Computers and Social Change
[ Main Index | Chapter Index ]


Have you ever had to make a decision when you didn't have enough information to make up your mind? Did you ever have trouble getting the information you needed to make an informed choice? If you work, do you have any say in company policy? Do you turn to the sports or comics section of the newspaper and leave political decisions to politicians?

Decision-making requires information. Those who have information, especially when we believe that only they can understand it, have power over society's decisions. Information also contributes to the power of groups and individuals to decide for themselves. As we have seen, computer technology could be the basis for wide networks of social interaction, discussion, and decision-making. Organizational and community interfaces could be tools for democratic participation in large, geographically dispersed groups of people. But as we examined the way in which computers have been used in economic and governmental institutions, we realize tht computers can also support centralized authoritarian power. It is not the computer itself that influences the distribution of power in society; it is the way the computer system is designed. In Chapter 9 we saw how different work can be depending on the assumptions of those with the power to design it. In this chapter we will consider the intersection of property and power inthe issue of how the public interest in information is defined. We will lso look at how computers are used in business and government decisions, and at what role the military plays in computer and communications designs. Finally, we will look at the prospects for computers as instruments of harmony --facilitating international negotiations and improving our ability to make public choices for survival -- and at the question: "What can I do about computers and social change?"


If you knew what I do, you'd understand why we have to do it my way. This sentence is based on one person's claim to have more information than another. There is the additional claim that the decision-making ought to be left to the expert. As children or students we are expected to defer to the authority of those who know more than we do. As we become adults in a democratic society, we learn to make our own informed opinions. But to do so we must have access to information. The idea that citizens should have access to information implies that information is a public good. In order to protect the public interest and ensure widespread participation in the political process, we have laws to regulate the means of information transmission and to promote a free press and scientific inquiry. As information industries grow and legal definitions of information property change, our concept of the public interest in information is also changing.

11.1.1 The Tragedy of the Common

Although it may seem ridiculous to imagine a world in which most information is private property, many non-industrial people could not imagine anyone owning land. Even traditionally free goods like air and sunlight have become issues in legislation for environmental protection and urban zoning. The conservative ecologist Garrett Hardin argues that unowned resources create a "tragedy of the common" in which the collective property is ruined by the actions of selfish individuals trying to maximize their self-interest. He applies his argument to publicly regulated resources as well on the grounds that people treat government property as "free" and have an interest in ignoring regulation. When Hardin's argument is applied to the information industries, it is assumed that a competitive free market providing information products and services is the most efficient way to serve the public interest. If the means to produce and distribute information are centralized, the goal of meeting public needs is not met. Liberal and radical theorists, in contrast, believe that common property must be protected from the self-interests of those who would like to monopolze it. They do not believe that a free market for information products can protect the public interest in cultural information.

Although Hardin's argument may be applicable to information in the sense that resources like broadcast channels are limited, it does not seem to apply to most cultural information. Unlike natural resources that get "used up", information can be easily shared. Even though there are material costs in maintaining public data and libraries, computer and communications technologies make it possible to provide low-cost "copies". The tragedy of the common could be applied to the situation of networked computer users' abuse of shared resources. It also applies to the problem of spam on the internet. The main kind of information "ruined" by "overuse" is the kind that gives one person an advantage over another. Theoretically, a capitalist free market depends on freely available information about prices and available goods. Inside information about the stock market could make stock market traders rich if they used it to their clients' disadvantage. For this reason 'insider trading' is considered to be a distortion of the free market, and is illegal. Cultural information, on the other hand, must be widely shared if the culture is to integrate people into a single society.

11.1.2 Access to Cultural Records

Some observers fear that a high price for information retrieval will become a barrier to knowledge acquisition. They feel that the future of free libraries is threatened when fees for searches can run over $100 per hour (Turner, 1984). The fate of some cultural records would be problematic if public information is converted to for-profit operations. This is because there is little profit to be made from such information as obscure historical documents, even though they are an important source of cultural knowledge. Historical Records. Historians worry that they will have a major problem in the future trying to access computerized text. In general, only material published after 1970 is available from on-line library search services, and many older computerized records are on obscelete tape or disk devices (Burnham, 1985). Perhaps in the future institutions like Boston's Computer Museum (which maintains working exhibits of vintage computers) will provide services to historians.

