Computers and Social Change
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Why study history? Especially in a book about computers and social change? Because history is the closest thing social scientists have to a laboratory for investigating large-scale social change. Only by observing the past can we make empirical generalizations about the process of change. To understand a revolution in information, we will have to begin even before recorded history. For the relationship between information and social change began long before we were able to make written records of our experience.


Most theories of change in the earliest forms of human society are about evolution. They attempt to explain how human beings, with their characteristic patterns of group life, slowly evolved from pre-human species. The appearance of agriculture at about 30,000 B.C. and the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century were, in contrast, marked by such rapid changes in social structure that they have been termed revolutions. The introduction of computers is, to many theorists, simply an evolution of the Industrial Revolution. To others, computers represent a new, major period of revolutionary change. The choice of whether a social change is to be called an evolution or a revolution is rather arbitrary. Revolutions are relatively rapid and disruptive; evolutions maintain continuity and are gradual.

3.1.1 Tools, Information, and Human Evolution

One source of continuity between the computer revolution and much earlier forms of social change is the human use of information. From the genetically-encoded information in the brains of pre-human species to the scientific knowledge of modern industrial societies, information has been an integral part of human evolution and revolution. Tools, especially tools for gathering and recording information, have also played an important role. There have been revolutions when new means of information processing have appeared suddenly, but much of the human history of information processing is an evolutionary one.
3.1.1 The Origin of the Species
With the general acceptance of Darwin's theory of evolution in the late 19th century, scientists and educated laymen began to investigate the evolution of the human species from its more primitive ancestors. Theories in the fields of paleontology, archaeology, social anthropology and sociobiology have been formulated and revised as new scientific evidence is discovered. For scientists, the topic remains exciting and controversial.

The first theories of human origin emphasized the information- processing capacity of the brain; which, it was speculated, led to the invention of tools by the intellectually advanced Homo sapiens--the first true human. More recent evidence indicates that tool use by small-brained pre-human primates predated the evolution of the human species. Thus, the use of tools apparently began before we were mentally capable of planning designs for them. Darwin suggested that tool use was both the cause and the effect of the natural selection process that produced an intelligent species walking on two legs. Freedom of the hands to carry sticks or stones may have led, accidentally, to tool use by erect but small-brained ancestors. Those who were more inclined to walk on two legs had a survival advantage in the use of tools, and were thus more likely to reproduce.

The evolution of humans as an intelligent tool-using species involved more than genetic selection, however. Human culture, including techniques that can be taught to each new generation, made the species unique. It is extremely difficult to study early patterns of social interaction, but scholars have proposed that the earliest information transmission was probably visual, with one person showing another what he or she had learned to do. A computer program has recently been used to argue, by analogy, that cooperation is the best survival for interacting organisms (Axelrod, 1984). TIT-FOR-TAT, as the program is called, first cooperates with new individuals it meets, remembers how they acted towards it, and on the next encounted behaves in the same way. Although it retaliates against uncooperative behavior, the program is quick to forgive.

Evidence from tool use in some modern primates (our closest genetic relations) is also used to draw plausible inferences about the behavior of our ancestors. Chimpanzees, especially the females, use rocks to crack the nuts they have gathered. The use of tools to crack nuts is in turn taught to the young. Young monkeys have been observed inventing and teaching to others new techniques of gathering food. There are thus two important points about primitive tool use. First, use involves techniques, or information about using the tool, which can be learned and adopted through demonstration. The second is the role of innovation. Experimental activity is adopted and develops into regular patterns, with adults demonstrating to their offspring methods of gathering food, using tools, and avoiding environmental hazards. This kind of evidence fits a diffusion model of early technical innovation. Language and Art
For a period of several million years, most communication was non-verbal. Non-verbal communications are still an essential ingredient of social interaction. (Indeed, one of the technical difficulties of natural language software is the fact that humans rely on body posture, eye contact, and gesture to communicate meaning.) The first two innovations in information processing were art and spoken language. The paleontological evidence indicates that visual representations of objects had begun by the time humans were hunters of large animals. By then, people had learned to represent information as carvings and pictures. They had also begun to bury their dead with flowers, suggesting that they had begun to ponder the symbolic meaning of their existence.

While there is no hard scientific evidence that dates our first use of language, some of our oldest myths and religious traditions refer to the long food-gathering part of our past, when we lived in a garden and began to give names to animals and things. In an ancient Chinese poem the sacred spirits object strenuously when people begin to speak. One explanation for the cultural theme that symbolic representation through art and words were somehow sacreligious (as in the Judeo-Christian prohibition against graven images) is that face-to-face, emotional communications are important sources of group solidarity. In many religious traditions, such as the Greek mysteries or some modern forms of group prayer, a sacred silence helps produce feelings of connection among humans, and between humans and the sacred.

