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TR: Why do you think sociology is important for technology companies to consider?

MS: Pretty much all of the future of computing is social computing. What makes people come back to a keyboard? The answer is many things, but I’ll argue that it’s other people. [Studies have shown that] people who didn’t send or receive much e-mail stopped using the Net as much as those who sent and received more. When someone’s message is waiting in your inbox for you to reply to it, there’s an enormous moral force that trumps advertisements for cheap airplane tickets or other impersonal messages. If you look out on the Net, it’s all about people who are brought together. Name the really interesting thing on the Net that’s not made out of people. At the moment, I think the world of the Internet is all about sociology.

TR: Companies like Yahoo, Intel, and Google are snatching up sociologists and economists in order to develop new products and optimize existing technology. You’re the only main sociology researcher at Microsoft. Are there plans to hire more?

MS: I believe so. I think one of the challenges is that many of the social scientists who’ve been gobbled up by other companies have been computer scientists who also do sociology. The challenge is the discipline of sociology: cybersociologists must do everything sociologist do, but also be computer savvy.


TR: How is the Internet changing sociology?

MS: It’s not that you collect data from the world and run it through a computer; it’s that most of the world runs through a computer. It’s a revolutionary thing. It’s a shift from an ephemeral society to archival society. Six or seven billion humans have come and gone over the course of history, and most of them didn’t leave a trace. In the not too distant future, it’s likely that one to two billion will leave 5 to 10 terabytes, and in those bytes will be the fine-grain details of their lives: the pictures they’ve taken, the words they’ve typed, and the people they’ve been with. This brings up a whole new set of issues. What will privacy look like? How will sovereignty be asserted on this stream of data?

The role of Microsoft Research is to get to the future first, cut our fingers on the rough edges, and figure out how to sand the future down so it’s smooth and ready for the rest of us. It’s naive to think that they’re only going to be positive results.

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Credit: Marc Smith

Tagged: Communications, Microsoft, software, Internet, social networking, online games

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