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Cognitively Sustainable ICT with Ubiquitous Mobile Services - Challenges and Opportunities



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Cognitively Sustainable ICT with Ubiquitous
Mobile Services - Challenges and Opportunities
Marcus Jägemar
School of Innovation, Design and Engineering
Mälardalen University
Västerås, Sweden
first.last at and
Gordana Dodig-Crnkovic
Department of Applied Information Technology
Chalmers University of Technology
Gothenburg, Sweden
first.last at
Abstract—Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
has led to an unprecedented development in almost all areas
of human life. It forms the basis for what is called “the
cognitive revolution” – a fundamental change in the way we
communicate, feel, think and learn based on an extension of
individual information processing capacities by communication
with other people through technology. This so-called “extended
cognition” shapes human relations in a radically new way. It
is accompanied by a decrease of shared attention and affective
presence within closely related groups. This weakens the deepest
and most important bonds, that used to shape human identity.
Sustainability, both environmental and social (economic, tech-
nological, political and cultural) is one of the most important
issues of our time. In connection with “extended cognition” we
have identified a new, basic type of social sustainability that
everyone takes for granted, and which we claim is in danger due
to our changed ways of communication. We base our conclusion
on a detailed analysis of the current state of the practice and
observed trends. The contribution of our article consists of
identifying cognitive sustainability and explaining its central role
for all other aspects of sustainability, showing how it relates
to the cognitive revolution, its opportunities and challenges.
Complex social structures with different degrees of proximity
have always functioned as mechanisms behind belongingness and
identity. To create a long-term cognitive sustainability, we need to
rethink and design new communication technologies that support
differentiated and complex social relationships.
Index Terms—Cognitive sustainability, Social sustainability,
Sustainable ICT, Cognitive revolution, Privacy, Shared attention,
Social cognition, Software engineering for social good.
The radical increase and pervasiveness of Information and
Communications Technology (ICT) puts our society at the
edge of a revolution that has started to change our lives [1].
After the industrial revolution, which essentially
extended the human body through mechanical ma-
chinery, the beginning of the cognitive revolution ex-
tends human minds through computing (information
processing) technology. [1, p. 319]
The cognitive revolution is based on extended cognition/social
cognition, which is largely supported by mobile devices
and services that are getting ubiquitous [2], [3]. Distributed
cognition enabled by ICT is new to humankind and causes
substantial changes in the cognitive processes (information
acquisition and its processing and storage), which drives long-
term and wide scope individual and social changes. Changes
brought about by this technological development are acknowl-
edged to have potentially enormous positive effects. We would
therefore like to elucidate some challenges that haven’t yet
been identified and discussed.
In this paper we focus on how ICT affects different levels
of relationships among people. Traditionally, the complex and
layered structure of our society was based on different levels
of proximity. There is typically a fixed, characteristic number
of individuals at each proximity level [4], which increases as
a function of the emotional distance [5]. The relationships
between our closest relations and more distant ones are rapidly
changing with increasing ICT usage.
Up until recently physical distance caused barriers to com-
munication and thus defined closeness. The people who shared
the same physical space were the ones with a tight cognitive
and emotional bond. Of all relationships, the closest ones are
typically heavily dominated by intensity, depth, cognitive and
emotional richness and frequency/amount of shared time [6].
With the introduction of ICT this is no longer the case which
causes important changes in social relations worldwide – from
families to teams, groups, corporations and societies.
In the sphere of closest relationships children are the most
vulnerable group and their use of mobile devices is one of
society’s greatest concerns. Empirical research has shown that
among children and adolescents there are numerous problems
related to the overuse of ICT. For example aggressive behavior
[7], [8], decreased physical fitness [9], sleep disorders [10],
[11], mental problems [10], [11], addiction [12] and lower
school grades [10], [11]. In families with extensive gadget use,
there are also issues among adults of lack of shared attention
and affective presence [13], which also affects children. At the
same time, there is increasing societal pressure to diminish
the distinction between work- and leisure time. This new phe-
nomenon brings the expectation of being constantly accessible
and available for work [14].
The attractiveness of ubiquitous ICT makes it difficult for
many to find a balance between private and official [15].
All communication tends to become mediated and everybody
competes to get our attention, no matter how emotionally
distant or how irrelevant the matter is. As cognitive agents we
2015 IEEE/ACM 37th IEEE International Conference on Software Engineering
978-1-4799-1934-5/15 $31.00 © 2015 IEEE
DOI 10.1109/ICSE.2015.189
2015 IEEE/ACM 37th IEEE International Conference on Software Engineering
978-1-4799-1934-5/15 $31.00 © 2015 IEEE
DOI 10.1109/ICSE.2015.189
2015 IEEE/ACM 37th IEEE International Conference on Software Engineering
978-1-4799-1934-5/15 $31.00 © 2015 IEEE
DOI 10.1109/ICSE.2015.189
2015 IEEE/ACM 37th IEEE International Conference on Software Engineering
978-1-4799-1934-5/15 $31.00 © 2015 IEEE
DOI 10.1109/ICSE.2015.189
2015 IEEE/ACM 37th IEEE International Conference on Software Engineering
978-1-4799-1934-5/15 $31.00 © 2015 IEEE
DOI 10.1109/ICSE.2015.189
2015 IEEE/ACM 37th IEEE International Conference on Software Engineering
978-1-4799-1934-5/15 $31.00 © 2015 IEEE
DOI 10.1109/ICSE.2015.189
ICSE 2015, Florence, Italy
Software Engineering in Society
have bounded cognitive capacities [4], which means that our
capacity to communicate is limited. Time spent using increas-
ingly ubiquitous ICT services is time taken from direct close
relationships with other people and with the natural world.