Another problem for historians is more difficult to solve. The accuracy and authenticity of historical documents is a question of grave concern in historical research. Many of the official U.S. computerized records are kept so poorly that "the United States is in danger of losing its memory" (May, 1985). Among the potential abuses of computerized records is the possibility that history will be rewritten by those with access to historical files and an interest in changing the facts of the past. One step to prevent such problems is the recent appointment of an FBI historian to oversee its archives (The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 4, 1984:7). International Access. Computer experts attempting to aid developing countries have argued that computers can provide the remote areas of poor countries with cheap, widely available sources of information and education. Yet some of these programs have failed; one U.S. computer expert resigned from a Third World computer-education project on the grounds that the project was designed with only the profit of manufacturers in mind (Cooke, 1982).

For the less developed nations of the world, the impact of the computer and communications revolution has been to intensify their dependency relationships with the industrial societies and multinational corporations (Rada, 1982). They have been disadvantaged in the world market by low prices for their products and labor and by high prices for their imports. Although computer technology is being exported to the Third World:

Computers in Africa are no more 'African' than the continent's copper, cobalt, uranium, diamonds and cash crops are African; these are all controlled -- from investment and marketing to sale and transportation -- by companies based elsewhere in the world. Because computers happen to be on 'soverign' African soil is no reason to believe that the functions they are performing so efficiently and speedily are in the interests of Africa. (Carim, 1983:65).
Insofar as the economic interests of industrial societies' governments and multinational corporations remain the exploitation of natural resources, the promotion of politically stable and disciplined labor forces for their subsidiary companies, and the development of markets for their own products, the political impact of the computer revolution of the Third World will be to strengthen repressive regimes and to restrict autonomous technological development (Toward a New Information Order, 1982). Instead of computerized libraries for their villages, many countries are getting electronic surveillance for their police forces and American programs on their televisions.

Internationally, broadcasting is the focus of a controversy over the United Nations' New World Information and Communication Order, shown in Table 11-1. On one side of the controversy are governments that wish to control the content of their national broadcasting. They claim that popular entertainment reflecting American cultural values rather than their own is a form of cultural imperialism. For example, between 30 and 85% of the programs broadcast over Latin American television are of U.S. origin (Smith, 1980). On the other side are industry organizations that provide world news and programming service. They charge that "freedom of the press" is endangered by national efforts to restrict the content of news and programs (McPhail, 1981). They also believe that government restrictions on the media are associated with the abuse of human rights.

