Computerization and Controversy, 2nd Ed.
Social Controversies About Computerization

Rob Kling (Indiana University) (2.5c)

Section I, Article C of: Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices, (2nd Ed.)
by Rob Kling, San Diego, Academic Press, 1996.

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.


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 greater significance.

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 paper-based journals?

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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