by William Sims Bainbridge, Ph.D.

From "New Technologies for the Social Sciences," pp. 111-126 in Social Sciences for a Digital World, edited by Marc Renaud. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 2000.

(This section of the book chapter comes after discussions of social-science computing, digital libraries, and the future of the music industry. The general thrust of the chapter is that social scientists and computer scientists should collaborate in creating new products and services of value to humanity.)

Music is a good example of a well-established industry that is possibly facing transformations that might require greater social-scientific attention. It is important to realise that wholly new industries may arise out of the information revolution, that also may call for re-direction of some government funding and social scientific energy. At this point in time we cannot predict what these new industries will be. Therefore, any example I could offer would be controversial, but it is essential to recognise that revolutions have revolutionary consequences.

An interesting feature of the popular Star Trek universe is that mass-media popular culture is absent from its fictional future world. Several characters play musical instruments and the preferred styles of music are classical, whether European or belonging to some other high culture. Perhaps precisely because the characters are living very future-oriented lives, they turn to historical sources like Mozart for their aesthetic recreation. Presumably, the copyrights have all expired. Instead of passively watching television programmes and movies, they programme their own "holodeck" virtual reality dramas in which they play active roles, often with historical settings. Government is certainly not in the science fiction business, but government-encouraged research is currently developing the technology to realise the Star Trek prophecies.

As several of the digital libraries described above demonstrate, the new information technology has the capacity to revolutionise our use of data about the past, and thus potentially transform our relationship to previous generations and to earlier periods of our own lives. At the extreme, the technology may bring the past alive.

Many of the social sciences employ historical data, but some excellent examples of how the new technologies have been applied are closer to the humanities. The "Valley of the Shadow" at the University of Virginia "is a hypermedia archive of thousands of sources for the period before, during and after the (American) Civil War for Augusta County, Virginia, and Franklin County, Pennsylvania," communities that fought on opposite sides in this bloody struggle. Steven Spielberg's Shoah Visual History Foundation is creating a vast hypermedia archive including digitised video interviews to "ensure that the voices of more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors and witnesses will speak to people around the world for generations to come." On a much lower technical level, people have begun putting up Web sites for deceased members of their family. For example, the Empty Arms Web-ring has created fully 584 sites to commemorate deceased children (

At the same time, many kinds of online communities have been created to facilitate virtual interaction between living people (Rheingold, 1994). Now, there are beginning to appear both commercial and non-profit Web sites that combine virtual community with preservation of the past. For example, is an online database intended to help people find fellow graduates of the schools they have attended ( The B.C. Harris publishing company, which has printed alumni directories for more than three decades, is now trying to connect alumni into online communities ( Around the world, many schools have added alumni communication facilities to their Web sites, and those Web sites also tend to offer some historical information. For example, the Web site of the Choate School not only has a history of the school, but also a facility for e-mailing alumni directly, plus hot links to their personal Web sites ( In addition, some private citizens have created yearbook-like Web sites to link graduates of their particular class, sometimes with biographies and other historical information.22

A recurrent theme in William Gibson's science fiction novels is that deceased people can live again in cyberspace. Perhaps the first detailed literary development of the idea that entire communities could be preserved in cyberspace for all eternity is the 1953 novel, The City and the Stars, by the English author, Arthur C. Clarke (Clarke, 1953). It is certainly far beyond current technical capability to transfer the neural net of a human brain into a computer, and this may never be possible. But already it is possible to record some aspects of a person's memory and personality, and to simulate some aspects of a person's behaviour.

Much work is going on in the areas of voice recognition and computerised speech, and on the computer-generated images of living people called avatars. Already, a few simple embedded systems use human voices. On the Washington DC subways, the digitised recording of a real woman's voice warns people that the doors are closing. If the door sensors detect that people are blocking the doors, she tells them to get away from them. This is the absolutely minimal example of artificial intelligence. Now let us suppose that the real woman whose voice was recorded dies. A very small aspect of her has become immortal on the Washington subway - her nagging.

Interactions with future computers will often take the form of conversations, and it will be technically feasible to give them the voices, mannerisms and even some of the memories of real people. Much behavioural science research on human cognition, memory, speech and physical movement will be required to create robots and information systems that have personalities. The social sciences will be needed to provide the context of family and community beyond the individual employing representations of social networks, geographic information systems, databases of government census data, and digital libraries of all kinds of documents from the lives of individuals and organisations.

For many years, government agencies and private corporations have invested in the development of expert systems or decision support systems that automate the practical knowledge of professionals in a given field and provide advice from it as needed by practitioners (Bainbridge et al., 1994). The best-known examples are probably in the medical field. One of the chief limitations of expert systems is the assumption that experts agree with one another, and when they do not the best systems fall back on fuzzy logic or probability statements to provide rough guidance when definitive answers are impossible. But this limitation is irrelevant if the aim is to capture the knowledge of a single individual, with all its arbitrariness and historical locatedness. The automatic kitchen of the future really could be given the cooking knowledge of a deceased member of your family, let's say Aunt Bessie. If you wish, the voice with which your kitchen speaks could be hers.

One of the original digital libraries, the Informedia project at Carnegie Mellon University, emphasised automatic transcription, abstracting and search of audio-visual materials, such as television news programmes. One of the central ideas was an educational system in which the student would ask questions - speaking them aloud - of a famous person such as President John Kennedy. The computer would search a vast repository of all of Kennedy's speeches, and then display the segment that best responded to the question. Intended for instructional purposes, this is tantamount to a conversation - albeit stylised - with a deceased person. A new component of Informedia called Experience on Demand, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is developing methods for "capturing, integrating and communicating experiences across people, time and space". Its goal is to create a "complete searchable record of personal memory and experience."

To the extent that information technology products and services of the future will involve simulated human personalities, the psychology of personality may have to redirect its research efforts. In recent decades, there has been much research exploring how many dimensions are required to measure variations in the ways that people can be described, chiefly in terms of their interpersonal style. Some have said three dimensions, others have claimed as many as sixteen, and today the debate is centred around five to seven. But all this research has been nomothetic, seeking to identify general principles that hold statistically across large number of individuals. Future research may need to be more idiographic, measuring ways in which individuals are unique (Pelham, 1993; Shoda et al., 1994). In addition, the focus of measurement may have to expand, adding fresh interest in the skills that different people possess as well as in their preferences. Merely to have Aunt Bessie's recipes is to have the benefit or her culinary knowledge and to be able to savour the foods that she liked and consider adding them to your own preferences. I do not know whether you will also want your robot kitchen of the future to display her moods. How far we push the technology will be an interesting research question in the social scientific study of culture.


Bainbridge, William Sims, Edward E. Brent, Kathleen M. Carley, David R. Heise, Michael W. Macy, Barry Markovsky, and John Skvoretz (1994), "Artificial Social Intelligence," Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 20, pp. 407-436.

Clarke, Arthur C. (1953), The City and the Stars, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York.

Pelham, Brett W. (1993), "The Idiographic Nature of Human Personality," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 64, pp. 665-577.

Rheingold, Howard (1994), The Virtual Community, Harper Perennial, New York.

Shoda, Yuichi, Walter Mischel, and Jack Wright (1994), "Intra-individual Stability in the Organization and Petterning of Behavior: Incorporating Psychological Situations into the Idiographic Analysis of Personality," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 67, pp. 674-687.


Empty Arms Webring

Informedia: Experience on Demand

Valley of the Shadow