TABLE 11-1. THE NEW WORLD INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION ORDER to be added Regulation and Deregulation American society has a liberal political tradition of using government regulation for the maintenance of public property and the protection of civil liberties. Speech and written communications were protected as rights. Thus publishing has not been regulated on the grounds that to do so would violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But communications transmission facilities -- telegraphs, radio stations, and telephone service -- were regulated as scarce resources that had to be protected from overuse. The computer and communications revolution is producing some dilemmas for public policy-makers as the technologies for information production and distribution change rapidly. The broadcasting industry in the U.S. has been heavily regulated, at first due to a scarcity of available radio and television chanels. Later, as FM radio and cable television added to the available channels, regulation continued based on the importance of its social impact (Branscomb, 1984). TV and radio are licensed and their content is controlled within the limits of the First Amendment. Public broadcasting service is provided through a mixture of government and private funding. The recent trend in the U.S. has been to reduce public broadcasting support, and eight of the twenty eight educational television channels were reassigned to pay TV in the early 1980's (Scully, 1983). Common carriers (mail and phone) were assumed in the U. S. to be a "natural monoply for which competition would be disruptive and wasteful" (Branscomb, 1983:43). In most countries they are owned by the government; in the U.S. they were given to private industries as regulated monopolies. American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), General Telephone and Electronics Corporation (GTE), and several smaller, geographically based companies were given exclusive rghts to segments of the telecommunications market; the federal government ran the postal service. After a long public debate (Noll, 1980), and a ten-year anti-trust suit against AT&T, the federal government moved in 1984 to de-regulate telecommunications. AT&T was broken up to meet three goals: (1)Promotion of true and fair competition in the telecommunications long distance and equipment markets, (2) preservation of AT&T as a dynamic force, capable of research, manufacturing, and marketing in technologically advanced fields, and (3) protection of the principle of universal telephone service, accessible to all segments of the population, regardless of income. (Opinion of Judge Greene, 8 July 1983:150) In the opinion of Ithiel de Sola Pool (1983), the deregulation of communications channels is an essential step to preserving the public interest in free speech. He believes that the new technologies are more like publishing or speech than they are like physically limited cultural resources that must be regulated to avoid overuse. 11.1.3 International Protections for Information Internationally, the protection of information involves the definition of national security interests and conflicting demands from companies for protection from foreign competition and for aid in export marketing. Although companies are protected internationally by treaties, agreements on patents and copyrights, government regulated export control policies are often sought. International regulations to protect information are far from uniform. There is a World Court, but it is unable to inforce its decisions without the consent of the participating parties. Thus, most international regulatory activity occurs through negotiations over treaties and international agreements. Parents and Copyrights. From the perspective of U.S. firms, international patent law needs to be strengthened to protect their property (Braun and Macdonald, 1982:131-132). The patent holder for the erasable optical disk, for example, found the Japanese Matsushita Corporation developing it (Fortune, June 13, 1983). From the perspectives of developing countries, however, the ownership of patents by the industrial countries and multinational orporations means that their technology remains under foreign control. In a 1964 United Nations study 89% of the patents being used in five developing nations were foreign owned. In Chile in 1967, 95% of patents in use were foreign (Barnett and Muller, 1974:140). But some developing countries, such as China, have adopted laws protecting U.S. and other international patents. Their intent is to encourage foreign investment and marketing (Braun, 1985). There is a also conflict among the copyright provisions of different nations. An attempt by Japan to replace software copyrights with a 15 year protection with required licensing was strongly opposed by the U.S. (Kirchner, 1984; Batt, 1984b). U.S. software producers claimed that the change would hurt their sales in Japan and reduce their incentives to develop new products. When I lived in Taiwan, pirated copies of American books and records were available cheaply; Taiwan did not recognize U.S. copyrights. For $5 I bought an unabridged English Dictionary that had a large blank space between the words "maori" and "map". The deletion of Mao Tse-tung from the dictionary illustrates one of the political reasons why countries are concerned about regulating the flow of information over their borders. Some governments want to keep dangerous information away from their populations. Information and National Security. In the U. S., we are protected from dangerous information by government security classification. When the U. S Congressional Office of Technology Assessment wrote a report apparently concluding that U.S. military communications and computer equipment would stop working in the event of a nuclear war, officials at the Pentagon classified it as so secret that members of Congress and the person who wrote it aren't allowed to read it (New York Times, Feb. 18, 1986). One reviewer called it the "most dangerous document I've ever seen." But the question, as in all censorship, is "dangerous for whom?" It is common knowledge among