Last updated: 9/1/03
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Issues in Computers and Society
Science and Technology Division
Department of Interdisciplinary Studies
There are many social issues surrounding the increasing use of computers and the Internet. Here is my own attempt to present and discuss these issues. You should understand that this comes from a technological optimist, that is, one who believes that technology solves more human problems than it causes. Technology creates new problems, some of which can potentially be extremely serious, but it also creates new options for dealing with new and existing problems. I do try to indicate where there is disagreement, and what the opposing arguments are. But I have to recognize the possibility that I may not be fair to the opponents.
Essays and quizzes can advocate opposing views, but they cannot ignore the arguments made here.
Issue: Are computers and the Internet "just another technology"
Are computers and the Internet just another technology, like agriculture or railroads, or is there something about computers that makes them different than other technologies? My feeling about this is that, to some extent, computers are like other technologies, and will have similar effects. That is, new industries will arise, new skills will be required, some social problems will be ameliorated but others will increase. In this respect, we can learn from the past. But on the other hand there is a good case to be made that computers are a new kind of technology, more like us than earlier technologies. For example, while computers and humans are very different, computers are much more like humans than, say a hammer or a laser. Computers are the first (only?) general-purpose technology, and therefore have more potential to provide competition for humans, compared to other forms of technology. While computers are not at present intelligent, they are more like humans than are other technologies, such as the automobile or television. Therefore, we should consider the possibility that the effects of computers will be different than the effects of earlier technologies. The Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web, are probably growing faster than any previous elements of society, doubling every eighteen months or faster. Clearly, these are meeting a fundamental need within society for communication. Mass communication including media such as audio and video is now within the power of anybody with a few thousand dollars, and that threshold is declining. Previously, to get this reach, a major media investment was required, probably on the order of one billion dollars, and that was only for one-way communications. This is spreading the power away from providers of information and media, such as TV, recording studios and even educational institutions, to consumers of information such as listeners, musicians (professional and amateur) and students (or, more generally, learners). Most institutions will be dramatically affected, even though it is impossible today to say what the ultimate effects will be; we will clearly be working this out as we go along.
There is another aspect to this question. Can companies and other organizations, and people, adjust to the Internet by making some changes in their present methods, or will this kind of gradual change be too slow. In my own industry -- higher education -- it is common to take the first point of view. Develop a web site, put some classes online, and do a little more each year, and we'll be fine. But more and more industries are finding that fundamental changes are necessary in order to avoid being swallowed up by the more Internet-aware among their competitors, or even that new competitors are starting from scratch and pulling ahead. Some changes that, taken together, tend towards this more revolutionary change, are
So, increasingly, as the Internet moves across our society and the economy, industries will find that they need to make fundamental changes in order to be quick, competitive and responsive enough. Blown to Bits is the title of a recent book about these effects of the Internet, and it's from the Harvard Business School.
Issue: Will there be enough jobs for people?
This is probably the most widespread concern about technology in general, and computers in particular. Technology in the workplace leads to greater efficiency and productivity (or at least it is supposed to!); that is, to fewer workers being needed for the same output. If technology puts people out of work, won't unemployment increase disastrously? This argument seems to make sense, but average employment keeps on growing. (As of 2003 we are in a rough spot, though most people think this will be temporary.) But how can we need fewer workers for the same output, and still have growing employment? This has been the pattern for most of the time that computers have been with us.
First, here is how technology can reduce employment in a given industry. One of the quantities that economists talk about is "labor productivity." There are other types of productivity -- investment productivity, for example -- but labor productivity is the most common, and is often shortened to "productivity." Basically, this tries to measure how much labor it takes to produce a given product. I haven't actually seen it defined, but I suspect it is units of output divided by hours of labor to produce that output. Many economic statistics are defined so that the basic value is 100, and productivity is defined this way. If it takes one hour of labor to produce one VCR, let's call that a productivity of 1 VCR divided 1 hour of labor, times 100 (we will use "*" for multiplication), so that (1/1) * 100 = 100, so the productivity is 100. Now, suppose an improved assembly line is installed, and it now takes half an hour of labor to produce a VCR. The new productivity is (1 VCR divided by 0.5 hours) * 100 = (1/.5) * 100 = 200. The productivity has doubled, from 100 to 200, because it takes half as much labor time to produce the same output.