The complex network of networks of differentiated levels of
proximity in human relationships is becoming more of a flat
structure with ad hoc priorities. One side effect is that the stim-
uli that succeed in catching our attention win. Social structures
are built on circles of proximity and the flattening of proximity
structures is unsustainable in the long run as it overloads our
cognitive systems, which may react by detachment and even
desensitization [16]. Moreover, rich cognitive and emotive
behaviors, as well as culture and values, are mainly transmitted
in close relationships, which get impoverished if they are
acquired through long-distance sporadic communication. Chief
among these, a rich and nuanced personal relationship between
parent and child can never be substituted by ad hoc information
coming to the child from the outside world via ICT. Children
need our shared attention [17] and affective presence in order
to assimilate language, affective behavior, stable value system
and the feeling of belonging together [18]. Technology that
shapes our behavior can be designed so that it conveys and
mediates social cues to make it look and feel different when we
communicate with complete strangers or with our closest ones.
Software can also be made more sophisticated so that we share
more with those that we belong together with and less with
people who do not belong to our closest proximity circles.
If developers take the challenge of making communication
differentiated and shared informational spaces more suggestive
of the real world, it might help users get a better grip on reality
and make prioritizing between different circles of proximity
and and types of communication easier. The underlying idea
is to better understand what kind of ICT we should develop
and how we should use it for a socially and particularly
cognitively sustainable future. We have investigated the effects
of ubiquitous ICT usage described in several empirical studies
as well as projections for future development. The following
are the main contributions of this work.
We have identified a growing problem of cognitive over-
load that results in a lack of shared attention and affective
presence between closely related groups in society.
Given human finite cognitive resources, we propose
adding cognitive sustainability to the list of already ex-
isting social sustainabilities. This addition acknowledges
the insight that techno-social systems should be designed
to enhance human cognitive resources and not to deplete,
impoverish and exhaust them.
We present concrete examples of how to reduce the
effects of dissolving proximity circles. We suggest to
differentiate the sharing of information between different
circles of proximity based on context-aware computing
by representing emotional closeness through the devices’
“look and feel”.
The paper is organised as follows. We begin with definitions
in Section II. Section III provides an overview of ubiquitous
mobile ICT usage with expected future usage patterns. In
Section IV we analyse different effects of ubiquitous mobile
service use on social stakeholders. Sustainable development
with respect to human cognitive resources and their relation-
ship to ubiquitous ICT is discussed in Section V. In Section VI
we analyse how software engineering can contribute cognitive
sustainability as a basic aspect of social sustainability. The
article finishes with conclusions in Section VII.
Sustainable development is, according to the Brundtland
Report of the World Commission on Environment and De-
velopment [19, p. 37], defined as:
development that meets the needs of the present
without compromising the ability of future gener-
ations to meet their own needs.
Environmental sustainability relates to resource consump-
tion (material resources, energy), emissions (greenhouse gas
emissions, waste materials), recycling (expectations of envi-
ronmentally closed life cycles where consumed and emitted
materials would ideally be reused), etc. [20]
Social sustainability has been defined to include all other
aspects of sustainability – economic, political, technological,
ecological and cultural [21]. Social sustainability is studied at
the intersection between Software Engineering (SE) and other
disciplines such as sociology, economics, ethics, cognitive
science, social cognition, interaction design, etc.
Cognitive sustainability is a new aspect that we add to the
existing list of social sustainability aspects. It emphasize that
our finite cognitive resources should not be overexploited and
depleted by technology induced cognitive overload. Cognitive
sustainability refers to emotional (fast, emotional, intuitive
thinking – “system one”) and rational (slow, systematic,
logical, critical thinking – “system two”) defined by Kah-
neman [22]. For cognitive sustainability there should be an
adequate balance between the two systems.
Cognition is in this work defined as embodied cognition,
which means it includes information processes such as mem-
ory, attention, language, problem solving, and planning that
originate from the neo-cortex and are related to rational behav-
ior. It also includes emotions, the spontaneous and irrational
quick assessment system that originates from evolutionarily
older parts of the brain such as the amygdala. The rational and
emotional components of embodied cognition are integrated
and intertwined. [23]. When we reason about cognition in
this article we take this modern view of embodied cognition,
including both thinking and feeling.
Extended cognition or social cognition is the term used to
depict networks of cognitive agents exchanging information.
Shared attention is defined as a socially distributed cogni-
tion occurring when several persons share a common cognitive
focus and communicate in the process [17]. This is possible
when communication is undisturbed and self-contained.
Affective presence builds on the idea that human cognition is
defined by its embodiment, which determines communication
in many different modalities, not only visual and auditory.