communications specialists that microelectronics equipment fails when reached by a nuclear explosion's shock wave. Experts are quite skeptical about claims that computers and communications can be shielded. The classification of this report may be a case of protecting the military from unfavorable publicity. It is also part of a strategy that involves keeping control over the information to be used in decision making. How is Congress supposed to make sensible decisions about the military budget for new technology if they are not allowed to read reports assessing the effectiveness of its current technology? Academic opposition to strict protection of U.S. technological secrets comes from scientists and researchers who fear an inhibition of international scientific inquiry (Unger, 1982; McDonald, 1984b). Publishers were also alarmed by government plans to restrict the publication of unclassified technical information (Coughlin, 1983). Although the Pentagon has dropped some of its proposals to limit publication of unclassified research at universities (McDonald, 1984a), publishers and international scientific professional associations remain disturbed by the effects that protecting national technological secrets are having on the free exchange of ideas (Norman, 1984). Internationally, a committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is attempting to work out international guidelines for cross-national data flow. By 1985 they had reached a tentative accord. U.S. Export Control Policy. U.S. export control policy involves the conflicting values and interests of the Defense Department, U.S. companies, and the community of scientists and academics (Goodman, 1982). Defense Department officials are mostly concerned about exports to communist countries. They want export control over software as well as strategic hardware, arguing that even microcomputers and commercial packages have potential military applications (Wilkins, 1984a). Disagreements with Pentagon views on export controls come from businesses, universities, professional associations, and other countries. Although a 1975 Air Force report called the former Soviet Union far behind the U.S. in computer technology and proposed severe export controls, during 1984 Senate Hearings a representative of the Commerce Department questionned the need for export controls, saying that it would be "a gross misstatement to suggest that the Soviets are technologically backward" (cited in Wilkins, 1984b). In a 1985 assessment, the Soviet Union was found still far behind in computers and software. Export controls were not, however, the reason. This is because they are not particularly effective. Scientific journals, public information such as U. S. Patent Office reports, and the ease with which American products can be purchased overseas make copying our technology relatively simple. But, as the President of the Soviet Academy of Sciences said: "Blind copying of a foreign scientific or technical idea is often exactly what leads to falling behind." (Gannes, 1985:116). It becomes a substitute for a nation's own capacity for technical innovation. American companies wish to sell small computers and software abroad without the expense and red tape of export licensing. Small companies find it especially difficult to obtain the necessary paperwork. Many also question whether their products are really vital military secrets. Even if they are, the widespread commercial availability of small systems and the fact that their multinational competititors are supplying similar products makes export licensing inefective. It is estimated that small U.S. firms are losing about $1 billion a month in lost overseas sales (Wilkins, 1985b). 1985 regulations exempt business data and text handling software, but export licenses must be obtained for system software, high-level languages, assemblers, compilers, and interpreters. Unrestricted hardware exports are limited to small memory computers and low transmission speed equipment (Wilkins, 1985a). The U.S. Customs Service's "Operation Exodus" works with European governments to identify technology transfers to forbidden customers (Wilkins, 1984d). As the $1.5 million fine of Digital Equipment Corporation indicates, a company can be penalized for selling equipment to a "legal" customer who then resells it to a restricted country (Adams, 1984). The CIA has been active in identifying U.S. firms supplying high-tech products to communist countries. Its 1984 director, William Casey, defines U.S. national security interests to include commercial competition from Japan as well (Wilkins, 1984a). The recent FBI "sting" operation that caught representatives of Japan's Hitachi Ltd. and Mitsubishi Electric Corp. engaged in industrial espionage in Silicon Valley are an example of U.S. domestic intelligence agency response to industrial demands for protection from foreign information industry products. But not all high-tech firms view international competition as a threat. In a survey of 275 New England companies, 39% thought that competition encouraged technological innovation, while only 36% saw international competetitors as a threat (Doughtery and Janowsky, 1984). Since many computer companies are actively engaged in exporting their products, protectionist policies can hurt their sales and market shares. Federal law also requires a license before allowing the export of technical data, defined as: Information of any kind that can be used or adapted for use in the design, production, utilization or construction of an article of material. The data may take a tangible form such as a model, prototype, blueprint or an operating manual; or it may take intangible form such as technical services (Kutten, 1984). To many information specialists, this definition is so vague that it might be used to inhibit the international flow of almost any kind of technological information. Protectionism is by no means a policy with universal support within the information industries. Some industry observers are disturbed to see federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies working to protect information products at the cost of discouraging international sales.