Now, what effect will this have on employment? If the same number of VCRs is produced, the labor force can be cut in half. But wait, it is not that simple. Labor costs are often the highest part of production costs, so the higher productivity will cut the manufacturer's costs, even after the cost of the new assembly line is factored in, and if competition is working, lower prices will result. (Competition results in lower prices because the producer that charges the least for an equivalent product will get almost all of the customers. Charging more than "the market" results in lower total profits, even though the profit on each individual VCR is higher.) If prices go down, the law of supply and demand will then increase demand. If the demand doubles, enough more VCRs will be sold so that the same number of workers will be needed. It sometimes happens that demand more than doubles, so that even more workers are hired. This is what happened with Henry Ford and the Model A. Automation was installed, prices were cut, production and sales soared, and employment also increased dramatically, even though there was less worker time per automobile. On the other hand, if demand increases but does not double, some workers, but less than half, will be laid off.
But there is more. If the cost of VCRs goes down, and consumers spend less money on VCRs, they have more money to spend on other things, so demand will increase in other sectors of the economy. If the cost of a VCR goes from $200 to $100, you have another $100 to spend on other things. Further, historically, some of the increased profit from higher productivity has been shared with workers in the form of higher wages and salaries. If this happens in many industries, overall demand in the economy will also rise. To continue the paycheck example, the amount of the paycheck may also go up.
(On the average, a certain percentage of the gross income of all companies goes to workers. Other things that the total gross income is spent on are supplies, investment or new equipment, interest costs for borrowed money, and profits.) The percentage going to wages and salaries has fluctuated up and down over time. Currently, this percentage is about as low as it has ever been in the U.S., so a lower percentage of the savings due productivity goes to workers these days, but they still get some. Economists note that union membership has a strong upward influence on workers' wages, so perhaps the current strengthening of unions means that workers will be getting a larger fraction of cost savings and the proceeds from increased sales.)
Rising income produces more demand. And the largest effect seems to be that the demand is for new products and services, in industries that haven't existed before. Most of the occupations held today did not exist a hundred years ago (Society and Technological Change, author Rudi Volti, Page 145). In other words, the demand for new products and services, that didn't exist before, is even greater than the increase in demand for existing products, when the prices are cut.
So the result has been, over hundreds of years, that new technology means that employment levels rise. While there are no guarantees that this will continue to be the case, it seems that, if we all continue to want more things and more services, overall employment will keep pace.
Now, does this mean that there are no problems? No, there are problems. Existing jobs disappear. Even if those jobs are replaced with new jobs, people will still be put out of work and have to find new jobs. Of course, if changing jobs becomes commonplace, at least some people will anticipate being laid off, and perhaps change jobs on their own. But no doubt, the experience of being laid off will continue, and along with that the negative consequences.
First, there is the emotional trauma of losing a job, especially if you had "settled in" and thought you were all set until retirement. Maybe the work process and skill levels had not been kept up to date. I have been fired (although in education it is called "non-renewal of the position") several times. The first time, in particular, depressed me for months. And it was never pleasant, never just something you shrug off. It would be nice if we could find a way to lessen this trauma.
But even without that, there is real uncertainty for the laid-off employee, and probably lost time, and often the disruption for both workers and communities of moving and breaking up relationships with neighbors, and so on. And beyond that, there is retraining.
Economists lump all of this, or at least the economic effects, into the term "displacement." Jobs disappear in one sector and are displaced into another, and the workforce has to follow.
I don't see an up side to any of this, except that the retraining keeps skills current. Economically, it is the way our economy stays efficient and focused on what people actually want. But, if this is going to be a continuing and foreseeable effect of our type of economy and society, then I personally feel that we should try to anticipate these effects and take social (this usually means governmental) actions to help workers and communities make these transitions. Unemployment insurance, retraining programs and similar aids come to mind. And employers should help employees keep their skills current, and government support or pressure may be necessary to make this happen. But this paragraph is my own view only, and these days I don't see society or government going in that direction. The rationale for not having government act is that only the individual faces the real pressure, and can find an efficient path to keeping employed. In other words, according to this argument, the people running the training programs, and even the employers they ask for advice about what training programs they have openings in, don't know what the real labor market is, since they are not unemployed, and so they do not train in the areas that are really needed. There is probably some truth to this argument, and perhaps retraining should not be very job-specific, but more skills-oriented. Training in the use of computers, for example, will almost always help people find jobs these days.
