Technology is a resource that becomes quickly tested for use in unexpected areas as soon as it becomes fully capable. When internet technology became more accessible for the masses, the components also became useful for the social scientist. When computers became data processing machines of enormous power, low cost, and availablity, computers became more accessible for the social scientist who no longer had to compete for limited and competitively scheduled time on the mainframe computers of old.
When the concepts of modeling, database design, quantitative methods and massive database management led to resources for the physical science, medical, and mathematical fields, these tools and methods became available to the social scientist. As a result, the 5 technological advances in the social sciences center around data management, telecommunications, scientific instruments, and computing power.
1. Data management includes the massive increase in data, imagery, and observable and quantifiable social activity. Everything, from videos of human behavior in various situations, to details of shopping habits, to medical and criminal histories is stored, cached, and retrievable. Before, manual data collection from books or from massive piles of paperwork was labor intensive, prone to error, and difficult to summarize. Now, the raw data, if correctly entered into databases, is directly accessible, either from the shallow or deep web.
2. Telecommunications now allow caches of raw and summarized data to be accessed, extracted, summarized and for the summaries and analysis to be cached, accessed and communicated in a wide variety of ways. The Deep web is the majority of the world wide web, and includes databases that are accessible only by permission or through fee based services. The shallow web, however, contains enough material for significant data collection and observation.
3. Scientific instruments now allow views of natural and social phenomena that, before, had to be documented and reported by individuals who are more prone to misinterpretation, bias or other flaws in observation and interpretation. In some cases, natural and human phenomena that would not even be observable are now available via advanced photos and videos of the world’s remotest places, or of huge portions of the planet from space. Video survelliance and even amateur videos are now readily available.
Electron microscopes make the smallest units of existence visible. Instruments that translate a persons DNA, RNA and cellular makeup or which photograph parts of the body that could not be seen while the patient was alive are now providing massive amounts of data. Every branch of social science that works into medicine, biology or ecology obtains value from advances in scientific instrumentation.
4. Computing power now allows social scientists to complete the most advanced statistical and modeling calculations, in some cases using simple tools that come with the average computer’s spreadsheet modules! There is not only software that allows the most complex “what if” and other analysis, there is a power to the average portable computer that rivals the huge mainframes of yore. This computing power is now portable, via cell phones and PDAs which can access the internet, transfer files, and store and present data. Eventually, a social scientist will be able to carry the equivalent of a full office, plus a computer mainframe in his or her pocket!
As a result, technological advances benefit the social sciences in ways that are only limited by the creativity of the social scientist in getting information and in making observations.