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Trac [ExaBytes]
Voice Communication
Mobile Phone Data
Mobile Computer Data
(a) Mobile traffic usage estimation for voice and data.
Trac [ExaBytes]
Audio,Web,SNS,File sharing
(b) Mobile traffic usage estimation, per application type.
Fig. 1: Ericsson telecommunication market outlook from 2010 to 2019 [2].
Boehner [24, p. 59] put forward “model of emotion as inter-
action: dynamic, culturally mediated, and socially constructed
and experienced ... in its full complexity and ambiguity.”
This understanding of cognition as essentially embodied shall
inform future ICT in its effort to reach social sustainability.
In order to understand the present state of practice, we start
with a historical retrospective. The history of telecommuni-
cation shows an ever-increasing usage of ICT devices [25]
and they are becoming more and more integrated as a part of
ubiquitous computing. While initially web surfing was done
on stationary computers connected to a wire-bound network
with an Internet connection, Wi-Fi connected laptops, a semi-
mobile network topology, were made possible with hotspots
supporting the Internet. With the introduction of completely
wireless data transfer (3G etc.) a much more radical mobility
was achieved allowing people to move freely while remaining
constantly connected. From all observed trends, it is generally
conceived that total telecommunication usage will radically
expand within the next decade. A forecast by Ericsson [2]
shows that mobile data usage grows exponentially, see Fig. 1a,
with mobile video providing the major growth, see Fig. 1b.
A. Apps
Apps are driving the telecommunication industry of today.
The number of apps developed for gadgets is staggering, see
Fig. 2. Already in 2009, the cumulative number of downloaded
apps surpassed 1 billion1. The market for online apps is in-
creasing at a rapid rate, which is evident for both of the major
mobile platforms available today; Apple(iOS) and Google
(Android). According to Bohmer [26], on average “mobile
device users spend almost an hour a day using apps, which is
quite high compared to other online activities”. As argued by
Zhang et al. [27], the introduction of smartphones significantly
increased the demand for data communication, and smartphone
apps have now increased beyond mobile surfing in terms of
usage time.,, and www.
Available Apps [Mx#]
Downloaded Apps [Bx#]
Apple Apps[Mx#]
Google Apps[Mx#]
Apple DLs[Bx#]
Google DL[Bx#]
Fig. 2: App statistics for online stores.
B. Social Networking Services
Social Networking Services (SNS) online communication
tools are often accessed using mobile devices. Examples of
such tools are email, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, etc.
There is an ever-increasing trend towards using this type of
tool, visible from the increase of data stored by Facebook,
which is 180 petabytes (1015 bytes) per year. As many as
58% of people use SNS2.
C. Computer Games
Mobile devices are used, among other things, for playing
games, both by children and by adults. Many parents keep their
gaming habits and continue to play games as a recreational
activity. Although mobile devices are not the most important
platform for game playing, because of their limited compu-
tational resources and small screens, there are many games
developed for mobile phones and tablets. The habit of mobile
game playing is widespread because of availability and ease.
D. Media on Demand
Currently there are many providers for media (music and
video) on demand, such as Spotify (music) or Voddler (video),
Headweb (video) etc. As stated in market estimations [2],
[3], Fig. 1b, streaming video will be the number one driving
force for mobile telecommunication within a few years. It will
further drive the increasing demand for higher bandwidth and
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Effect Observed ICT-related behavior References Section
Private life intrusion Long-range communication threatens to replace close personal communication. [17] IV-A
Overuse by children Children are currently overusing gadgets and the increasing trend continues. [28]–[31] IV-B
Work extension into leisure time Employees are encouraged to be available. [14], [32], [33] IV-C
Violent computer games Violent games can increase the permissiveness towards violence. [8] IV-D
Facilitated tracking and facilitated en-
hanced deviant behaviors
Privacy and socially responsible behavior is needed even within closely coupled
groups of people such as families.
[34]–[38] IV-E,
Gadget addiction Addiction is fueled by interactivity and quick rewards. [39]–[41] IV-G
Communication etiquette There is an ongoing change in the attitude towards communication. [41] IV-H
Cognitive overload and desensitization Long-term cognitive overload leads to increased stress levels. [16] IV-I
Effect Consequences of children’s overexposure References
Violence Aggressive and anti-social behavior related to violent games. [7], [8], [43]
Sleep disorders Sleep disorders after excessive game play. [10], [11]
Cognitive problems Low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, alienation, discontent, etc. [10], [11]
Gadget addiction Addiction to the feedback mechanism provided by interconnected gadgets. [12]
School problems School grades reduced for children overusing gadgets. [10], [11]
Poor physical fitness Increased problems related to physical fitness because of sedentary lifestyle. [9]
newer technologies to support the desired quality levels and
increased number of customers, see Fig. 1b.
Numerous applications of ICT bring huge positive effects
such as simple global communication, efficient navigation, e-
learning, information or streaming media available to virtually
all, enlarged accurate memory and other data repositories,
radically improved computational tools for sciences and tech-
nology, government and business – the list is very long. Nev-
ertheless there are observed and poorly understood negative
effects such as desensitization, alienation, fragmentation of
close groups, lack of shared attention and affective presence
that can be attributed to lack of closeness and abundance of
long-range communication, Table I. We are facing a situation
that is new to humanity. We have “policy vacuums” [44] –
lack of experience and strategies for coping with those new
technology-induced phenomena.