Issue: Permanent underclass
If workers are going to be responsible for keeping their own skills up to date, and if this is going to be expensive, then there is a real possibility that if people fall behind, or even start out behind, that they will not be able to afford to catch up, and will be permanently trapped in low-wage jobs, or worse, become permanently "unemployable."
I feel that a permanent underclass would mean needless human misery, a waste of human resources, and would, especially if the underclass became sizable, present a danger to society. I feel that there must be support for those who start out behind, or who fall behind. The support must enable them to bring their skills up to date, at least enough to be able to compete for good jobs. I am concerned that the current level of support may not be adequate, and that much of society does not seem to care.
NOTE: It is often assumed that a permanent underclass, if it developed, would be composed of African-Americans, or at least predominantly so. In the form presented above, anyone who started out behind or who fell behind would become trapped. So, while there are concerns about racial justice here, I personally feel that this is fundamentally not a racial issue. But there is plenty of disagreement here.
Issue: Racial / ethnic / cultural equality
African-Americans, as a group, historically have not used computers and the Internet at the same levels as other groups in American society. (There are of course, many African-Americans who use computers at the highest level of skill and intensity.) Hispanics are another group, apparently using computers less than African-Americans. What are the causes of this lower average level of usage? Does this lower level of usage mean that African-Americans in general will have additional handicaps in competing for jobs? As consumers? As students? Should we be concerned about this? Who is the "we" that should be concerned? Should there be any action programs to counter this trend? What actions could be taken? Who should take them? But wait! Within the past few years, middle- and upper-class African-Americans have started using computers at the same level as middle- and upper-class majority populations, so the digital divide seems to be improving. And just this year (2003) the newest study shows young African-Americans of whatever economic class using computers as much as any other group.
Even if the digital divide inside the US seems to be healing, there is still a digital divide between countries. Should the US be concerned over this? Opinion in the country is divided. My own opinion is yes, we should be concerned, and try to heal the divide, but it is not even clear how to start.
Issue: Invasion of privacy
There are several aspects to invasion of privacy.
B. Someone might be able to intercept our computer communications, such as email or electronic purchasing, perhaps obtaining embarrassing or damaging information, or information such as a Social Security Number or credit card account. While this can happen at present, it is actually rare, even though it makes the headlines whenever it happens, or whenever somebody thinks it could possibly happen. In order for someone to intercept computer communications, s/he must (1) have exceptional computer skills, (2) have some reason to focus on you, and (3) have a considerable amount of time to spend on this. Most of us are not that rich or that famous to have these resources focused on our humble selves. If someone wanted your credit card number, it would be easier to tap your telephone line. If this does become a real concern in the future, there is already available encryption technology to encode your information so that only the intended recipient can decode it. In some cases, such as secure web servers (HTTPS or Secure HTTP protocol), this technology is already in routine use. The software is available on the Internet at no cost. In fact, this encryption software is so powerful that the government for a long time proposed making it illegal, or at least illegal for export, but it is already so widely available that this was impractical, and it can now be freely exported under US law.
While personal information is only rarely stolen as it travels over the Internet, it can also be stolen from, say, the merchant's own computers once it is stored. Most credit card theft happens this way. This information must be protected by User Names and Passwords, and should be, although it is not normally, be stored in an encrypted or scrambled form, so that stealing the file by itself won't be useful.
But most computer information is stolen using another method entirely; an employee with legitimate access becomes corrupt and steals or sells the information. But this happens with or without computers. Computers do make the process faster and more widespread, however; stolen credit card numbers are bundled together and sold in bulk. Otherwise, thieves would have to sell masses of paper slips, which would be much slower.