11.2 COMPUTERS AND DECISION-MAKING Computers, by nature of their ability to support communication and coordinate activity among widely-separated individuals, are an ideal means for exerting power through large social structures. Questions of who has access to what sorts of information are basic to the political process. Decision-making in business and governmental organizations is based on information often not equally available to all participants. Those who own or control information can become the experts whose advice is heavily weighed in public policy-making. Computerization, by changing information access, may enhance the power of some decision-makers to the disadvantage of others. Because information is itself a means of exercising power, struggles can occur to acquire and maintain control over its proliferation. In these conflicts, the position of those who depend on their knowledge and technical skills will be strengthened if the new technology provides them with a more powerful means of influencing group behavior. On the other hand, peoples's ability to participate in politics is reduced if decisions are left to human and computer "experts" who have information that we don't. Computers provide the potential means to centralize decision-making into the hands of fewer government, business, and military authorities. Centralized decision-making in political institutions violates a basic value of democracy -- that people should be able to participate in the decisions affecting them. In economic institutions, computers provide high-level managers with the potential to directly supervise many corporate activities formerly delegated to middle managers and technicians. Large corporations, especially the multinationals, may use the computer to dominate markets at the expense of their smaller, localized competitors. If the means to manage information concentrates in the hands of relatively few managers and corporations, there will be a corresponding concentration of economic power. This could shrink the middle classes in industrial societies, thus creating an even more powerful elite and a larger and less powerful lower class. Military use of computers is very hierarchical, and the growing economic power of the military has channeled technological and social resources into centralized defense activities. Critics claim that the institutional success of the military threaten the social system (or even the species) with destruction. The Nobel prize-winning economist Herbert Simon (1980) has pointed out that, while both centralized and decentralized computer systems are technically possible, and that it is the decision-making processes with which we implement technological change that determines any changes in the distribution of power. Computer-based decision-making will not favor centralized power unless decisions about which designs to use are made by those who want their own power increased and centralized. Power will not become centralized if computer and communications technologies are built to distribute information widely. Many analysts believe that if everyone has a personal computer and if a lively market in small-scale computer-based services develops, information technology will not become centralized. Others see the spread of new communications media facilitating democratic decision-making processes. 11.2.1 Management Decision-Making A central characteristic of the first industrial revolution was the development of rational bureaucratic and economic organizations in which the management of information became increasingly important for decision- making (Weber, 1978: Chapters II and XI). Today, new styles of management are emerging, based upon more effective business information. Kenneth Arrow (1980) argues that computerized information will have an enormous positive effect on the abilities of both small and large businesses to produce effectively by means of improved decision-making. Within organizations, better decision-making is arrived at by more efficient division of the work of managing information. In the larger business community, better decision-making translates into competetive advantage for well-managed firms. Thus computer use in business organizations can increase cooperation within companies and increase competition in the economy. Computerized Decision-Making. In the 1950's, the application of computers to management decision-making was believed to be limited to the performance of routine clerical tasks and objective decisions based solely on economic criteria. While admitting that management decisions ought to be objective wherever possible (and thus should be subject to automation), Merriman and Wass (1959) viewed managerial decisions as part of the spiritual nature of man. Like doctors and lawyers, managers claimed for themselves a special and creative role in human decision-making. In the next decades' debates over the possibility and desirability of mechanized thought processes it was widely believed that what managers do simply could not be done by machine. Today, the capacities of expert systems include such domains as financial services currently performed by highly paid managerial employees (Sullivan, 1984). As Gio Wiederhold (1984) argues, the use of knowledge- based systems "can move well-understood human decision-making into the computer systems." This includes a wide range of middle managerial tasks. Even more important are developments in management information systems that allow a concentration of decision-making into the hands of fewer managers. Although Herbert Simon (1985), Kenneth Arrow (1980) and other economists who have examined the impact of information systems on business decision- making are rather optimistic that centralization will not occur, they recognize the possibilities. In modern petrochemical plants and in the military, some of the new technological possibilities for centralized decision-making are being realized. Examples of this, embedded systems, are combinations of hardware and software designed to function in integrated environments of military or production technology. In chemical processing plants integrated management information systems permit centralized control of everything from purchasing decisions on feedstocks to projected markets, pricing, process design and overall system optimization (Drake and Perrolle, 1984; "The New Cockpits of Industry," 1983). This industrial trend extends the workplace routinization process to financial and other middle-level managers who formerly made independent evaluations and decisions in their own area of expertise. Evidence that managerial jobs are being eliminated by new technologies is mixed. There was a managerial recession in the early 1980's. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that unemployment for managers has been high. Fortune magazine reported that this was at least partly because "computerized systems lessen the need for information-gathering, a principal task of corporate bureaucrats (Feb. 6, 1984:113)." But an analysis of the labor force in Silicon Valley indicates that there are more jobs called "manager" (11%) in the computer and microelectronics industries than in older manufacturing in the region (9%). What there are less of is professional and technical jobs -- 28% of high tech but 34% of other manufacturing (Eisenscher, 1984). Perhaps we need research on what managerial, professional, and technical people are doing rather than data on what their jobs are called. Information in Corporate Culture. The term corporte culture refers to the shared values and norms of a particular company or industry. It includes ethical standards and the criteria by which managers will be judged successful. One negative aspect of a corporate culture is the possibility that business managers begin to be judged more by their social interactions, their appearances and their ability to manipulate information for presentations than for their ability to influence corporate production. As more of the actual production work is done by computerized machines, and as much of the technical "knowledge work" is routinized, there has been a shift in business management interests from the acutal production of goods to the command over information systems. Factory managers are perceived as greasy-fingernail types, hardly suitable for the polished executive suite. Sharp engineers go into production design rather than production technology...Even our engineering and management educational programs give short shrift to real production technology. Most courses concentrate on PERT charts, organizational factors, and other 'professional' aspects of running a factory rather than the nitty gritty of real machines and real parts. (Haavind, 1983:2). Even in the area of agricultural production, a preference for managing information is appearing: While his neighbors spend their time worrying about agricultural techniques, Jesse Griffith of Blackfoot, Idaho is using a personal computer as a management tool to farm a little smarter... 'I never had any formal agricultural training,' Griffith says, 'but I spend a lot more time on bookkeeping than my neighbors do.' (Rubin, 1983:96). This trend is part of what Randall Collins sees as a consciousness "directed away from the material realities of work experience and into the purely relative values of the cultural currency" (Collins, 1979:72). What he means is that business decision-makers are often less concerned about actual productivity than they are about the symbols of management status. The positive aspects of a corporate cultural emphasis on information is the potential for improvements in business decision-making. In The Change Masters (9183), Rosabeth Moss Kanter identifies open access to information and communications networks as characteristics of the U.S.'s most innovative companies. She also finds them committed to decentralized resources and information, rather than centalized and hierarchically contolled. A new style of management interested in the power to accomplich group goals rather than the power over subordinates seems to be more effective in new product development. Ezra Vogel, a specialist on Japanese culture and factory organization, points out that: The Japanese try to win an arrangement rather than an argument. They're not as interested in beating down the opposition as they are in winning an agreement that everybody can stick by (1985). What this represents is the idea that the power to achieve cooperation can be more effective than the ability to win or have power over people. Japanese management also has a long view of business planning. The founder of the Matsushita corporation laid out a 250 year plan for what became one of the most successful Japanese firms. The present chief executive officer of the NEC Corporation has a vision of computers and communications as a major force in the eventual achievement of world cooperation. In contrast, many U.S. managers adopt extremely short planning times (Jaques, 1985). They are often in conflict with their own scientists and technical employees who take a longer view of innovations and products (Dubinskas, 1985). Business Information and Economic Response Time. Better business information can produce longer range plans and shorter times between the occurrence of economic changes and the managers' knowledge of those changes. In other words, with computer-based data and models, managers can find out what is happening sooner and can make plans on the basis of more comprehensive information. Shorter response times can lead to faster billing and ordering, better cash flow, and smaller inventories to be stored. More rapid response time in financial markets, however, can be a problem. Smith's "invisible hand" works as a regulating mechanism in the stock market when brokers use information about price fluctions to buy or sell. A phenomenon known as "program trading" creates sudden, sharp drops in the stock market as the computers of many brokerage firms simultaneously "decide" it's time to sell. For example, if many brokers' computers are programmed to sell for profit when the Dow Jones Industrial Averge reaches 1600, then the market will begin to drop as soon as it passes the line. The sudden surge of selling will inhibit the market from rising above 1600. Also, sudden drops in the market set off different computers, programmed to sell out if things start going down hill. So a short period of program trading can set off a small landslide. An international version of this effect could be seen in the collapse of Continental Illinois, one of the U.S.'s largest banks. It began when Japanese currency trader decided not to transfer funds to the already troubled bank. By the time markets opened for business in the U.S. and Europe, information that Continental Illinois was in trouble had spread through the system, leading to more fund transfer decisions that brought the bank to near collapse. The lag time between Continental Illinois' disaster and the intervention of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board indicates a major problem with computerized markets. Institutions that regulate financial transactions, as the Federal Reserve does, have not computerized their operations to the point where they can keep up with the faster market. As we computerize our business opertions, we make them faster and more "real-time". In other words, our data gets closer in time to real events. In the short run, this destabilizes our economy, because some parts of the system respond to change much more rapidly than others. stable.

