Social Impact

views updated

Social Impact

Computing technologies, like most other forms of technology, are not socially neutral. They affect and are themselves affected by society. Computers have changed the way people relate to one another and their living environment, as well as how humans organize their work, their communities, and their time. Society, in turn, has influenced the development of computers through the needs people have for processing information. The study of these relationships has come to be known as "social informatics."

Computing technology has evolved as a means of solving specific problems in human society. The earliest kinds of computational devices were the mechanical calculators developed by Blaise Pascal (16231662) in 1645 and Gottfried Leibniz (16461716) in 1694 for solving the navigational and scientific problems that began to arise as Europe entered a new and heightened period of scientific development and international commerce. In 1801 Joseph-Marie Jacquard (17521834) invented perhaps the first type of programmed machine, called Jacquard's Loom, in order to automate the weaving of cloth with patterns. Jacquard was motivated by the desire of capitalists in the early Industrial Age who wanted to reduce the cost of producing their goods through mass production in factories.

The twentieth century saw the development of scientific research and engineering applications that required increasingly complex computations. Urgent military needs created by World War II spurred the development of the first electronic computers; the devices in use today are the descendants of these room-sized early efforts to streamline military planning and calculation. The needs and desires of society have subsequently influenced the development of a vast array of computing technologies, including supercomputers , graphics processors, games, digital video and audio, mobile computing devices, and telephones.

In the twenty-first century, computers are used in almost every facet of society, including (but not limited to) agriculture, architecture, art, commerce and global trade, communication, education, governance, law, music, politics, science, transportation, and writing. In general, computing technologies have been applied to almost every situation falling into one of two categories. The first category covers applications that require the organization, storage, and retrieval of large amounts of information such as library catalogs or bank records. The second category includes applications that require the coordination of complex processes, like the control of machinery involved in the manufacture of cars or the printing of books and newspapers.

Impact of Computers on Work

One of the ways that computers have made an impact on society is in how people have organized themselves in workplace groups in relationship to computers. The earliest computers were developed to perform specific tasks in science, engineering, or warfare that had previously been done by hand. Soon general-purpose computers could automate almost any information processing task required to manage an organization, such as payroll processing and record management. However, since early generation computers were relatively expensive, all of an organization's information processing tasks were typically centralized around the one large computer it could afford. Departments and people in such organizations would likewise be organized in a centralized fashion to facilitate their access to the computer. Companies with centralized information processing, for example, usually had most of their administrative offices in the same geographic location as their computer resources.

Subsequent developments in computing technology changed the way companies organized people who perform similar tasks. The advent of computer networking and lower cost minicomputers enabled entire organizations that were once centralized around a single computer to rearrange themselves into geographically dispersed divisions. The integration of telecommunications with computing allowed people in remote places such as branch offices to use computers located in distant parts of their organization. This decentralization continued with the advent of the personal computer. PCs provided a low-cost way for large organizations to transform themselves further by redistributing information processing responsibilities to small departments and individuals in many locations.

Not only have computers changed the way in which workplaces structure their tasks and workers, they have also dramatically changed the work itself. Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) was first introduced in the 1950s with numerically controlled machines. These and other forms of computer-based automation have been associated with the loss of jobs and certain skills, and the need to master new skills. Since the middle of the twentieth century, computer-controlled devices have gradually eliminated certain types of jobs and the need for people to perform particular skills. As a consequence, workers have had to learn new skills in order to continue working in environments that increasingly depend on computers.

One major result has been the shift of some economies, such as that of the United States, from manufacturing to service jobs. Entirely new categories of jobs have been created to support and implement computer technology. In addition, the ease of networking computers has led businesses to relocate jobs to remote locations. For example, a number of companies now hire computer programmers who are located in other countries, such as India, in order to save on labor costs. Within the United States, increasing numbers of companies allow employees to work from their homes or work centers away from the corporate headquarters. These so-called telecommuters are able to communicate with their employers and deliver their work using the Internet.

The advent of e-mail, the World Wide Web, and other Internet technologies has perhaps made the most significant impact on the social fabric of American society. People can now communicate with others in remote places, easily, affordably, and often anonymously. They can search for, share, and transfer more information, and more quickly, than ever before. People distributed across remote locations can organize themselves into "virtual communities" based on shared interests, regardless of their geographic locations. The Internet has also changed the way both education and entertainment can be delivered into private homes and public spaces.

Effects of the Computer Age

Psychologists have long been interested in observing and analyzing the way humans interact with computers. Research in human-computer interaction has studied how people read and process information presented to them on computer screens, the types of input errors people are most likely to make when using different computer systems, and the effectiveness of various kinds of input devices such as keyboards, mice, and light pens. Psychological issues have also been identified in how people behave toward other people when they use computing technologies such as e-mail and how they behave toward computers. Studies have shown, for example, that people use the anonymity that e-mail and other Internet technologies afford to construct alternate identities for themselves. Other studies indicate that people often apply the same rules of social behavior, such as politeness, toward computers as they would to other people.

The impact of computers on lifestyles has largely paralleled the impact of computing on social organization, work, and personal communication. The effect has become more pronounced as personal computing devices become increasingly more commonplace in American society. In particular, computers coupled with telecommunications technologies enable many people to live and work more independently and remotely than ever before. Individuals using personal computers can publish books, make airline reservations, and hold meetings to share information with any number of people across the globe. Some observers view these developments positively, while others are concerned that the widespread use of computers has led to lifestyles that contain increasing amounts of work.

see also E-commerce; Embedded Technology (Ubiquitous Computing); Ethics; Human Factors: User Interfaces; Internet; Jacquard's Loom; Privacy.

William J. McIver, Jr.


Greenbaum, Joan. Windows on the Workplace: Computers, Jobs and the Organization of Office Work in the Late Twentieth Century. New York: Cornerstone Books/Monthly Review Press, 1995.

Kling, Rob. "Learning about Information Technologies and Social Change: The Contribution of Social Informatics." The Information Society 16, no. 3 (2000): 217232.

Landauer, Thomas K. The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

Reeves, Byron, and Clifford Nass. The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Stern, Nancy, and Robert A. Stern. Computers in Society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1983.

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.