Social Controversies About
Rob Kling (Indiana University) (2.5c)
Copyright 1994 Rob Kling.
- Note: This article may be circulated for non-commercial purposes. Please contact Rob
Kling or compare it with the final published version before quoting directly.
SOCIAL CONTROVERSIES ABOUT COMPUTERIZATION
Digital computer systems have been among the most intriguing and most heralded
technologies of the late 20th century. Not surprisingly, many technologists, scientists,
journalists, managers, and other professionals have had a romance with computerizatio n.
And politicians have recently joined the celebration as well. Millions of people who were
vaguely aware of computer networks in 1991, started wanting to connect to an
"information highway" by 1994. Interest in computer networks had steadily grown
in academia and businesses through the 1980s. But US Vice President Al Gore's promotion of
universal access to information highways, as well as broad media coverage about
multi-billion dollar mergers between cable TV companies, film companies, and the like b
rought the future of computerization into a heightened public attention.
Even without the media hype, there would be much to write about the social aspects of
computerization. Computer-based technologies have amplified the abilities of people and
organizations in amazing ways. Scientists can model complex phenomena, and gath er and
analyze data on a scale they would have found almost unimaginable fifty years ago.
Organizations have developed computerized record systems to track a myriad of details
about people (their clients and employees), money (revenue, assets, and paymen ts), things
(inventory of all kinds), and relationships between them. Almost anybody who routinely
writes books, articles, or reports is likely to use a microcomputer of some kind or at
least have their manuscripts typed into one. In addition, computer s ystems are one of the
few technologies where the power and flexibility of the devices increase and the costs
decrease by an order of magnitude every decade.
But computerization has also been the source of problems which get relatively little
exposure in the popular press and professional magazines. Some of the problems are
pragmatic -- the dilemmas of dealing with imperfect computer systems that foul up bill s,
lose key data, or that are just much harder to work with than they should be. While these
kinds of problems can simply seem like minor irritants, foreshadow social problems of much
Consider the economic role of computer-based systems. So much of what we encounter in
the press identifies computer-based systems with cost savings, efficiency, and
productivity, that these consequences of computerization seem almost natural (or, if not
natural, still worth acquiring). Some writers have argued that computer-based systems are
central to developing a dynamic economy which is c ompetitive internationally -- in short,
absolutely essential for economic health and well-being. Yet others have criticized this
view, wondering why some organizations which have invested substantial amounts of money in
computer systems have not experien ced big payoffs. Moreover, some analysts believe that
the economic success of computer-based systems can lead to large-scale unemployment in
certain industries, with serious consequences for people who do not have (and might not
readily obtain) computing skills.
The economic role of computerization is not the only area of controversy. There have
been some important debates about many issues, including:
- Worklife. Is computerization likely to improve or degrade the quality of jobs for
managers, professionals and clerks? How do different approaches to designing computer
systems and their social environments alter the character and quality of jobs? Can
computer and telecommunications systems improve the flexibility of work by enabling
employed people to work at home part or full time?
- Class Divisions in Society. To what extent is our increasingly computerized
society fostering an underclass of functionally illiterate and disenfranchised people --
as jobs require new skills, and using computerized services requires expertise in
negotiating with complex organizational procedures when things go wrong? Are there
plausible ways of structuring extensions to our National Information Infrastructure which
will more effectively enable more people to participate in the mainstream of s ociety? To
what extent do electronic publications and digital libraries enhance or diminish the
tendency of our society to foster an underclass of functionally illiterate and
disenfranchised people -- as information-related tasks require new skills, and using
computerized services requires expertise in negotiating with complex organizational
procedures when things go wrong?
- Human Safety and Critical Computer Systems. How safe are people who rely on
computer systems such as those which help manage air traffic control or calculate
radiation treatment plans for cancer patients? Should computer systems designers who work
on such systems be licensed, much like the professional engineers who design bridges and
elevators in skyscrapers?