The linguistic distinctions among specific ideas which may bring dissent into human communications also facilitate greater coordination of human activity. Unlike the genetically encoded communication systems of insects and other animals, human language allows the formation of an infinite number of thoughts. This is because language contains recursive grammar which can generate an infinite number of sentences with a finite vocabulary. An example of an infinitely long sentence is, "The integers are one and two and three and four..."; an example of a recursive sentence is "I know that you know that I know that you know that I know that."

The advantages of the spoken word for early humans were great. With only gestures, it would be difficult to communicate the suggestion--"You three people go around behind that mammoth and chase it towards the cliff while we come in from the side"--unless group hunting of large animals were already built into the genetic heritage. (American Sign Language and other contemporary gesture-based communication systems have the grammatical structure of a verbal language and are not like the pre-verbal gesture systems.) Words are also useful for communicating in the dark, at a distance, or to someone behind a tree. More importantly, as cave drawings represent an animal not immediately present, so words allowed humans to refer to the past, the future, and the hypothetical. With the evolution of language, the human species was able to deal with information beyond its immediate experiences.

Symbolic communication contributed to more complex forms of social and economic life. Songs, stories, art, and myth communicated to each new generation the wisdom of the past. This process of cultural information accumulation contributed much more to our evolution than the slower processes of genetic selection. The Division of Labor
As human culture evolved, it reflected the history of human interactions within the environment. Projectile weapons appeared with the hunting of large game; previously we were hunters of frogs and rabbits and may even have been scavengers. With the advent of big-game hunting, many scholars believe that a division of labor developed, with adult males ranging further from home while females, older males, and the young continued to gather food. With this specialization of activity, status distinctions based upon age and sex appeared. Certain forms of information became associated with particular statuses. For example, spear use might be restricted to adult males activity; firewood gathering could be defined as children's work. From observations of contemporary gathering and hunting societies anthropologists theorize that the process of transmitting information was also defined and divided. Transmission might occur through the ritual initiation of boys into sacred knowledge about animal habits, or the initiation of girls into knowledge of the locations and healing properties of plants. Technical skills like tool making might become specialties passed down from craftsman to apprentice.

A new problem for hunting societies was how to divide the food surplus from a successful hunt. In gathering societies like the Tasaday there is no surplus. Food is usually shared among the group members as it is collected. Hunter societies, however, have social rules about who gets what shares, often distributed by leaders according to the local concept of fairness. Leaders were sometimes chosen on the basis of personal attributes like wisdom or hunting ability, or might be the oldest members of the society. Often, however, the leadership was religious in nature, involving people called shamans who were believed to have magical power over the environment. These influential men and women could interpret and explain events and the world. In their minds, and in their art and myth, cultural information was stored, added to, then passed on. For most of our history on earth, memory was the storage medium for information; the sudden death of a shaman or elder might erase a good portion of a group's knowledge.

3.1.2 The Agricultural Revolution: New Techniques and Social Structures

Sometime during the last 20 to 30,000 years, communities of people scattered across the globe learned to raise plants and animals for food. Although evidence indicates that some of the tools and techniques of herding and early agriculture diffused from group to group, others seem to have been discovered, independently, on several continents. Since this does not suggest a diffusion model, one theory suggests that population growth placed pressure on the food supplies of hunting and gathering societies, giving them a powerful incentive to seek alternative food sources. Our earliest agriculture was semi-nomadic, similar in many ways to gathering wild plants.

More rapid population growth and the low productivity of early agriculture pressured human groups to improve their food-producing technology. Archaelogical evidence suggests that, by at least 10,000 B.C., people had begun to settle in villages organized around permanent farming plots. Compared to previous cultural developments, information, tools, and social organization evolved rapidly. During the next few thousand years humans developed a variety of extraordinarily complex cultural forms. Changes in Cultural Information
From a functionalist perspective, the growth of agriculture posed a new set of survival problems and information needs. The reproductive habits of plants and animals were learned and formalized as a set of myths and customs, as part of the new techniques of food production. Knowledge of animal reproduction increased the amount of information about human biological relationships, and fertility took on a central role in religion. Weather dieties, especially those in charge of rainfall, were worshipped.