C. Someone might be able to assemble partial information from different sources, and put together a file on us that would be more detailed and complete than we would find acceptable. This is quite a bit more realistic. With earlier technology, we could safeguard privacy by compartmentalizing information on separate computers. However, modern database technology makes it easy to combine information from different sources. False information has been included, presumably by accident. Companies that provide credit risk information on consumers gather this information. Laws have been passed giving citizens the right to know what is in these files. It is not clear that these safeguards will be adequate. Another type of company tries to assemble information to resell it, for example to marketing companies. This has so far come to light when the companies start to market their information product. In one recent case, such a company agreed not to sell Social Security Numbers. Many State governments sell the information from their drivers license and motor vehicle registration databases. When you use information facilities such as the World Wide Web, quite detailed information is routinely available about what you read and for how long. This information is actually not tied to you personally, but to the computer you use. Filling out online forms with personal information, ordering a customized product, or even browsing an online catalog makes information about your preferences available to the site operators. Many web sites now have privacy statements stating what use they will make of such information, but terminology is not standard, and enforcement is minimal. Some sites will display a logo stating that they have made a commitment to one set of standards or another, and a very few have been audited by an outside firm for their information and privacy practices.
At this point, there is a large potential for assembling information on citizens about their preferences for products, colors, sizes, and similar information useful for marketing. While this will be unwelcome for many people, others welcome the idea that companies may be designing products with them in mind. There is less potential for assembling harmful or damaging information, and where this has happened and become known, legal safeguards have been enacted.
Issue: Relationships Between Employees and Employers
During the Industrial Age, labor became a commodity; that is, something for sale where any brand or source is as good as any other. Commodities are primarily sold on the basis of the lowest cost and the greatest convenience to the purchaser, and labor was no different. In this situation, workers found that by banding together in unions, they could counterbalance the dominant force that employers otherwise had; that is, if A wouldn't accept the wages and terms being offered, then B would. ("If you don't show up on Sunday, don't bother showing up on Monday", child labor, unsafe working conditions) In the Information Age that we now seem to be entering, manufacturing is done by fewer and fewer people, and union membership is declining, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the workforce. People with high skills in high-demand areas are in short supply, and can easily demand and receive high wages and benefits without the support of unions. On the other hand, people at the low-skill/low-wage end of the service economy are often in temporary positions, and are difficult for unions to deal with. It seems that there are few enough people in this area so that they are not regarded as a general social problem. The work force in general is becoming more mobile, changing jobs and careers more often. And, unions have suffered from a poor general image in the recent past, being perceived as special-interest groups concerned only about their members' narrow interests, without regard for the general welfare. In a period of high economic growth, such as we have been experiencing throughout the 1990s, even though wages for people at the low end of the economy have been growing more slowly than wages in general, they have still been increasing, even after accounting for inflation. All of these factors, and probably more besides, are combining to decrease the need or desirability of joining a union, and so leave individual workers in the growing sectors of the economy with only themselves to rely on in their dealings with employers.
Will this state of affairs last forever? Most probably not. Markets are supposed to work to bring supply and demand into balance, so we should expect the labor market for highly-skilled workers to come into balance, both as more students figure out what type of education and training get results, and as employers find ways to deal with specific skill shortages. True, if international competition stays strong, the demand for creative workers may stay high. However, it is still reasonable to look for some tempering of the need for these high-skilled workers. Economists say that an economic downturn is inevitable, but even if economic growth only slows a little, that could easily mean that new jobs are not created as fast as the population increases. Also, as the population ages but stays healthy, and as traditional pensions decline, older workers that would ordinarily have retired will more often choose to or need to keep on working, later into old age. Some commentators see a trend towards self-employed individuals or even small teams of workers, sometimes running their own businesses but sometimes contracting themselves out to larger companies. Taking these trends altogether, it seems reasonable at this time, to expect that the balance of power will again shift more towards employers.
If such a shift occurs, will unions once more grow in membership and power? For this to become a practical question, it may not necessary that the situation of workers actually deteriorate in absolute terms, but only that workers' situations decline relative to that of employers, by an amount sufficient to motivate workers to join unions. There is some basis for a rational belief that the size and productivity of the information economy will continue to keep workers from joining unions, and that things will continue to get better on the average. But averages are not the whole story, and if the gap between the richest and poorest members of the society increases markedly, resentment by itself may be enough to motivate an increase in union membership. Even today, it is difficult to drive along Woodward Avenue in Detroit without wondering what a child must think of the differences that cause him or her to live in a neighborhood with empty stores and homes while others, whether of the same or a different ethnic category, within a short drive, live in areas that are more than comfortable.
