountering something different, was absolutely present and important. And actually, I think that in some respects, we’re likely to encounter that again, as more and more parts of our lives are sourced from what we’re doing online. And I guess that’s what I see sort of most clearly, with, with people who are much younger than me, with my teenagers, again, watching them invest in online worlds, that they are co developing with their peers, and worlds that are creating opportunities for things that they don’t have any other source for. It’s different. And it’s a different model than an Uber, or an Airbnb, it’ll be interesting to sort of watch how that develops for them.
Camille Morhardt 08:34
I’ve talked with Monica Mahay, recently, she was talking about how the digital and the physical are really merged at this point. There isn’t an online world and a physical world, then you turn off the online world and come into the physical world and expect, for example, if there were cyber bullying happening online, it’s not as simple as just shutting the lid and walking away and saying, well, that’s not the real world, we’d like to think maybe it’s that easy. But in reality, studies have shown it’s not a creeps into the physical world. And the other thing is, an online world gives you an opportunity to present yourself a certain way. And I suppose what I’m wondering is, has that collapsed as well, and they’re really so entwined at this point that you can’t present one way and be something else in the real world? Or are the two worlds merged? Truly? Or is there still this capacity to have, you don’t really know who you’re talking to in your online community?
Maria Bezaitis 09:30
Younger generations, I think are sort of a little bit more in depth, maybe it moving more seamlessly between those environments, and they understand the constraints and the consequences and how to use those tools more seamlessly. I find myself making parts of my sort of personal life more clear decisions about what I want to be an online versus offline. And I think that that distinction is what falls apart. When we look at younger generations.
Camille Morhardt 09:54
I’m not sure what I’m asking even make sense. I think it’s just the sense like you’re saying the younger generation Seems to it’s a 100% opt in there isn’t really an option. I think a lot of younger people would look at you funny and sort of say, What do you mean opt out of online? Because especially since COVID, everything they’re doing is online. It’s like, how am I going to connect with a friend? Then what are you saying? How do I just not go online. And that was one of the points I think Monica was making as people who don’t have technology, especially in a pandemic world don’t have any connection outside of their home to the to the real world,
Maria Bezaitis 10:35
I grew up in the 70s, and 80s. And we still operate with this notion that our lives are better without tech, there is a fundamental assumption that that it’s important to tell your child to park the device put it away. But it’s important to imagine leisure time or time off from technology. I don’t think that that’s mirrored at all in younger generations. And I’m not sure that’s just because their teens or preteens by technology is occupying a very different kind of terrain. for them. That notion of the digital and the physical being inextricably linked is real for them, even when they aren’t on a device per se. Their world is organized around communities and places and activities that are sourced from a digital world. And of course, that COVID has deepened all of that for them. My two teenagers have had very different social lives in the context of COVID, in part because one is more mobile than the other one has a driver’s license, the other one doesn’t. And the one that doesn’t, has been much more restricted socially, and has been much more reliant on online communities for kind of routine engagement.
Camille Morhardt 11:45
Know that I’m privileged to be able to have this problem. But it is probably one of the biggest concerns of the parents that I talked to and myself as a parent right now is how much screen time or how much device time regardless of what it’s being used for. Whereas I think kids are looking at it different. It’s like, Oh, well, but I’m not on my screen and listening to music. That’s right. That’s kind of the same environment.
Maria Bezaitis 12:10
Exactly, exactly. We’re still managing. I think some of that, in some ways.
Camille Morhardt 12:14
A lot of that pairs pretty predictably, with more and more data and personal information going online. How are you looking at through the socio technical systems, the privacy aspect of this.
Maria Bezaitis 12:28
I’m of two slightly unresolved minds on this topic. On the one hand, I think we still see people making all sorts of trade offs against privacy all the time, what we know for sure, is that privacy has never been and will likely never be concept or a practice that has fixed rules and protocols for people are always negotiating our privacy in the same way that we’re always negotiating our security, which is what makes humans and communities of humans a really great place to look for thinking differently about both privacy and security, acknowledges would like to think that those things lend themselves very easily to rules and guidelines and regulations. I think humans show us that it’s not that simple. At the beginning of COVID, or maybe some of us thought that someone telling us to wear masks, for example, would be sufficient for getting everybody to wear masks. And if we saw anything clearly over the last year, it was that that was just not the case, even for those of us who think are thoughts and continue to think that masks are a super important thing to be doing to maintain your own health. But also as a sign of respect to the people you’re near, we saw a lot more fluctuation. And a lot more micro decisions being made around when to wear a mask and how long to wear the mask and when to take it off. And that’s fascinating for me, because once you remove yourself from the mindset that privacy or security is something that can be fixed, that can be defined and then implemented. And you move into this space where you can think about those concepts as much more dynamic and much more responsive. And then I think you enter into a space where you’re really thinking differently about the kinds of technologies that might make sense.
