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Professors explore social impact of evolving technologies


October 07, 2008

What are the next stages in the evolution of information and communication technologies for the everyday consumer, and how will the advances impact society?

How will an expanded virtual-reality realm shape the way commerce is conducted, how workplaces function and public infrastructure systems are used?

What are the environmental implications when people obtain newer electronic devices and dispose of older models, adding to an already large accumulation of electronic waste – or "e-waste"?

Answers to such questions will be sought by Arizona State University faculty members Brad Allenby and Eric Williams in research supported by a $25,000 grant recently awarded through the AT&T Industrial Ecology Faculty Fellowship Program.

AT&T Inc. is the largest provider of local and long-distance telephone services, wireless services and Internet access in the United States. The company’s industrial ecology grant program funds research to seek solutions and decision-making guidelines for the telecommunications industry that are economically efficient and environmentally responsible. 

Meshing physical and virtual reality

Allenby, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, will work on formulating a deeper understanding of the complex interaction between urban transportation infrastructure and next-generation information and communication technologies.

As such technologies enable more people to telework from their homes or conduct meetings and conferences in “virtual-realty spaces” instead of participating in person, it affects not only workplace environments but  the patterns of use of transportation systems, Allenby explains.

Social behavior patterns and transportation use also are affected, for instance, by the fact the many young people  today congregate not in physical spaces – like shopping malls as their parents once did – but in virtual spaces such as Facebook and other social networking Internet sites.

There also will be increasing economic effects as well, Allenby says, as retail sale and e-commerce options begin to integrate into mixed systems. While some publications, music and video offerings are now delivered electronically rather than as physical products, at the same time online browsing stimulates consumption of other products, such as clothes or books.

How such integrated systems can be designed for environmental and economic efficiency, while responding to consumers needs, is not just an interesting research question but of vital importance to today’s businesses.

“Our first step will be to understand the economic, social and environmental impacts of the shift from physical activity, like traveling by car, to virtual activity, like working or conducting business on the Internet,” Allenby says.

“That understanding forms a basis for decisions about the capabilities that should be provided by the next advances in information and communication technology,” he says.

New designs and combinations of functions provided by such technologies as cars, cell phones and computer networking sites are important to the social fabric of communities, because these are “technologies of freedom,” Allenby says.

“They are important to people not just physically, but psychologically. People associate what the technology allows them to do with a sense of participation in daily life and a connection to the social environment,” he says.

It's all about multifunctionality

Williams, an assistant professor in the civil and environmental engineering department and ASU’s School of Sustainability, will research the implications of the proliferation of new high-tech products such as smart phones, iPods and flat-screen televisions on use impacts and waste management.

Multifunctionality of devices is on the increase. Cell phones, for instance, are now capable of not only voice communication but also video, music playing, digital photography and e-mail.

The rapid change in  devices with such multifunctionality can be expected to drive up demand for increased production of newer and newer models. Williams says that because of the increasing amount of energy and materials required to make the advanced components in high-tech devices, recycling of materials from the devices recovers only a relatively small part of the total environmental investment in the manufacturing process.

It’s also possible that new devices will substitute for older ones, leading to reduced demand. For example: Are people buying fewer film and digital cameras because of the new multifunctional devices?

It’s important to look at the evolution of the full portfolio of electronics people are buying, rather than taking a product-by-product view, Williams says.

One key aspect of the project will survey consumers about their purchase, usage and disposal patterns of electronics “as a holistic package,” he says.