As early as 30,000 B.C. (which is as far back as Carbon-14 dating can reliably be done) the inventory of tools included calendars which could predict the annual agricultural cycles. These were analog rather than digital devices, dependent on the relative positions of sun, moon, and stars to compute the changing seasons. Because we have no similar evidence (like counting sticks or the sand table abacus) for any development of mathematics that early, it appears that our first computers were developed before computation. Our earliest calculators expressed relationships in terms of visual sacred symbols, such as the signs of the zodiac, or the image of the sun god being pulled across the sky by horses. The Division of Labor in Agricultural Societies
Symbolic evidence for an early sexual division of labor in agriculture comes from the fact that earth and fertility dieties were usually female, while the principal gods of nomadic herding cultures tended to be male. This suggests to some scholars that gardening began as women's activity, while animal husbandry grew out of men's hunting activities. In many contemporary agrarian societies agriculture was traditionally women's work, although this sort of evidence must be used cautiously when making arguments about pre-historical cultures.

Besides apparently furthering the sexual division of labor, early agriculture created new food surpluses, in the form of animals and grains, that could be stored for long periods of time. The wide variety of social solutions to the problem of surplus distribution included the establishment of early forms of private property and inheritance. Information about both kinship and property became an important part of culture. Geneologies, often in the form of song or ritual, were memorized, and played an important part in disputes over rights and shares of social resources. Even today, much data processing involves the maintenance of ownership records. The Origin of the Family
The pre-historic origins of the family cannot be known for certain, since social relationships do not usually leave archaelogical evidence. Research on primates and contemporary pre- industrial cultures, however, strongly suggests that:

The family is a human institution, not found in its totality in any prehuman species. It required language, planning, cooperation, self-control, foresight, and cultural learning and probably developed along with these. The family was made desirable by the early human combination of prolonged child care with the need for hunting with weapons over large terrains. The sexual division of labor on which it was based grew out of a rudimentary prehuman division between male defense and female child care. But among humans this sexual division of functions for the first time became crucial for food production and so laid the basis for future economic specialization and cooperation (Gough, 1980:38). New Relationships of Property and Power
New social arrangements were based on food surpluses that freed some individuals from the tasks of tilling the land. Men and women could specialize in their economic roles, exchangingbaskets, jewelry, tools, cloth, or beer for food. Leaders assumed more important roles in society, interpreting both social rules and religious traditions. At times the leadership divided, with different tasks and statuses for the sacred and the secular. From the secular evolved early forms of government and politics; from the sacred developed magic and ritual in astronomy and agriculture. Hereditary rule often evolved; and leaders were entitled, at birth, to large shares of social resources. Military activity, important for the protection of many village settlements, became a specialty. Groups conquered one another, and established patterns of slavery and enforced rule.

Over time, those in power defined cultural meanings and remembered and explained the official history and religious tradition. The state thus appeared in human society. With its monopoly on the legitimate use of force, the state provided military protection, enforced social order, and regulated the exchange and distribution of economic surplus. Since state rulers appropriated much of the surplus to support their own activities, they often became an upper class, passing their wealth and privileges on to their children. A few agricultural societies developed the most unequal stratification systems ever observed, with hereditary castes rigidly defining people's occupations at birth. As early forms of agriculture established the division of labor by age and sex, so settled agriculture divided labor by social class as the ideal of personal property in the form of food, tools, or ornaments that could be used was transformed into the idea of private wealth that could be amassed by a priviledged group.

Information gathering and processing became increasingly important for the functioning of the state. Agricultural surplus, in the form of taxes, had to be extracted from villagers. Property ownership had to be established, and specialized staffs of warriors, priests, craftsmen, artisans, and slaves had to be supervised. China, the oldest of the agrarian empires, was the origin of major innovations in information technology. Innovations in Information Processing
As the 5000-year old oracle bones of China indicate, early writing developed from pictures and was part of a religious information system. The important advantages of writing as a method of information transmission as opposed to oral or non-verbal communication is that information is stored outside the human mind and is less subject to memory loss or idiosyncratic changes as it is passed from person to person. Even non-verbal information lasts longer in a permanent storage medium. For example, a written Chinese musical score discovered by archaelogists was recently played for the first time in 1800 years.

Along with the earlier invention of the abacus, writing provided the Chinese state with the means to build and administer an empire, based on irrigated rice cultivation, which lasted several thousand years. Taxes were raised to construct cities, waterworks, and defensive fortifications like the Great Wall. Censuses were taken and armies drafted. A strict class division between the educated elite and the common people appeared. For the elite, the arts flourished. Progress in mathematics was made as part of administrative and ritual calculations; paper was invented and provided a solution to the problems of producing and storing written records.