Camille Morhardt 14:08
So people are making all kinds of decisions when it comes to security and privacy and social, social aspects or decisions. And some of that might be interested in civil liberties. So you’re taking entire other classes of things. And some of it might be interested in intimacy or closeness with family, we just don’t know, people are interpreting, and constantly balancing and making their own choices about all different kinds of things in the socio space when it comes to privacy and security.
Maria Bezaitis 14:42
Absolutely. And that’s what makes it hard for engineers. Those kinds of behaviors don’t lend themselves easily to use cases and to a requirement decomposition, on the other hand to kind of evolution and growth of AI and the kind of prospects and concept of Real Time responsiveness brings us some new tools to think with in terms of how we might imagine technologies that address some of those fluctuations in real time in specific local environments. That gets kind of fascinating. You’re not mapping technologies anymore to behaviors or workloads that are fixed or rigid, but you’re able to maybe identify vulnerabilities and holes really in a much more responsive real time manner, then that, that I think creates space for thinking about change quickly. And in real time.
Camille Morhardt 15:37
Does that also imply then that people are going to make decisions about whether they’re even opting into AI participate in the models that are being developed?
Maria Bezaitis 15:47
Totally, totally. And who knows? Maybe that’s also generational. And maybe kind of that importance of opt in is something that goes away at some point. I think, right now,it’s important.
Camille Morhardt 15:57
In your field, what are people arguing about right now? Is there any kind of inflection point in socio technical systems?
Maria Bezaitis 16:05
We’re still arguing in some respects about some very old ideas, in part because the social scientists and the designers who work in this space in tech are all working hard to essentially convert the mindsets of their engineering colleagues. And that is not a kind of engagement or discussion that happens once that happens continuously. I’ve been doing this for 20 some years now. And I’m always struck about the ways in which we return in some ways to ground zero, or how that work to really change the assumptions of an engineering culture, to want to include a very different set of principles from the get go and to want to really relinquish the terrain in which it does its work. That’s really hard work.
Camille Morhardt 16:52
Are you talking about essentially understanding that anything that you design may end up being used differently? Or a different use case applied to that? But can you say more about that shift, and
Maria Bezaitis 17:05
I t’s not just a set of technical values that define what things should be that they’re not priorities that we can just imagine as a function of what is best for the technology, or what drives us to technology values, like optimizations speeds, and feeds, that those values come from outside, and that we have to continue to find ways to introduce them into our assumptions about what technology what path that should follow from the very, very beginning. And we talk that talk, the entire tech sector has become much more adept at having that conversation. But I think if you talk to anyone doing this kind of work, whether they call themselves user experience researchers or designers, or whether they call themselves socio technical systems, people, they will tell you that that is still where the work is located.
Camille Morhardt 17:47
What would be the one question if you could magically have every product design engineer, ask themselves honestly and openly as they’re making a product? What would it be?
Maria Bezaitis 17:58
Who are you making the score? And why? And where do you imagine it will land? And how do you imagine it’s going to get used? I think creating space for those conversations is hard.
Camille Morhardt 18:12
And then being inclusive about who you’re getting that input from?
Maria Bezaitis 18:16
That’s right. I mean, talk about users, who are we talking about?
Camille Morhardt 18:19
How is this intersection with ethics in this area?
Maria Bezaitis 18:24
Ethics are critical. Interestingly enough, in spite of the challenges that I think tech continues to have around user experience, and with incorporating real insight and understanding about people and humans and the work that it does, we’ve been reasonably quick move on the ethics conversation, not to say that the work happening there is done. I think it’s just getting started. But it’s been striking to me how quickly that conversation has unfolded. And I think it’s because the damage the potential damage and destruction, there are more and more people talking about that and making noise about that and trying to hold tech companies accountable. I’d like to see ethics move in the same vein that we’re trying to move Social Research, which is that it’s not something that ultimately lives outside. It doesn’t necessarily require extra processes and tools and governing boards, but that it becomes much more integral. And I think anyone working in that space today would say that’s exactly what we’re trying to get done. But just like the general face of social science work in product development, and in tech specifically, that’s going to take some time.
Camille Morhardt 19:29
I think maybe it was, let’s see, you were saying sort of around the 2006, 2009 timeframe, if the sharing economy was kind of the forefront of the way people were pushing technology to use it to a social benefit, essentially. Maybe it’s an economic benefit, we can argue about the benefits. What are people doing today, and you can pick if this is pre or post or during COVID that’s Similarly pushing technology in interesting social ways that maybe we hadn’t expected before.