A. The Private Life Intrusion
In commercial ads many companies present a picture of
happy families where each member is engaged with an indi-
vidual device. In such a picture, direct human communication
is replaced by indirect long-range communication with some
distant individuals. Human time and attention as well as
affective presence are finite resources. Those shared with
distant connections are most often not shared within the close
group. From the point of view of cognitive well-being of both
individual family members as well as a family as a whole,
fatigue of shared attention, affective presence and shared time
is detrimental and in the long term not socially sustainable. It
is hard to predict the effects on the social behavior of children
3Stakeholders are people and organizations affected by something – for
instance a policy, programme, action or organisation – literally, those who
have a stake in it.
growing up in this type of environment, where shared attention
is scarce, as are the results of direct human communication
such as shared values, trust and togetherness. Families are
not spared from new habits of constant engagement with
SNS and other means of long-range communication and ICT-
based entertainment. This endangers young children’s early
language acquisition capabilities, as expressed in the following
statement by Deak et al. [17, p. 332]:
the tendency for infants and the adults they are
communicating with to attend to the same things
seems to help infants correctly infer what adults
are talking about, and thereby enter the language
Without shared attention, the language community loses its
foundation as shared meanings and value systems have no
way to develop.
B. Overuse by Children
Several news media, institutes and research groups have
documented the current status of gadget usage among children,
such as described in a report by the GSMA Association [28],
where the age of the investigated group ranged between 8–
18 years. The key finding is that 70% of children surf on the
Internet each day. Bates [29] concludes that children spend too
much time in front of gadgets, as those aged two to four spend
in average two hours a day, and older children even more.
Where does all this take us in the future? It is indicative
that the GSM Association [28] informs that “children still talk
face-to-face with their parents more than they call or message
them”. The very possibility that our communication with fam-
ily members would become dominated by technology seems
both disturbing and frightening. Fragmentation of families and
close social groups would naturally follow the lack of direct
There is also a trend that children stop playing with other
children in the real-world, since they prefer to play alone,
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with the ICT gadgets. It is doubtful if we can exist as true
social beings with all nuances of real-world interactions when
we, to an increasing extent, interact with other people only
indirectly via ICT-mediated communication channels. Using
gadgets as babysitting tools has also been questioned. In pre-
gadget time parents used ordinary TV and video while they
now utilize gadgets for the same purpose. Ferrari [45] presents
an interesting interview with Densmore, concluding that it
is most important that adults participate in children’s ICT
activities; that they are not left on their own for extended
periods of time without adult involvement. Similar to other
types of overexposure, even gadget overuse and addiction have
several effects on children, according to current research; see
Table II for an overview.
C. Work Extension into Leisure Time
Telecommuting is promoted as either replacing or extending
working time by working from a remote place using commu-
nication equipment [33] and it is supposed to have beneficial
effects on individuals, saving time and environment. However,
experiences seem to be different [32]. According to Noonan
and Glass [33, p. 38]:
(T)elecommuting appears, instead, to have become
instrumental in the general expansion of work hours,
facilitating workers needs for additional work time
beyond the standard workweek and/or the ability of
employers to increase or intensify work demands.
The most recent investigation4shows that 23% of employees
in the US perform at least some work from home. The figures
are much higher for people with a bachelor’s degree or above,
at 36%. In spite of the belief that telecommunication would
reduce traffic, research [32] shows that this is not the case at
all. Commuting is actually increasing at an alarming pace.
In Stockholm, which has an advanced telecommunication
infrastructure, it was estimated that between 2000 and 2015,
commuting by mass transit would increase by 33% and 28%
by car. The question is thus: how much would commuting
increase if there were no telecommuting?
Telecommuting is not only making workload more flexible,
but it also makes it possible to take work home. Remote
work is not something that will be abolished in the near
future, as up to 85% [14] of workers are more likely to stay
with current employer if they have flexible work time. This,
in its turn, brings increased pressure on family shared time
(called “leisure time”) and consequently on sustainability of
existing social forms. It is an urgent priority to think those
issues through, from the point of view of society, business,
families and individuals as stakeholders. Is it good to be
online and reachable all the time? Is it possible to partition the
day between working time and private time? Mathiesen [15]
found that people want to be able to communicate with other
people at any time, but do not want to be reached at all
times, which is contradictory in nature. To some extent, email
4American Time Use Survey - 2013, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics www.
communication gets close to this ideal, while the expectation
of being contactable on Skype puts very high demand on
traditionally private time in late afternoons and evenings (and
sometimes even at night, due to time differences). Regarding
work time5:
A full-time worker in the OECD ... devotes 62% of
the day on average, or close to 15 hours, to personal
care (sleeping, eating, etc.) and leisure (socialising
with friends and family, hobbies, games, computer
and television use, etc.).