11.2.2 Computers In Government In an early assessment of the impact of the information revolution on political institutions, Theodore J. Lowi (1975) argued that an increase in power over the environment and an increase in susceptibility to manipulation are coexisting tendencies of the information revolution to which societies must adjust by adapting their institutions. Like Lowi, Hazel Henderson (1974) predicts greater pluralism as new information- system based interest groups are able to form. For example, the U.S. political left was recently advised that computer technology can help "overcome many of the organizatioinal deficiencies that have bedeviled our efforts to build and control our own institutions. For example,...they can streamline fundraising and political organizing" (Roper, 1983:142). But Lowi fears that: The primary sources of politics in such a society could be conflicts between the old and the new groups rather than orderly competition between political parties or between established groups...This kind of process, where new groups must fight for a place, is almost certain to be defined as disorder, and this gives established elites additional incentive to use information as a means of social control. (1975:463) He sees a trend away from bureaucratic hierarchy in favor of other information-based management processes which may even convert the processes of government itself into a type of management. What seems clear in his analysis is a trend away from direct political participation in decision- making towards more expertly controlled political structures. In support of Lowi's argument is the evidence at the federal level of an enormous growth in the power of the executive branch of government in the U. S. in recent decades. A study by Frantzich showed a traditional political group, Congress, struggling to halt the trend. One of the primary motivations of computer promoters in Congress stemmed from the desire to regain some of the power lost to the executive branch and outside interest groups due to an imbalance of relevant information. The experience on the state level clearly indicated that when legislatures improved their information-handling capabilities, they were able to ventue successfully into new policy areas [Baaklini and Heapey, 1977:168] and generally improved their competitive advantage over the executive branch [Worthley, 1977b:22] (1982:242). In a study of computers in American local governments, Danziger, Dutton, Kling and Kraemer (1982) showed them to be used more by city managers than by elected officials. But found very little evidence that computers are were being used to shift power from elected local government officials to bureaucratic administrators. Despite claims that the information revolution is leading to a utopian higher political consciousness based upon a widespread distribution of political power and participation (Toffler, 1981:416-443; Capra, 1983:398), the resolution of contemporary political conflicts in ways which strengthen democratic institutions is problematic. While U.S. use of computers in voting and political campaigns certainly provides the technical capacity for widespread participation by informed citizens, the vulnerability of computer systems to fraud is equally applicable to voter registration systems and election return prediction programs. In one growing political use of computerized information, politicians and special interest groups develop private data banks as an aid to influencing voters and legislation. The computer-aided efforts of government agencies and social scientists (cf Alexander, 1983; Campaigns and Computers, 1982-83) to monitor such activities reflect the sort of struggle described by Lowi (1975) rather than a democratizing trend. Lowi believes it is possible for societies to head off the centralization of information as the secret property of the powerful, offering the Pentagon Papers and Watergate as evidence that information can still be wrested from established power holders and used by citizens. However, he sees this as possible only if cultural and educational institutions produce "a true citizen, a person who demands knowledge of the world around him" (1975:472). The experiments of Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands in gathering informed public opinion before setting national technological development policies show that decentralized decision-making is possible (Nelkin, 1977). However, in many countries computer use has heightened the tension between centralized information and individual rights, as in Germany (Butner, 1983), or to created factional political disputes over policies for computerizing the economy, as in the Soviet Union (Turn and Nimitz, 1975:21). The overall pattern in international relations seems to be one of political conflict over economic issues. Some observers think multinational corporations will be in the best position to utilize the information revolution. The United States, as it finds its economic power in the world system being threatened by the multinationals and the more centrally planned economies of Japan and Europe, has increasingly emphasized its military power in the international arena and its need for a restructuring of the domestic economy. 11.2.3 The Military Influence on Computer Development Although most of the wars of history have been fought without computers, beginning with guided missle work in World War II and continuing through the development of the "electronic battlefield" in Vietnam, computers have become one of the major research and development items in the huge U. S. military weapons budget. We have seen that the military has funded, overseen and guided virtually every significant electronic invention since World War II. In both the pace of development and the direction taken by new technologies, the military has asserted an active role. We have seen examples so recent that there can be little doubt that the Defense Department plans to continue as the most important American institution responsible for technological development. (Atwater, 1982:5). What this means is that the needs of the military are likely to go on shaping the future of computers rather than other types of planning groups of business or public leaders. Ada. The U. S. Defense Department's Ada project is part of a major effort to rationalize military decision-making. The Ada project is intended to produce a huge standardized language for large-scale intelligent software applications (Barnes, 1982). The language is named for Lady Lovelace, a friend of Babbage who first suggested the idea of computer software for his analytic engine. By requiring military software to be programmed in the Ada language, the project represents a step towards promoting large, centralized control structures as software industry standards. Technical criticisms of the Ada project (Skelly, 1982; Ledgard and Singer, 1982, 1982; Winchman, 1984; and Hoare, 1981) include arguments that it is too big and too expensive for any but large organizations to implement. Also, the size and complexity of Ada programs is believed by some critics to guarantee that large Ada programs will contain errors. Social critics argue that it represents a stifling by military interests of other new programming ideas (Rosenberg, 1983; Begley, 1983). To critics the new Ada language and advances in structured programming seem more useful as tools for rationalizing worker's tasks in ordinary computer applications than as reliable safeguards against Defense Department errors. The Strategic Computing Initiative. The