If unions grow and organize the information sector, they will probably have to be unions of a different sort, able to locate their potential members quickly (electronically), able to track them from job to job, able to offer flexible affordable services to members, such as paths to jobs of different sorts, analysis of the economic condition of a company, and of the effects of accepting a given wage offer, and able to demonstrate the costs of turnover and low morale to an employer. and perhaps less concerned with legally binding contracts, because these decline in value for mobile workers, and more with anticipating and preventing problems. Indeed, we now see unions becoming more aggressive in preventing problems, less inclined to strike, and seeking to organize workers that were previously unreachable.
Issue: Falsifying information and/or the source of the information
Computers are great tools for processing information. "Processing" usually means some kind of change in the information, and this can include falsifying the information. It is also possible to make information appear to come from a source other than the actual source, or for a person to appear to be someone else. Of course, none of these are new human endeavors, but the amount of information that computers can process makes a larger scale possible, and also makes more perfect fakes possible, With photographs, an expert can detect a fake manufactured by physically altering the photograph, but with a computer, a perfect fake is possible.
However, there is now publicly and freely available software that can encode computer information and provide a software key, so that someone decoding the information can be virtually certain that the information came from the named originator, and that it was not changed along the way. This is called "public key encryption". And by the way, the "virtually" above means that even if all of the world's computers worked on nothing else, it would still take hundreds of years to corrupt the information.
Issue: Intellectual property rights
"Intellectual property" refers to the rights over ideas and concepts, and also to their representation in writing or media. Any published content, including web content, is automatically subject to copyright laws, whether this is stated in the content or not. Copyright laws restrict the use that can be made of copyrighted materials, allowing "fair use" for short quotations and the like, while restricting the rights to copy documents as a whole. The Internet makes documents so accessible and so easy to copy, that many suspect these laws are routinely broken.
This makes some traditional content providers nervous about going online. Some require passwords that are only issued after the user agrees to certain conditions, and others put a deliberate lag into their online information, waiting until that day's papers, for example, are sold. This is also common in sports broadcasts, for example, for which a game is often "blacked out" locally until all seats are sold.
There is also an issue of individual Vs corporate rights to content. Newspaper reporters, for example, often write books based on their reporting. University faculty also write books and create web sites for courses. Does the corporate entity -- the newspaper or the University -- own the rights to this material, or does the individual whose expertise establishes the value of the material own the rights? Computer programmers are another group so affected. What about students who have taken a course using a web site -- do their tuition payments entitle them to later use of the material web site, or to access later versions? And, of course, can any of these rights be effectively enforced?
There are two extreme positions that can be clearly discerned. One is the "no limits" group, who often say that, "information wants to be free." This group says that information, including rights both to the ideas behind content and the actual content itself, should be legally open to copying, retransmission and revision without limits. The other group maintains that investment in quality content will not be made without the possibility of charging for its use, and that the rights to charge for content will be meaningless if it can be copied and revised in this way.
This issue is closely tied to what type of society we are heading for. If information is to be the basis for wealth, just as factory ownership was the basis of wealth during the industrial age, then it must be possible to be rewarded in some way for producing information. But perhaps only the process deserves reward, but the product, the information itself, is free. Or perhaps packaging information for specific audiences is where value will be created. And, of course, there is always the possibility that, as a society, we are headed somewhere else.
Issue: Pornography and children
It is possible for children using the Internet to find on purpose or stumble upon by accident, pornography to which most people would not want them exposed. It is probably more likely that they find out about such Web Sites from friends. But there are many other ways that children can come into contact with pornography today; movies, TV, magazines and books are widely available. However, pornography via the Internet can be easier to find, and often is of a more extreme nature than other sources, especially sources that children would be likely to come in contact with. There is software that is supposed to intercept Internet pornography before it gets to the computer screen. This software has passwords so that parents can see what they like, and there is always the possibility that a clever child can bypass this feature or somehow find the password. Historically, it has always been impossible for censors to keep up with the inventiveness of artists and even sleazeballs. For example, some of this software blocks information about the American Revolution because it might corrupt young minds (the American Revolution, I am tempted to add, is wonderfully corrupting!).