If we take into account a minimum of eight hours of sleep
and two hours for eating and other “self-maintenance”, plus
one hour for transportation activities, there seem to be four
waking hours daily available for private human needs, includ-
ing family, shopping, paying bills, sport activities, friends, etc.
It should be pointed out that individual variations are large.
Since current research shows indications that total working
hours are increasing, this is something we need to understand.
Nevertheless, some people claim: “If I Want to I Can Always
Turn It Off” [15]. Will it really be acceptable that employees
switch off their company owned mobile phones [33]? The
main problem is not that the working hours increase, rather
it is the expectation that one will be on standby for work
at all times. That extra cognitive load of never being able
to relax and completely dedicate shared time to one’s closest
relations produces chronic stress which makes this habit of a
life constantly online socially unsustainable [46].
D. Violent Computer Games
One of the earliest detected problems was violence in
games. Grossman performed early research [8] on violent
computer gaming (VCG) habits as early as 1996. He argued
that computer games have demonstrated real-life effects and
illustrates his claim with the use of computer games in
preparing soldiers for war. A recent literature survey by Statens
Medieråd [43] in Sweden from 2011 concludes that, out of
106 publications, it is not scientifically possible to draw any
conclusions as to whether VCG causes violent behavior or if
violent people are drawn to VCG. One possible conclusion
is that there is a positive feedback loop between the two.
Even though the discussion continues, one literature review [7]
shows that there are negative effects to extensive gaming, in
the form of aggression and asocial behavior.
E. Facilitated and Enhanced Deviant Behaviors
Mobile devices can be used for different kinds of deviant
behaviors, such as cyberstalking and cyberbullying. Cyber-
stalking is the use of the Internet or other electronic means
to stalk or harass an individual, a group, or an organization6.
Cyberbullying is the use of information technology to harm
or harass other people in a deliberate, repeated, and hostile
manner7. Stalking, harassment and bullying are illegal acts and balance/
6“Cyberstalking”. Oxford Dictionaries.
7“What is Cyberbullying”. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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present a severe problem which is widely debated. Different
kinds of online gambling (casinos, poker, lotteries, bingo,
betting, etc.) and internet pornography are multi-billion dollar
industries and also related to deviant behaviors. They are a
source of profound social problems that are widely known and
debated and thus are not the primary interest of our article,
as our focus is on cognitive sustainability, which has not yet
been given due attention.
F. Facilitated Tracking
Modern devices (including computers and mobile phones
owned by employers) are carrying more and more of individual
personal information in the form of private pictures, videos,
documents etc., which is both private and valuable for owners.
There are many apps that can report position etc. [34] which
can also be considered as private information. Access to such
data conflicts with the right to online privacy [35], i.e. the
user’s right to communicate, without third-party monitoring.
Additionally, it is possible to gather vast amounts of user data
in an automatic manner such as described in [36]. In this
particular case the data is used for research purposes, but can
be used for other purposes as well. An interesting topic is
tracking within close groups such as family, studied in [37]
who emphasizes that privacy does not mean independence
from society, but it allows social freedom. It is realized by
involvement in a variety of associations that present “safe
spaces for self-expression” where we communicate with dif-
ferent degrees of closeness, described by Mancini [37, p. 2]:
By restricting access to the ones outside those
spaces, privacy enables us to relate in meaningful
ways to the ones inside. In other words, privacy
is deeply socially embedded and so too is privacy
violation, which, therefore, is not without social
Even though sharing and a sense of mutual dependence and
closeness is typically high within families, tracking within a
family can easily lead to privacy violation, as it can “bypass
the system of boundaries set up within family contracts to
modulate and maintain relationships, exposing them to unde-
sirable states.” In a family setting there is often “reciprocity
between trackers and tracked: participants play both roles or
both the point of view of the tracker and the tracked are
taken into account.” Tracking of family members can make
people feel both comfortable and safe but also frustrated,
with a feeling of loss of freedom. So context-aware services
that would provide extensive information shared by family
members should be carefully designed with a variety of
personalised settings capabilities. There is also a new trend
to add context-aware services to SNS [38]. The idea is to
use contextual information to provide a more tailored service
for the user, for example during a meeting it is possible to
automatically map participants to a special SNS group. Such
monitoring functionality will of course require an extensive
privacy investigation before taken into use.
G. Gadget Addiction
Gadgets supply unprecedented communication capacity
coupled with easy data access [39]. Quick and easy rewards
make gadgets attractive for most people [40]. The effect of
gadget over-usage is apparent. People cannot stop updating
their Facebook accounts or repeatedly looking at new posts
being afraid that they will miss something important [41].
The study by Salehan and Negahban [39] indicates that using
interconnected SNS increases the risk of addiction. Research
by Billieux [40] confirms the link between gadget overuse
and addictive behavior. The level of addiction is related to
stimuli frequency and network size. Children also react to their
parents’ excessive use of ICT. As many as 33% of Swedish
children are asking for more parental attention [31].
H. Communication Etiquette
It has also been observed that there has been a complete
change in the attitudes towards communication etiquette.
Katz [41] describes how during meetings nowadays it is
often acceptable to check emails or communicate on social
sites, read articles, surf, etc. The introduction of worldwide
telecommunication coverage together with the always-online
mentality increases the phenomenon of constant usage of SNS.