Strategic Computing Initiative is diverting expert systems research towards pilot's assistants, autonomous tanks, and battlefield management systems. Although there will undoubtedly be non-military spin-offs, the hierarchial nature of military decision- making may strongly promote decision-centralizing software as industry standard. Also, as many opponents of militarized expert systems and structured programming fear, the belief that such systems can be made bug- free and reliable enhance the probability that military decision-making (especially in the area of nuclear defenses) will be embedded in these structures. Critics believe that the risk of an accidental computerized triggering of nuclear war is being significantly increased by the Pentagon's chosen directions in computer technology development (Barnaby, 1982). This is partly because computers, by vastly increasing the speed and accuracy of weapons, have actually reduced the time available for human beings to make decisions or to try negotiations in the face of immanent danger. This threat is inherent in the size and complexity of military computer systems. At that scale, some hardware and software failures must be expected, as have already occured in the U.S. satellite nuclear sensor system (Thaxton, 1980). In Inset 4 is an assessment of the Defense Department's strategic computing initiative prepared by the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, about an area of human decision-making where they believe computers ought not to be used. With the speed and complexity of computer- based decisions, they argue, comes a degree of unreliability that cannot be tolerated in life-or-death decisions involving the fate of the entire species. Although the personal interests of many computer scientists lie in getting a share of Pentagon resources in order to pursue scientifically interesting projects, many of them feel a professional obligation to speak out when they do not believe their work can really produce reliable defensive weapons. INSET 4. THE STRATEGIC COMPUTING INITIATIVE: AN ASSESSMENT Video Games and Military Fantasies. The military's push to have a 5th- generation intelligent "supercomputer" built (Marbach et al, 1983), while being justified in nationalistic, "economic cold war" terms, can be viewed as a fantasy. The military has adopted video games as "training simulators" (U.S. Army Adopts...,1983), and is creating weapon systems that more and more resemble video games. Real issues of complexity and reliability tend to be ignored. The extreme vulnerability of electronic weapons systems cannot be covered up by classifying criticisms as top secret. When a few Wisconsin youngsters can penetrate a Defense Department system (Milwaukee discovers...,1983), that system is extremely vulnerable to sabotage. The Pentagon denies, however, that any scenario such as the one in the popular movie, Wargames, could ever occur (Bertoni, 1983). In the long evolutionary interaction between tools and humans who who gather in groups to throw them at one another, the computer has provided greater action at a distance than ever before. In both war and playing at war, face to face contact with a human opponent has been replaced by remote sensors and electronic acts of aggression. In the process, the speed of the thrown rock, ball, or bullet has become the speed of the electron. In magical thinking, in play, and in dreams, the wish to have power over others is the deed. Computer-aided military thinking is turning fantasies of power into designs for communications and control technology. The next extension in conventional warfare appears to be a voice and eye-movement guided "superplane" of which the U.S. Air Force's AFTI/F-16 is a prototype. As in the fantasy movie, Foxfire, these weapons will almost respond to the intentions of the "warrior". American social institutions, by investing enormous resources in the military and by accepting their guidance in technological development, are actively engaged in supporting the process. 11.2.4 Computer Models and Policy Making Appropriate uses of computer modeling can be an invaluable aid to the human understanding of complex problems of the physical environment or the intricacies of the world political economy. They can have an enormous impact on public policy by raising long range planning issues. One of the earliest models, described below, projected what the world's population and resource situation would be like in the future if we did not make major changes. Recent computer models of natural resources helped delegates from countries participating in the Law of the Sea conference to settle their differences (Koh, 1983). The Limits to Growth Model. The Limits to Growth model was sponsored during the 1970's by an international group of industrialists, the Club of Rome. In the decade of commentary and criticism provolked by the model, many of the assumptions and techniques used by the modeling group have been shown to be flawed. The model remains important for two reasons. First, it was a pioneering attempt to model global environmental and economic conditions, an led to enormous advances in computer-modeling techniques. Second, the controversy it generated placed issues of world food shortages, population growth, pollution, and natural resource delpetion on the policy agenda of many national and international bodies (Humphrey and Buttel, 1982). The projection, two of which are shown in Figure 18, did not "come true", nor were they intended to. A model like this one tells us "what if", when the ifs are our assumptions about the way the world-system works and our best measurements of amounts, rates, and changes. In retrospect, the Limits to Growth model was oversimplified -- it left out a factor for technological or political change, for example. However, although its shortcomings are a warning to all future computer modelers, Limits To Growth created a useful public debate. The Nuclear Winter Model. The Nuclear Winter model of what the earth would be like following a nuclear war seems to be having a similar impact on public policy debates as did the Limits to Growth Model, by raising the issue of war as a risk to species survival (Revkin, 1985). It models the atmospheric and biological effects of a thermonuclear war and suggests that winter conditions would prevail all over the earth for up to several years following even a limited nuclear exchange. The model is already being used in the political debate over the nuclear arms race. Proponents of a nuclear freeze argue that the model supports their view that a nuclear war must be avoided at all costs; the Pentagon (which initially did its own study to try to discredit the model) now argues that the model's results make U.S. strength in nuclear weapons more important than ever before. The distance which a computer places between people and their immediate experiences is sometimes criticized as dehumanizing. It can be just the opposite may be the experience is of dangerous working FIGURE 18. PROJECTIONS OF THE LIMITS TO GROWTH MODEL environments or physically painful tasks. Even distance in social relationships may be of positive benefit if computer networks allow more communication among physically distant people. Even the loss of the emotional closeness of face-to-face contact may be offset by our learning to imagine humans whom we do not see face to face as 'real' persons. If we are able to imagine the reality of people in the world outside of our range of acquaintance, we may learn to reach decisions with them.

Next Chapter | Main Contents