- Democratization. To what extent do computer and telecommunication systems offer
new opportunities to strengthen democracy through on-line access to the records and
reports of government agencies? To what extent does computerization undermine de mocratic
processes in work and public life because the costs and expertise of large computerization
projects may lead to centralized control and domination by groups who can control the
selection of equipment and expertise.
- Employment. How does computerization alter the structure of labor markets and
occupations? What kinds of understanding of computer systems are really critical for
people who wish to develop different kinds of careers? Do the skill mixes for c
omputer-oriented work help create a lower class with fewer jobs and more barriers for
improving their situations? Is computerization creating a "hollow economy" with
fewer jobs overall?
- Education. To what extent can interesting computer-based programs give students
the intellectual and motivational advantages of one-on-one tutoring in a way that is
economically affordable? Will access to the Internet transform K-12 schools i nto more
effective learning places? And what drawbacks might there be in the widespread
introduction of computers into the curriculum?
- Gender Biases. Why are women more likely to be found feeding data into computer
systems, while men are more likely to be in the position of specifying the requirements
for, and designing, computer-based systems? Is there any special reason wh y professional
positions held largely by women (i.e. librarians and K-12 educators) are more likely to be
eliminated by the introduction of electronic approaches to information management and
education, while men are more likely to be in the professional positions of specifying the
requirements for, and designing, computer-based electronic publishing systems?
- Military Security. To what extent do swift hi-tech weapons and complex
computerized command and control systems amplify the risk of accidental nuclear war by
shortening the response time for people to decide whether a perceived attack is real? To
what extent does the public overestimate the ease and safety of electronic warfare?
- Health. To what extent do computer systems pose health hazards through low level
radiation, noise and repetitive strain injuries? To what extent do computer related jobs
have special health hazards when they require people to work intensively at keyboards for
grueling time periods? Are eye-strain or crippling muscular injuries necessary
occupational hazards for people who spend long hours at terminals -- programmers and
professionals, as well as clerks? If there are serious health problems ass ociated with
computer equipment or computer-related jobs, should there be tough regulation of equipment
or workplaces to enhance people's health and well-being?
- Computer Literacy. Must all effectively educated citizens have any special
knowledge of computer systems? If so, what kinds of insights and skills are most critical
-- those that are akin to computer programming or those that are akin to unders tanding
how organizational information systems function?
- Privacy and Encryption. To what extent do powerful encryption algorithms provide
people with exceptional privacy in protecting their communications? Should the public,
including career criminals and potential terrorists, be able to communicate in ways that
make it impossible for police agencies to monitor?
- Scholarship. How easily can electronic publishing give scholars more rapid access
to wider audiences? Does it help scholars if readers can access a wider variety of
materials which are more up to-date? Can the quality of information be adequately
maintained as academic publications transition to electronic formats? To what extent are
electronic libraries and electronic publications most usable by faculty and students with
funds to buy service s and/or adjunct computer equipment? Is electronic publishing likely
to modify the criteria for academic career advancement and its tie to publication in
These controversial issues have not yet been resolved, and they change their focus over
time. In the 1960's, many of the debates about computerization were framed in terms of
large isolated computer systems while today they focus on computer networks (c yberspace).
Even so, key values often remain important while the social and technical terrain changes.
For example, the tensions between allowing people maximal privacy and enabling sufficient
police access to personal records and documents to insure publ ic safety was relevant to
the design of a giant "National Databank" as well as to recent debates about
data encryption (See section VI). Specialists sometimes disagree about how to characterize
key problems and how best to find solutions. The way they are framed often reflects the
interests of groups with conflicting social or economic interests. This book includes
different points of view to enable you to read and understand different approaches to the
same set of issues.
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- Brodeur, Paul. 1989. "Annals of Radiation, The Hazards of Electromagnetic Fields:
Part III, Video Display Terminals" The New Yorker (June 26):39-68.
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and Social Choices. San Diego: Academic Press.
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and Regulation." Printed in Section VII.
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