The Communications Decency Act attempted to make illegal any pornography that could be seen by children. The Supreme Courts has unanimously ruled that this approach is unconstitutional. The US has almost always said that we cannot protect children by forbidding everyone, including adults, access to information. Hence the interest in the censoring software.
One suggestion for parents in this area is to keep the computer in an open area, where children can or might be be observed in the course of normal family business.
A related problem under this heading is the ability of pedophiles (adults who have a sexual desire for children) to find and identify children via the Internet. There are many web sites set up especially for children. Pedophiles will go to these sites, and pretend to be children. Children, once found in this way, are often trusting of others, and ready to give out information about themselves.
Here again, keeping the computer in an open area is a good suggestion for parents. There is also no substitute for discussions between parents and their children.
Issue: Pollution and environmental degradation
Technology is frequently blamed for degrading the environment. Computer technology can have some negative effects; solvents used in the manufacture of computers can damage the environment if they are released openly. But generally, computers have a positive effect on the environment. If we did not move information via computers, it would have to travel physically, and that almost certainly would involve an increase in pollution levels. If telecommuting becomes a significant force in the economy, that will reduce automotive pollution.
In another sense, computers are helping the cause of improving the environment. Computers are widely used in monitoring and modeling the environment, and this monitoring and modeling has done much to raise concerns about nuclear winter and global warming.
Issue: Dependence and the potential for disasters
There are people that feel that an over dependence on technology can lead to disaster. This is not a widespread public concern today. (Concern over the recent electrical blackout in the Midwest and northeast is already declining.) Probably the closest current widespread concern is the effect of technology on employment, discussed above. One point to make about technological dependence and disasters is that any dependence, not just a dependence on technology, can cause disaster. Certainly we have had enough recent news about natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, volcanoes, droughts, famines, floods and tornadoes to make us aware of this. In some cases, it is true that the technology in use at the time has made the effects worse. For example, levees have been blamed for increasing some of the flood damage along the Mississippi several years ago. And agricultural practices have been blamed of creating droughts in Africa. But still, natural disasters have always been around, and not all of the damage they cause can be blamed on technology. Making technology "safe," if that is in fact possible, will still not make us safe.
From another point of view, if we were to destroy all of our technology and go back to very early forms of society, that would also have a disastrous effect. Our technology, including agriculture, sanitation and manufacturing, makes it possible to sustain a much larger human population than can be sustained by early forms of society. "Back to nature" would probably kill off at least 90% of the population of the entire earth, and it would probably be more like 99.9%. No technologically-induced disaster has ever had that large an effect.
Issue: Regulation Vs Choice. The Internet presents many opportunities, and a seemingly equal number of dangers. Can our information be stolen, or more likely, integrated from different sources into a picture that includes financial, health, legal and personal aspects of our lives, and used by or sold to others that do not have our best interests at heart? What level of protection do I want from my ISP for spam, or privacy? What level of protection do I want for my underage children against pornography, or drugs, or instructions for making bombs? How do I know how to trust the expert that I am consulting for this or that? Is s/he qualified, endorsed by a professional organization, or valued by previous clients? Which phone plan is best for me? What about when my cable, telephone and Internet all come from the same company, or should I go with separate companies? If I decide how to invest my retirement benefits, what level of risk Vs gain is best? For health insurance, should I choose an HMO, or some other type, and what do I get if I pay higher premiums? Increasingly, decisions are being taken away from regulators and turned over to citizens. Each individual decision puts more of our lives into our own control, and that, it can be argued, is a good thing. Who is better qualified to know what we want, what is best for us, than we are? Oh yes, there may need to be some regulation to ensure the quality and transparency of the information that is supplied to us. But of course we know best.
But as the number of decisions and their complexity grows, will we continue to know best about all of them? How many areas can we pay attention to? Right now, some of them don't seem so important. The choice of an Internet Service Provider is a possible example. What does it matter who connects us? But what if one offers us lower rates if we will allow our usage information to be sold? What if there are different service plans? What if one requires a software upgrade? What if we do not have the time to pay careful attention to information and changes in all of these areas? There may be a case to be made for regulation. Regulation is appropriate in cases where the consequences of failures are unacceptable, or where the level of information and experience to protect one's interests is too high.