Agricultural civilizations also developed in other parts of the world. Although they shared with China some of the patterns of extreme class inequality, there were some important differences in their cultures' use of information. Languages like Egyptian evolved away from pictographs, toward the representation of sounds by individual symbols. The invention of phonetic alphabets greatly simplified written language, with the result that lower class people, and even some slaves, could become literate. The alphabetic languages lowered the barriers between social classes because much less leisure time was required for mastery of them. Chinese is a difficult written language even for native speakers. It remains a major challenge to word processing and data communications designers, because there are 35,000 individual characters which can be pronounced a maximum of 1600 ways; this makes phonetic transcription impractical due to an excessive number of homonyms (like red and read). The most promising approach appears to be the use of computer graphics ("Chinese/Kanji...", 1985).

Alphabetic languages facilitated information-processing for encyclopedias, libraries, and other early data bases. The burning of the Great Library at Alexandria, Egypt, destroyed a major part of the Mediterranian world's knowledge, and demonstrates the vulnerability of early information storage. Although several methods of storage were used, all were expensive and time-consuming. Literacy was rare. Manuscripts had to be copied by hand (with the inevitable addition of errors) or printed the way artists make woodblock prints. Not until the widespread use of paper and Gutenberg's invention of the modern moveable-type printing press did written materials become widely available in Europe. By then, in the middle of the 15th century, Europe was on the threshold of the Industrial Revolution.


It is widely agreed that the Industrial Revolution was the greatest period of social change in history, culminating in an international capitalist economic system. It is also agreed that the revolution began in England, occurred mainly from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries, and had its origins in 16th and 17th century European culture. The details of why and how it occurred are still being debated by social theorists and historians. By any theory, however, the Industrial Revolution marked the transformation of the world's economic and social life.

3.2.1 The Great Transformation

Innovations in 16th century English agriculture included new tools and soil preparation techniques. These raised food productivity and supported a population growth in the 17th century. Trade in agricultural products among European countries created an international division of labor which expanded with European colonization. For example, English colonial expansion into India provided a new raw material--cotton, suitable for the textile industry that had begun with wool. Lower labor requirements in English agriculture displaced rural workers, who found their way to cities like Manchester, where they were organized to weave cloth.

The rational organization of workers in a single building was found efficient in the manufacture of other products besides textiles. Technological innovations in power generation and machinery were adopted, and the factory system was created. Between 1780 and 1840 steam engines were introduced into textile, coal, and iron works, and the modern factory came to dominate the English industrial towns.

By 1776 (at the beginning of industrialization) Adam Smith could describe the ideal economy as a free market in which people could sell land, labor, and manufactured products without constraint. Although many people believe that this is the natural way for human beings to arrange their economic activities, it is important to realize that this is a culturally defined pattern of behavior of fairly recent origin. Impersonal market forces only gradually replaced traditional social regulation of economic activity. To Marx (who lived through the worst social disruptions of the Industrial Revolution), the social relationships inherent in human work became culturally redefined as impersonal relationships among things, with workers transformed to sellers of labor and alienated from the products of their own work. Theorists writing after the Industrial Revolution emphasized other features of social change: Durkheim argued that the more complex division of labor in production would make people more dependant upon one another and increase social solidarity. He also saw a transitional period in industrial societies during which property rights would be unregulated by social norms (1957:207-215). Weber saw the rise of law and administrative bureaucracies taking over the function of regulating economic activity and property rights. In one of the more interesting contemporary analyses, Karl Polanyi describes the Industrial Revolution in Britain as a "Great Transformation" in which an economy embedded in a society became a society embedded in an economy. What he refers to is economic forces controlling the pattern of social life instead of the other way around.

3.2.2 The Transformation of Property

The concept of property involves more than possession. It also includes the socially-defined ways in which possessions can be owned and disposed of. Gifts, inheritance, barter, and sale are all ways of exchanging possessions. In each society, some things are defined as "not for sale." In modern societies you can sell your land but not your children. In many earlier ones land could not be owned by individuals, but was instead the collective property of a kinship group. People could inherit the right to use a share but not to sell or give it to strangers. Some of these societies did permit the sale of human beings, in a few cases even people's own children. The Concept of Commodity Property
The rise of capitalism altered social restrictions on property. A particular form of property, the commodity, became more prevalent. Unlike most earlier products, which were made to be used or exchanged in the context of a social relationship between producer and consumer, commodities were made to be sold for profit using rationally organized wage labor. The value of a commodity is measured by a universal medium of exchange, money. The price of a commodity represents its value and includes the cost of materials, wages, other production expenses, and profit. When it is sold, the exchange is based upon the price of the product, not upon the social positions of buyer and seller. A set of impersonal market relationships reduce direct social contact between the maker and the consumer, who may be strangers to one another.