Maria Bezaitis 20:07
I think all the conversations around diversity and sustainability and the acknowledgement that there are is a social agenda that has nothing to do with tech that wants to hold tech accountable for what it does, that feels new and compelling. The fact that we’re at a point in time, for example, with diversity, where we are perhaps prepared to not just talk about diversity, but about race in the private sector. And that’s only happened because there’s a whole set of coalitions and a whole movement that is making that possible. So those are super interesting conversations. And they’re not being sourced by by tech, per se. They’re coming to technology from places and from people who have a very clear social agenda. And I think our job as researchers who are working in the tech sector, is to make sure that those conversations have a landing zone, to bring them inside our companies, and then work with the right partners inside our companies to change how things get made.
Camille Morhardt 21:06
I actually just recently had a conversation with Rhonda Fox, who had social equity at Intel. She was saying similar to what you’re saying inclusion anymore, it is not just representation, it’s not just a seat at the table, it’s once you’re sitting at the table, are you able to share and express and take in data and have the same experience that other people are? So we’ve taken a step beyond the numbers and we have to look at what does it look like when you’re in the thick of it? And in the middle of it? Are you actually having the same experience as other people?
Maria Bezaitis 21:39
Yes, but we still have work to do around the numbers. In some respects, we have to get that out of our way. And doesn’t happen any of these companies until you have much stronger presence of diverse technical experts who have a seat at the table experiences of sort of meeting the one woman in the room have to stop the experiences, a lack of colleague, being the only black technical expert in a room of technologists has to stop it, we still have to get past the numbers, I’m not totally over that. On the other hand, we have to also start to deepen the sense of accountability that a sort of majority of population has in a tech company and work harder to make not just inclusion possible, but to sort of benefit from different ideas and from different people who are working with us.
Camille Morhardt 22:27
I know you look at this globally. So how has that changed for you since COVID? You know, have you I imagine you used to travel around the world to look at different groups, different societies, different cultures, what are you doing now, or what have you been doing about that?
Maria Bezaitis 22:43
A lot of long distance work a lot, a lot more reliance on secondary materials, which is completely fine. And definitely COVID has slowed certain types of relationship building, even with internal partners. And I can feel that there were groups with whom I was starting to work with at the beginning of COVID. And we’ve been able to proceed in some narrow ways. But I think that there are just certain things you just can’t do online, especially around new relationships, I am looking forward to probably starting again, and to being able to bring that diversity and diversification to how I think anyone thinking with.
Camille Morhardt 23:20
You have the highest technical position at Intel being a fellow and your PhD is in literature. So I just want to hear from you what that journey was like, or maybe not the journey. But I similarly I have done technical things in product development and design it until but I also don’t come from the technical background. So I’m just curious. It’s a bit unusual. How is that? How is it that was what is it like being a highest technical achievement at a tech company? With a background in literature?
Maria Bezaitis 23:54
I’m not sure we’re gonna see another French literature PhD until fellow anytime soon, but that’s okay. I’m a lot more comfortable thinking and talking about it now than I used to be. I think for a long time. I didn’t mention it. I didn’t want to mention it. I didn’t even want to think about it. Because trying to figure out how reading 17th 18th 19th 20th century texts and French philosophy in concert with research tools for private sector and product development, those things just didn’t necessarily feel like they went together. But I was really lucky because I started my career at a very small company where I was surrounded by a few people like me, the theoretical connection points were made quickly. And I found that even people who were coming at product development from design and from departments like human development, and certainly the social sciences, we had the same kind of theoretical underpinnings. We knew how to talk about identity. We knew how to talk about narrative. We knew how to talk about culture and how to think about those things that became the raw material for developing new kinds of research methods. The design methodologies that in the mid 90s, when I started doing this work in the private sector, were really, really compelling because they gave the marketing sciences in particular, and product development teams, totally new material to work with. I’ve gotten better about thinking about those connections. And I tell people now that I’m actually doing in some respects exactly what I was doing in graduate school. I’m just doing it with different kinds of texts. So it’s no longer a French fiction, right. It’s a different kind of text. But the value that I provide and the ways that I approach the sort of problem, I think, remain pretty similar.
Camille Morhardt 25:35
Maria, thank you so much for coming on this episode. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Maria Bezaitis 25:39
It’s been a pleasure.
Maria Bezaitis 25:41
And I’m happy now that I feel like I understand a little bit more about Socio Technical Systems. Thanks for joining us.
Maria Bezaitis 25:48
Thank you, Camille. Have a great day.
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