This affects the results of a presentation when a majority
of the “listeners” pays only partial attention to their actual
context. The essential cognitive resource of shared attention
is becoming alarmingly scarce in direct social communication.
I. Cognitive Overload and Virtual Desensitization
The combination of finite cognitive resources with increas-
ing informational flows results in cognitive overload. The con-
sequence of long-term exhaustion and saturation of cognitive
resources is a chronic stress. Individual cognitive resources
that are connected in social cognition produce culture, with
language, arts and everyday cultural habits that are transmitted
to children. It is not difficult to imagine a cognitively exhausted
and impoverished culture where knowledge is transferred
indirectly from parents to children, without the close em-
bodied relationship of shared attention and affective presence.
Additionally, repeated exposure to the same situations within
virtual reality may lead to desensitization in the real world [16]
causing ordinary reaction to gradually diminish because of
habituation. Thus, experiences from virtual worlds such as
extreme violence affect reactions in the real world, such as
higher tolerance for violence.
Interesting in this context is the fact that our brain receives
11 million bits/sec input data from our senses, while conscious
processes are capable of handling 60 bits/sec in the form
of language/symbols. [50] That means that a huge part of
the information processing that our relation to the real-world
builds on is done without conscious control, based on massive
amounts of sensory data. Reducing this rich communication
with present-level digital communication is to deplete human
cognitive resources. This will slowly integrate into culture with
unforeseeable consequences, and therefore should be taken
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Structure/Process Importance for social sustainability References
Circles of privacy (proximity) Different levels of proximity build a complex social network of networks. [47]–[49]
Shared attention Enables common cognitive framework. [17]
Community and belongingness There is a fundamental need for humans to belong to a close group. [18]
Affective presence Enables empathy and provides a social glue. [24]
seriously as a question of cognitive- and eventually social
In order to elucidate the character of cognitive sustainability
as a basis of social sustainability, in this section we will present
an analysis of the mechanisms of social sustainability and their
corresponding structures, see Table III. In their study Magee et
al. [21] propose characterizing social sustainability through its
different aspects: economic, political, technological, ecological
and cultural. As a consequence of preceding discussions, we
propose adding a new aspect: cognitive sustainability, which
acknowledges that our cognitive resources are finite and can
be depleted. Our (finite) cognitive resources are central to our
ability to relate to both society and nature, to make balanced
and well-reasoned decisions, to communicate, learn, memorize
– and pretty much everything else we do. Being constantly
bombarded by information designed to catch our attention and
not having automatic mechanisms to filter out irrelevant and
useless information, can lead to problems such as addictive
behavior, loss of sense of reality, desensitization, aggression,
etc. Social sustainability is based on the cognitive resources of
its stakeholders, individuals and groups building complex net-
worked structures. If human cognitive resources gradually get
depleted because of overexposure to information, which has
little relevance to core aspects of real life, that will negatively
affect all other aspects of social sustainability which builds
on sound human cognitive capacities, both as individuals and
as constituent parts of extended (social) cognition. Findings
in Section IV regarding privacy issues, children’s overuse of
technology, intrusion of work into private life, tracking issues,
addiction, cognitive overload and desensitization suggest that
from the perspectives of individuals, families, working orga-
nizations and from a societal perspective, the present state of
development and practice is not socially sustainable, as it does
not meet some of the fundamental human needs, especially
when it comes to new generations who have grown up with
A. Circles of Privacy (Proximity) and Shared Attention
Privacy is a human right guaranteed by Article 12. of The
Universal Declaration of Human Rights8
In spite of that, there are pessimists who, extrapolating from
current trends, predict the end of privacy [47]. We will argue
that it is crucial not to give up privacy as a human right,
as it is essential for the whole of human existence – from
5 15 >500
Associates and colleagues
50 150
Fig. 3: Levels of communication with ranges of proximity. Numbers
indicate typical amount of connections [4]
the feeling of identity and community to our ability to make
sense of the world based on autonomous access to reality,
free from purposeful manipulations. As with technology in
general, ICT systems shape the way we think, and the way
we behave [48]. The process we are witnessing globally is
that, instead of a clear distinction between different circles of
privacy as shown in Fig. 3, we get mutually connected with the
same ease with complete strangers as with family members.
Despite physical proximity of family members, each of them
can nowadays be active on their own Facebook, Google+,
Twitter, Instagram, Blogger, etc. Cognitive engagement is frag-
mented, shared attention and affective presence nonexistent.
This changes the very basis of human relationships, with the
potential to radically negatively impact future generations.