To understand the difference between commodities and older forms of property, consider all the things you own. If you have something made for ou, for example a sweater made by a friend or relative, it is not a commodity. The handmade sweater is more than a sweater; it is a gift expressing your relationship to the giver. That particular sweater has a social meaning knit into it; you could never buy another one just like it. A sweater bought in a department store was made to be sold; the other sweater was made for you. But what about the gift that someone bought for you? To the extent that the gift has sentimental value, you are preserving some of the traditional meanings of property exchange. To the extent that the value of the gift is measured only by its price, you are treating it as a commodity. However the purchased gift is a commodity even though it has sentimental value. This is because your sentiment is not towards the people who work in the sweater factory. To both you and the person who gave you the gift, the labor that went into it is an impersonal part of the economic system appearing only as part of the cost of the sweater. Commodities and Capitalism
When commodity production began, it was hindered by traditional social obligations that prevented people from selling their labor, by customary prices and land use rights, and by cultural beliefs that interest and profit were immoral. During the rise of capitalism, land and human labor were socially redefined as being "for sale". Although they did not become commodities by most strict definitions of the term (because they are not "made"), they did become private rather than social.

In the case of land, the transformation from collective to private property began hundreds of years before the industrial revolution. Beginning in the 12th century in England, the feudal nobility began to use their power to redefine traditional land use rights. First they restricted the commoners' use of forests for hunting and foraging. The social conflict of England's Robin Hood period was one result. Later, village pastures and common lands (examples of which can still be found in the older towns of New England) were declared private and enclosed by hedges and fences. A poem attributed to that period indicates both popular objection to the change and an explanation for why it was possible:

The law locks up the man or woman Who steals the goose from off the common But lets the greater felon loose Who steals the common from the goose.

The nobility had much more influence upon the social interpretation of law than did their villagers.

The conflict over changing cultural definitions of property was not simply one of rulers versus peasants. As demands for wool from the weaving industry caused many landlords to evict villagers entirely in order to raise sheep, displaced peasants created an enormous crisis of social welfare in the English countryside. Until the middle 1600's, supporters of traditional society (including many religious leaders and the Tudor and early Stuart monarchs) tried to halt the enclosures. Yet by the beginning of the Industrial Revolution land had been firmly established as the private property of individual landowners. In the process the nobility and the citizens of the towns had won a degree of political independence from the monarchy (Tierney, 1983:273-282). In doing so, they established the foundations of English parliamentary law which became the basis of the U.S. constitution. The legal and political institutions that arose during the Industrial Revolution guaranteed citizens both democratic and property rights.

3.2.3 The Transformation of Labor

In non-industrial societies work is intertwined with the other pursuits of life. Most people did not work for wages, but out of social obligations to friends and relatives. People exchanged the products of their work as gifts or through barter. People in the lowest positions of society might be slaves or serfs, with the entire pattern of their lives tied to obligations to their master or feudal lord. More fortunate members of society, however, tended to find their work filled with meaning and purpose. As they farmed or made objects, they also expressed themselves as human beings in a complex network of kinship and community. Their patterns of work were part of the broader patterns of their culture. As Nash reports of a New Guinea culture:

Why the Siane work is fairly obvious. First, they must work to eat; but need alone does not call forth the effort, for in theory a man may eat even if he does little or no work. Clan status entitles a person to subsistence, but an obligation to work is vested in clan status. Within the clan all men are considered brothers, and brothers are obliged to help each other and share work loads (1966:47).

During the Industrial Revolution, human labor was freed from the social restrictions of feudalism (including requirements that villagers work a certain number of days each year for their lord and obtain permission to travel). Instead, villagers were free to travel in search of work for wages. As capitalism released people from the social obligations of feudal society, work for wages became a social and economic necessity. This is because traditional obligations for employers to provide housing and other social services were reduced, and greater geographical mobility removed people from the supports of kinship and community. Great poverty and social unrest were created by changes in the pattern of social relationships that had supported people in sickness or old age. Unemployment, almost unthinkable in pre-industrial society where economic activity was embedded in social life, became possible on a large scale.

The resulting social welfare crisis was debated fiercely in the British parliament during the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Adam Smith recommended higher wages and eduction, fearing that "too much division of labor would reduce the worker to a remarkable degree of stupidity in which he is not able to exercise his civic duties" (1982:195). The wretched condition of the English lower class is vividly described in the novels of Charles Dickens, although he did not write about the industrial towns. Observations of factory conditions led Marx to write the Communist Manifesto and predict a proletarian revolution.

