Computers and Social Change
Chapter Contents | Main Contents
CHAPTER 12. THE SOCIAL FUTURE OF INFORMATION What will the social future of information be? It is always tempting to reach beyond the analysis of historical and contemporary phenomena and predict a definite future. In doing so, it is much easier to predict developments in technology than in society. In 1931, the editors of Fortune magazine quite accurately predicted where technological developments in energy sources, plastics, air transport, communications, and television. Of the social consequences of these they said: It is not possible to transpose oneself spiritually from one environment to another. Even had the Victorians predicted what we have accomplished with the steam engine, they would never have conceived the corporate economics derived from it, nor the modern woman dervied from the corporate economics. But what we can be certain of is that the social future of information, property and power will be determined by social processes, not by technology alone. 12.1 Distance, Time, and Social Interaction [find missing text] 12.2 Property and Privacy From a sociological point of view, the problem of protecting information property is similar to protecting other forms of property in that no amount of protection is really effective unless there are shared social beliefs in the "rightness" of ownership. Society operates to a large extent upon trust and mutual agreement to respect the property of others. The problem of protecting information property is not primarily a technological one. It is a problem of changing social conceptions of property. A social attempt to solve the problem of computer piracy has been initiated by the Association of Data Processing Service Organizations, Inc. ("Firms take different routes...", 1985). By publicizing the need for corporate policies to promote respect for information property rights as part of "corporate culture", advocates of a social solution hope that a sense of corporate responsibility, expressed through concrete management policies and business practices, will provide the sorts of social controls needed to make formal legal protections effective. A new book on computer crime prevention recommends measures to keep employees happy, arguing that disgruntled employees are responsible for many information product abuses (Van Duyn, 1985). From a broader social perspective, the prevention of crimes against information property becomes ultimately confounded with the issue of individual privacy. Attempts to deter this sort of crime will also create struggles between governments and corporations over control of sensitive information. The interests of individuals are represented by the laws protecting individual rights and by the public administration of those laws. A computerized version of the classical political tension between the maintenance of social order and the freedom of individuals is taking shape. In our quest for the security of information property, it is important to keep in mind that the majority of the computer crime from which we want protection is done by people with a legitimate right to access the data involved. Increasing government surveillance or a fortress-like mentality for property protection has not been successful in the past as a solution to the law-and-order problem. The protection of computerized information requires a society that respects the information rights of individuals and corporations.

12.3 Ethics and Politics The ethical issues of computer use involve responsible decision-making by individuals, professional organizations, corporations, and political institutions. Computers do not automatically cause information to become property or to be controlled by a few decision-makers. If used for different purposes they can be the basis of public information systems and provide communications networks helpful for democratic discussion and debate. Predictions about the social future of information range from fears of widespread repression to visions of more individual freedom within democratic institutions. What actually occurs will be an outcome of our resolution of political issues now facing us. TABLE 15. PROFESSIONAL ETHICAL STANDARDS Ethical standards adopted by associations of computer professionals (shown in Table 15) are clearly part of efforts to provide new social norms and roles to regulate the use of information and protect both property and individual privacy. To these we must add a concern that the work of computer professionals does not undermine the social interactions, institutions, and processes that they themselves value. Ethical uses of information involve far more than the protection of property and privacy; they include socially responsible uses of the computer's power. 12.4 Artificial Intelligence and Human Decisions Artificial intelligence, besides being a challenge to the self-esteem of those who define themselves as thinking beings superior to the rest of creation, raise a practical question: "How much do we want computers to think for us?" Within the narrow range of thinking where computer programs can be currently designed to perform lie the possibilities for decision- making industrial robots which could out-perform skilled human workers, medical diagnosis programs to identify and prescribe treatment for human illness, and "smart" weapons that take some military decisions out of the hands of strategists. How much are we willing to share our decision-making capabilities with computers? Of the many analysts of the computer's impact on society, perhaps Joseph Weizenbaum is the most adamant about what machines should not be designed to do. Although he is a leading artificial intelligence expert, he writes: I have argued that the individual human being, like any other organism, is defined by the problems he confronts. The human is unique by virtue of the fact that he must necessarily confront problems that arise from his unique biological and emotional needs...No other organism, and certainly no computer, can be made to confront genuine human problems in human terms... Computers can make judicial decisions, computers can make psychiatric judgments. They can flip coins in much more sophisticated ways than can the most patient human being. The point is that they ought not be given such tasks. They may even be able to arrive at 'correct' decisions in some cases--but always and necessarily on bases no human being should be willing to accept (1976: 223- 225). For many people, the areas in which computers "ought" to make decisions lies in those applications for which man-machine interactions extend the human's ability to manipulate large and complex assemblages of information about the environment, especially for regions, like outer space or the subatomic universe, into which the human senses cannot go unaided. The computer's speed in calculations can be used to answer questions previously unanswerable because of time limitations, or it can be used to perform necessary but boring operations quickly. Intelligent machines may prove to be valuable sources of advice upon which to base human decisions for human purposes, if the power of the computer is seen as a tool for decision-makers. If, however, the power of computers is viewed as outside the political process, we will lose the opportunity to make group decisions about the direction of technological development. In other words, if we allow ourselves to build our decision-making expertise into machines and then begin to think of decisions as technical questions rather than political issues, we will lose control over public policy to technical experts. Instead of politics, we will have administration.

12.5 Communications and Social Movements In a summary of the impact of microelectronics on the Third World, U.N. technology transfer specialist Dieter Ernst (1983:11) predicted the emergence of new forms of political resistance to the imposition of a new international division of labor. But it is not clear what forms these conflicts will take and what means will be at the disposal of the dissidents. The United Nations adopted the resolution calling for a New World Information and Communication Order based upon principles of economic equality and political democracy (UNESCO, 1980). But the UN is far from being a world government, and it has been historically ineffectual at implementing its resolutions. It is a fundamental problem of the information age that nation-states have not developed effective international political institutions to deal with the growing political power of international economic institutions. While a world-wide system of computer-based political democracies is technologically possible, there are no formal political institutions with which to implement it. Computers and communications are affecting the politics of the world's people. In some places, the the U.S. military supplies the computer technology for population surveillance and control (Klare and Arnson, 1981; U.S. data processing corporations..., 1982). The same information specialists who advise U.S. political candidates have advised governments on how to run elections in El Salvador and the Philippines (Dowie, 1983). But, more optimistically, communications media have become a powerful force for social movements in countries like South Africa and the Philippines. In the case of the Philippines, the revolution was televised. During the Marcos-Aquino election, television viewers around the world saw powerful images of people struggling to keep their ballot boxes from being carried away by government soldiers. In the United States, a major backer of the Marcos government, public and Congressional opinion was of illegitimate election fraud. As the democratically elected Aquino government ousted the Marcos regime, television viewers around the world were shown a crowd of people preventing one faction of the military from attacking the other by standing between them. It was a demonstration of the strength of normative power. Computers and communications technologies, by bringing the citizens of the world into one another's living rooms and by facilitating shared cultural symbols, may be a powerful force for movements based on moral values. 12.6 Individuals, Computers, and Social Change needs edit

Main Contents