Fig. 3 illustrates the relationships between circles of closeness
as defined for different types of relationships – family, friends,
colleagues, acquaintances and others. The Dunbar number [4]
indicates that approximately 5 individuals are located in the
closest relationship, increasing [5] by a factor of 3 for each
new level, resulting in roughly 150 for the total number of
connections one can practically manage. The effortless and
intense ICT connections between all circles, irrespective of
distance, contribute to the blurring of the distinction between
private life and work/public life. Complex social structures
that used to function as indicators of closeness, attachment
and affiliation are dissolving. Individuals in a social unit such
as a family form different circles of proximity when they
are separately exposed to different virtual worlds instead of
having shared experience, Fig. 3. In a modern family, for
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Software Engineering in Society
example, children spend extensive unsupervised time [29],
[30] on their gadgets while their parents are using their own
online devices [31]. Each family member acquires his or her
own experience. They often do not share the same friends
and their friends do not know each other – thus, an important
social reinforcement mechanism is getting lost. This will lead
to differentiated behavioral patterns in situations where we
traditionally had a shared behavior within the social group.
What are the effects on a family when members no longer
share the same values, experiences, memories, interests and
behavioral patterns? One of the effects of extensive online
communication is that levels of proximity get compressed.
The vast increase in long-range at the expense of short-
range communication threatens to turn global social network
of networks with different degrees of cohesion into network
of cognitively equally loosely bound nodes – with strangers
getting closer while the previously closest social groups such
as families drift apart. It is interesting to notice that Aristotle,
in his work De Anima, presents a hierarchy of the senses,
where sight is the highest of the senses, followed by hearing,
smell, touch and taste. Those can be seen as levels of privacy
– with taste as the most private level that demands closest
proximity and sight as the least private one. The members
of the closest group one can see, hear, smell and even taste.
With members of the general public, we communicate through
sight and speech. Loss of privacy leads to loss of ability to
distinguish between belonging to different types of groups –
from closest to the most distant. Our near relationships are
characterised by the sense of community which, according
to [49], has four elements: 1. membership, the feeling of
belonging and relatedness; 2. influence, a sense of making
a difference; 3. reinforcement, fulfillment of needs and sup-
port; and 4. shared emotional connection, “the commitment
and belief that members have shared and will share history,
common places, time together, and similar experiences.” The
lack of community/belongingness can cause several negative
side-effects as there is a fundamental need for long-term close
interpersonal relations [18].
B. Circles of Proximity and Social Sustainability
What can be done to mitigate this development that endan-
gers the very foundation of social sustainability? The first step
is to understand the radical change in communication patterns
and its consequences for social structures – and thus to identify
the problem. Technology is still today developed almost ex-
clusively through solving technical problems, without explicit
concern for social sustainability issues. After identifying the
problem of cognitive sustainability the next step will be to
positively influence the development of new gadgets. Using
Value Sensitive Design (VSD) [51] is one way to increase
the awareness of sustainability issues. VSD explicitly address
questions of consequences of design, taking insights from
Human Computer Interaction, Ethics, Information Design and
Requirement Engineering to design future software products,
services and devices. The VSD of new ubiquitous mobile
devices should enable and encourage users in social groups
to interact and experience their informational environment
together in different circles of proximity, instead of only
individually, as is typically the case.
According to Lago et al. [52] the current understanding of
sustainable software includes two different interpretations of
sustainability – relative and absolute, where relative sustain-
ability implies that a function shall sustain over a specific time,
while absolute sustainability implies that, a software product
or service will “contribute to preserving environmental and
human well-being.” Thus our present analysis is done with ab-
solute sustainability in mind. Ultimately, a high-level analysis
must “break down the definition of sustainability so that it can
be applied to SE”. For software engineering, Lago et al. [52]
identify the future challenges for requirements, design and
quality of software. Among software requirements, sustainabil-
ity aspects should be included as extra-functional properties.
The contribution of this paper consists in identification of
cognitive sustainability as a new aspect of social sustainability
for ICT, which will have an impact on the requirements for the
development of future software. Cognitive sustainability builds
on close relationships that support and relieve the burden of
cognitive overload, which depend essentially on the possibility
of privacy and preserved integrity.
A. Examples of Software Engineering for Privacy Protection
As far back as 1993 Bellotti and Sellen [53] proposed a
solution to the problem of design for privacy in ubiquitous
computing environments. Thomas et al. [54, p. 11] presents
an example on the method of distilling privacy requirements
for mobile applications. The authors explain:
Eliciting mobile privacy requirements is challenging,
largely due to the fact that mobile privacy issues
are so dependent on the physical and socio-cultural
context of the users. This means that only data that
captures the nuances of these contextual factors and
variations can adequately inform the development
of privacy requirements for privacy-aware mobile
The distillation tool enables requirements analysts to use
qualitative empirical data and refine them systematically in
accordance with users’ privacy needs. Obviously, design for
socially sustainable ICT demands more than the technical
solution of the different types of communication in different
circles of privacy. The question is not only how to prevent
intrusions but also how to promote a sense of togetherness and
group affiliation and especially how to design informational
environments for children that will support shared cognition
and affective presence of parents.
B. Software Engineering for Cognitive Sustainability
Cognitive sustainability is fundamentally determined and
regulated by preservation of differentiated circles of proximity.