A group called Luddites smashed machinery in a futile attempt to halt industrialization. According to the judge who sentenced seventeen of them to hang, their intention was:

...the destruction of machinery invented for the purpose of saving manual labor in manufactures: a notion, probably suggested by evil designing persons, to captivate the working manufacturer, and engage him in tumalt and crimes, by persuading him that the use of machinery occasions a decrease in the demand for personal labor, and a consequent decrease of wages, or total want of work (Burke, 1966:5)

Today the term Luddite is used to refer to senseless violence against technology, but the original Luddites attacked machines only in the factories where they were being put out of work. As the Industrial Revolution continued, and the English working class turned its political attention away from attcking machinery towards organizing labor unions and struggling for better working conditions (Thompson, 1968).

3.2.4 The Rationalization of Culture

While the Industrial Revolution is often considered a revolution based on tools--Jacquard's 1801 loom with its punch card controls being particularly important for later data-processing technology--it was also a revolution in cultural conceptions of the world. The rationalization of economic activity was only part of a new cultural conception of a rational universe. The Reformation's challenges to religious authorities and the rise of rational scientific inquiry were precursors to the Industrial Revolution. The Economic Consequences of Religious Ideas
Capitalist ideas of property were part of a transformation of European religious beliefs. For example, the medieval view that usury (making interest on a loan) was a violation of Christian doctrine inhibited investments in manufacturing. John Calvin's mid-16th century theological argument that usury was immoral only if it created social inequity helped make investment more socially acceptable (Nelson, 1969:79). Weber suggested that other ideas of the Protesant reformation had unanticipated consequences, and that the Protestant Ethic provided ideological justification for new forms of industrial organization. The Age of Scientific Reason
The scientific revolution which contributed so much to the techniques of manufacturing began as a challenge to established religious views of the nature of the physical world. During the 16th century, the mechanical arts flourished, setting the stage for the machines of the Industrial Revolution. A fascination with clocks and the laws of motion led to the invention of all sorts of mechanical devices. A systematic study of astronomy and physics began as observers of the heavens like Johannes Kepler looked for mathematical, instead of mystical, regularities. Similarly, alchemists became chemists. The age of scientific reason created a view of the world as a rationally organized mechanism that could be understood, predicted, and controlled. Temporal Rationalization
The appearance of public clocks marked a new temporal rationalization of society. Beginning in the monestaries and moving into the early factories, clocks organized people to pray and work in unison. In earlier epochs time was socially measured by events like the cycles of light and dark or the passage of seasons. Ritual, song, and dance were activities where groups kept the same time, but the idea of a universal, regular time pattern seemed wrong. (If it is hard to believe people rioted over clocks and calendar reforms, consider the reasons why today there are objections to daylight savings time.)

As work in Western Europe and the United States moved out of the homes and villages into urban factories, a cultural separation of work time and leisure time appeared, which we now regard as a normal part of human life. The organization of people to work at the same pace became part of the industrial revolution, since the new machinery worked with clock-like precision. In studies of industrialization in contemporary societies, the acceptance of a western industrial concept of time and labor discipline (measured in surveys by the ownership of a clock or watch and an understanding of the concept of being "on time" for work) is considered an important variable in the creation of a modern labor force. To Americans, there is nothing unusual about scheduling our days in hours and minutes. The Rationaliztion of Social Interaction
A particularistic social relationship is one based on emotional evaluations of who a person is. Race, sex, kinship and other characteristics acquired at birth are used to determine how to act towards another person. Clear distinctions are made between behavior appropriate toward strangers and behavior appropriate to one's own group. Universalistic social relationships are based on general principles for acting towards other human beings. Rational judgments of how a person is acting are more important than who he or she is. The Industrial Revolution transformed particularistic social relationships into universalistic ones (Parsons and Shils 1951: 76-84). The positive contribution of universalism to human interaction was a greater willingness to cooperate with people outside one's own family, village, or region. This made possible an expansion of the international division of labor, involving the coordination of many strangers into new production processes and social structures. The negative aspect of universalism has been a loss of social solidarity in family and community, and a lack of consensus in values (Berger, Berger, and Kellner, 1973).

3.2.5 Information and the Rise of Capitalism

Secrets are not new. Throughout history, both individuals and groups have guarded particular forms of information. The best location for fishing or finding flint for arrowheads; the techniques for working metals; magical hunting or healing techniques -- all of these have been made secret. The Egyptian priesthood kept knowledge of land surveying to themselves. Each year following the Nile floods, they ritually recalculated property boundaries, with the result that their own lands tended to get larger. Some of the first makers of iron weapons tried to prevent the diffusion of metallurgy technology, hoping to gain military superiority. Medieval European guilds used the secrets of their crafts to gain some independence for their cities against the political rule of feudal landowners. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, England prohibited the export of weaving technology; the first textile machinery in the United States was smuggled to Rhode Island piece by piece. Once assembled and copied, this illegal technology became the basis of New England's cotton industry -- a major competitor for England. Yet most of this secret information was not property in the modern sense.

In non-industrial societies, information was rarely for sale. Cultural tradition defined who was allowed to know what. In India, occupational techniques could be used only by persons of the same caste. Similarly, in many societies (including the American South) it was forbidden to teach slaves to read. Since information about supply and demand is essential to the operation of a free market, early capitalist manufacturing and trading organizations pressured their governments to provide more information about resource availability and prices. With equal fervor, however, they tried to protect information about their own activities from their competitors and their governments. Information was not transformed into commodity property in the way that land and labor had been. Although innovations in accounting and bookkeeping made great contributions to the rise of capitalism, information remained largely the personal property of the educated. Trade secrets were kept and sold, but the market for the business information services we take for granted today developed very slowly. We can find their origins, however, in railway schedules and shipping announcements of the 1800's and in the growth of banking and mail service.

The most important changes in social views of information during the rise of capitalism occurred in the political and religious spheres to challenge traditional beliefs about who should know what. The ideas of political democracy put into practice by the American and French Revolutions included the belief (expressed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution) that citizens should be able to exchange information freely. With the spread of literacy, newspapers and other publishing, freedom of information became one of the cornerstones of democracy in industrial societies. This linkage between the origins of political democracy and the industrial revolution does not imply that capitalism and democracy will necessarily continue to coexist nor that industrialization is automatically the route to democracy in the developing countries of the world (de Schweinitz, 1964). The historical link between democracy and the Industrial Revolution was a common cultural value for free inquiry and innovative ideas.

Archibald Cox (Chief Watergate Prosecutor) described the way in which the freedom to communicate information is linked in the U.S. Constitution to religious and political freedom:

The authors of the First Amendment moved from religious liberty through the freedoms of speech and the press to political rights to assemble peaceably and to petition the government for the redress of grievances. Thus, as the freedoms of speech and of the press are linked to spiritual liberty on the one side, so they are tied to and find justification in political liberty and democracy on the other (1981:2).

Although information, like land and labor, was gradually freed from traditional social constraints during the rise of capitalism, it did not generally become private property. Instead, through the spread of literacy and scientific knowledge, modern information became a new collective property. Education became a major way for individuals to acquire personal knowledge from the expanding cultural storehouse. Although many people today think of education as an investment that increases the value of their labor, our public schools, libraries and support for scientific research are indicators of the extent to which information is still defined as social property. A large-scale redefinition of information as a commodity would have a sweeping effect upon these institutions as well as upon our democratic political institutions.


Although Marx said that the hand mill produced feudalism and the steam mill produced modern capitalist society, his theory was not one of simple technological determinism. Before new machinery could be introduced, he argued, work must be reorganized to accommodate the equipment by those who have the power to redefine tasks and products. It was from this reorganization of work in the factory that the social and political consequences of the Industrial Revolution emerged.

3.3.1 The Industrial Origins of the Modern Digital Computer

The modern computer has its origins in both the machinery of the early factories and the 17th century mathematicians' and astronomers' fascination with computational and timing devices. For both industrialists and inventors, the rational organization of human activity was the means toward the desired goal of progress. As the 17th century mathematician Liebnitz wrote:

it is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labor of calculation which could be safely relegated to anyone else if machines were used. (Smith, 1959: 156-164)
The anyone else was the person who operated the machine.

Charles Babbage, whose 1833 design for the analytic engine was the prototype of the modern computer, owned factories organized around the principle that:

Human labor is similar to capital, raw materials, etc. It is therefore subject, or ought to be subject, to similar input/output analyses, measurement, standards and controls. (Babbage, 1982)
The substitution of machinery for labor was an early part of the industrialization process. Marx (1973:110-126) agreed with Babbage's definition of a machine as a division of labor in which a single engine links particular operations performed by a single instrument. In this process factory workers became components of the machine as their work is first rationally divided into tasks coordinated tasks. Later they were replaced by machines designed to do their specialized part of the opertion.