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Software Engineering in Society
It requires technological solutions that would indicate close-
ness between closely related people who could share more,
and in a different way. However, not all solutions can be
provided by technology alone. In a socio-technological system,
the relationship to technology is a part of culture. As a culture
we still lack insight about the value of shared attention and
affective presence. Sensible use of technology is not only a
question of technology, but also of culture. SE design can
improve social sustainability through better privacy manage-
ment by providing a means to understand relational distance
to other users [18]. When using a gadget to communicate with
a person, their closeness could be suggested by the “look
and feel” of the interface, helping the caller to distinguish
closely related people from strangers. Currently there are some
initial attempts to achieve this in Google Circles, VIP people
and family sharing in Apple products. During the design
and development of new gadgets, products and services, the
SE community can contribute by integrating functionality to
understand long- and short-range as well as close and distant
relationships. Knowing the relational and physical distance
will help people to make a cognitively sustainable integration
of their virtual/real-world and private/official role in society.
Globally, we are undergoing a cognitive revolution, which is
causing radical changes in our habits. The changes are driven
by ICT that is becoming a ubiquitous part of our culture and
civilization. All trends are pointing towards further develop-
ment in the form of cloud computing, Internet of things, cog-
nitive computing, ambient intelligence, etc. Our cognition has
developed through a process of evolution, dominated by real-
world physical interactions. Currently, in a very short period of
time, cognition is becoming increasingly based on computer-
mediated information, and both our relation to nature and
our social relationships are forming through communication
via ICT. Even our closest relationships, such as those with
our children, have recently become, to a significant degree,
mediated by technological devices. Some aspects of this de-
velopment give us reasons to worry about social sustainability,
and more specifically about the cognitive sustainability of
present communication forms. There are empirical studies
indicating problematic social effects resulting from increasing
mobile ICT use, as we have shown in the paper. For example
privacy intrusion, tracking, addiction, desensitization, lack
of shared attention and affective presence in closely related
groups. We point out that it is important that the vast positive
consequences of increased ICT usage for enhanced distributed
cognition on the social level, be in balance with the individual
need for privacy, closeness, shared attention and affective
presence. Combining the preservation of the tightest bounds
in the closest groups can reduce the negative effects of ICT by
providing feelings of security and belongingness. Moreover, it
is necessary for us to make active choices so that children can
meet in the real world instead of spending all their time online
or playing computer games alone. Human embodied cognition
needs rich variety of real world experiences to fully develop.
There is still research to be done about how different levels
of proximity regulate information flows and provide social
cohesion. We should understand the consequences of different
models of social organization. Given modern simulation tools,
such studies are possible. Even anthropological comparative
studies of different social organizations can help us to under-
stand what happens in a complex social structure compared
to the flat structure where every node in the network is an
equally important source of information for every other node.
Value sensitive design can help to develop the new genera-
tion of context sensitive devices that will reduce the desensi-
tization effect by making gadget users aware of the relation-
ships in the space of circles of proximity/privacy/publicity –
reality/virtuality. Making distinctions in the look and feel of
the user interface for ubiquitous mobile devices, depending
on the levels of proximity, is both possible and desirable.
Relational distance indicators can provide support to manage
different levels of closeness, which in turn can allow the user
to share various amounts and types of information, depending
on the type of relationship. Such new technology, more
human-centric and cognitively noninvasive, may contribute
to the social sustainability of the global ICT-based society.
The flattening of complex network of networks of social
relationships without differentiating between distant and close
communication is unsustainable and should be avoided by new
and better technical solutions.
As an engineering community, we aim to constructively
contribute to the sustainable development of society by de-
signing and constructing devices that will better reflect our
cognitive, social, emotional and informational needs. So, what
kind of computers are needed to support our basic human
cognitive needs? That is an important question for cognitive
scientists, sociologists, psychologists, ethicists and interaction
designers. Software engineers who design and program ICT
devices and form their functionality based on a variety of func-
tional and nonfunctional requirements have an important role
in the future development. As a conclusion, we emphasize that
ICT provides both tools and building blocks for the cognitive
revolution. We want to embrace the cognitive revolution while
being socially sustainable by securing the cognitive well-being
of individuals in their private and working lives. We have a
long way to go, but the first step is to identify the problems and
propose possible routes to cognitively sustainable solutions.
This work has, for the first author, been funded by Ericsson
AB and by the Swedish Knowledge Foundation.
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Introduction What is Value Sensitive Design? The Tripartite Methodology: Conceptual, Empirical, and Technical Investigations Value Sensitive Design in Practice: Three Case Studies Value Sensitive Design's Constellation of Features Practical Suggestions for Using Value Sensitive Design Conclusion Acknowledgments References
Conference Paper
As mobile computing applications have become commonplace, it is increasingly important for them to address end-users’ privacy requirements. Privacy requirements depend on a number of contextual socio-cultural factors to which mobility adds another level of contextual variation. However, traditional requirements elicitation methods do not sufficiently account for contextual factors and therefore cannot be used effectively to represent and analyse the privacy requirements of mobile end users. On the other hand, methods that do investigate contextual factors tend to produce data that does not lend itself to the process of requirements extraction. To address this problem we have developed a Privacy Requirements Distillation approach that employs a problem analysis framework to extract and refine privacy requirements for mobile applications from raw data gathered through empirical studies involving end users. Our approach introduces privacy facets that capture patterns of privacy concerns which are matched against the raw data. We demonstrate and evaluate our approach using qualitative data from an empirical study of a mobile social networking application.