The techniques which led to the eventual development of robots and other automated equipment appeared first on factory assembly lines with manual workers serving as semi-automatic components. In fact, the word computer was first used to describe the jobs of women who performed calculations and wired hardware for the pioneering ENIAC. It only later meant the machine which replaced them. Such changes were not because of computers or any other technology, occurred because those who had the power to decide how technology will be used reorganized the division of labor to accomodate the computer in ways they believed to be economically rational.

3.3.2 A New Division of Labor

Computer technology makes possible an extension of industrialization that Norbert Weiner called a second industrial revolution, in which "the sporadic design of individual automatic mechanisms" is replaced by "communication between machine and machine" (1967:208). Robots based on cybernetic principles are able to do the factory work of even highly skilled workers. Their introduction extension the Industrial Revolution's factory automation and allows greater coordination of differentiated tasks. But, because the computer is a general purpose tool for communication and control, a radically new division of labor is now possible. The Transformation of Industrial Time and Space
In Industrial Revolution factories, people worked at a pace set by machinery and enforced by supervisors. While the temporal logic of factory machinery required a temporal discipline on the part of workers, in some new computer systems the machine can accomodate multiple tasks occurring at different tempos and in different sequences. The new technologies speed up the production process, shortening the time between design and product. They can also be used to coordinate work performed by individuals acting at their own pace and under their own direction. Communications and control technology also makes it possible to coordinate the work of people in different cities and countries. Work has been freed from the spatial requirement of the Industrial Revolution that people work together in the same factory or office building. The workplace can be anywhere.

Just because the computer makes it technically possible to free people from the time and space constraints of the Industrial Revolution doesn't mean that work will necessarily become freer in a social sense. The division of labor in the Industrial Revolution was designed to treat people as parts of assembly lines -- that was not the only way economic activity could have been arranged. The working conditions of the Industrial Revolution will be carried over into the information age if we design our computer systems to imitate factories. The Industrialization of Mental Labor
After the Industrial Revolution the work of clerical and technical people supported the productive work of factories. Now, with a growing market for information products, many mental laborers are directly involved in commodity production. Intellectual labor is being subjected to the same processes of rationalization and control which affected manual labor during the Industrial Revolution. Wordprocessors and other automated office technologies make it possible to organize rather routine mental work into small tasks coordinated by computers. Applications like computer-aided design offer the same possibilities for some kinds of technical work. Knowledge engineering promises the capacity to rationalize professional and managerial work as well. Professional and managerial work requires the ability to make judgments based upon experience and knowledge. Managerial activity in addition includes the ability to evaluate and control of the work of others. There is an enormous gap between the actual performance of intelligent software and knowledge engineering's claim that computers can perform as technical experts, can acquire a kind of judgment based upon general principles and experience, and can make managerial decisions. But there are enough successes in the 200 or so commercial expert systems to demonstrate that machines can perform a few of what were previously human mental activities (Pylyshyn, 1980; Frenkel, 1985). Growing business and military support for the Fifth Generation of intelligent computers indicates that the mechanization of thought is becoming a social fact despite theoretical reservations of philosophers and cognitive scientists.

3.3.3 The Social Consequences

The transformation of industrial time and space will shift attention from the social conditions of work to the physiological and psychological conditions of the computer/human interface, as more work is remotely controlled by computer systems instead of directly by managers. Response time in conversations with computers will replace machine pacing as a source of stress. Subjective feelings of control, mastery, and self-esteem will be sources of job satisfaction as social relationships of power and control are embodied in technology.

The production of information commodities will have an impact on the institutions that socialize people for work, for consumption, and for decision-making. Although homes may become workplaces, the family will not recapture its pre-industrial social functions. Leisurre and mass communications media will become more important socializing agents, with some of the functions of educational institutions transferred to the private sector. The forms of mental work that machines can do will be devalued as sources of self-esteem and occupational status.

Although many of our computer systems are being designed to look like factories, there will be a gradual transformation from the workplace to the work space. In the process much of the unionized industrial laborforce and routine clerical work will be automated.

New jobs in the information society will be in what is now the service sector of the economy. According to one line of reasoning, these will be more creative and satisfying than those of the Industrial Revolution. According to an alternative argument, there will be a restratification of society marked by a declining middle class, a sharper distinction between a knowledge elite and information workers, and the growth of an impoverished underclass.

Democratic institutions will be challenged by changing definitions of property and by new means of exerting power. Conflicting demands will be placed upon the law to protect both information as property and as personal privacy. New technologies of social control will be possible in law enforcement, in government, and in the military as well as in business. Alternative designs are vailable to provide technologies of social integrtion that support a widespread participatory democratic process and facilitate international coopertion. The institutions of public decision- making are confronted with choices that will determine the future distribution of information, property, and power.

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