The Social Impact of the Computer

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The Social Impact of the Computer

  • J.A.N. Lee
  • Virginia Tech


  • When did computers begin to have an effect on people?
  • How have we been affected?
  • What HAVE we done?
  • Have we become too dependent on computers?
  • What can we do about it?

When did computers begin to have an effect on people?

  • The early machines - one-off, isolated
  • 1950: UNIVAC - the first multi-frame machine
  • 1955: IBM 650 - the first University machine
  • 1960: IBM 1620 - the first College machine
  • The period of the “priest-hood” of programmers

Early Programming

When did computers begin to have an effect on people?

  • 1965-1975: Time sharing
    • 1964: The first e-mail
    • “Personal computing”
    • Immediate feedback
    • Programming by trial and error
  • 1965 - The introduction of the mini-computer
  • The beginning of the period of computing as a “public utility” - for the privileged few

When did computers begin to have an effect on people?

  • 1970s - The microcomputer for enthusiasts
  • 1975 - Computers in the office
  • 1980 - The IBM PC
  • 1984 - The Macintosh
  • The period of the “HOME” computer
  • And since then …
  • For the Millions

When did computers begin to have an effect on people?

  • 1940 - first computation over telephone lines
  • 1960s - the MODEM and Timesharing
  • 1970s - networking
  • 1980s - ARPANet, NSFNet, BITNET, …
    • News groups, LISTSERVs,
  • 1990s - The INTERNET - WWW
    • The period of ubiquitous computing

Ringing the Changes

  • Computer
  • as a Utility
  • Computer
  • as a
  • Communicator
  • Computer
  • as a general
  • purpose system
  • Computer
  • as a Search
  • Engine
  • Computer
  • as a Tool

How have we been affected?

  • The early days:
    • “computerists” became addicted
    • but proud and dedicated
    • to the public - the concept of the GIANT BRAIN
    • to the insiders - the dumb, recalcitrant, moronic computer

How have we been affected?

How have we been affected?

  • Users have moved from being an elite “professionally responsible” to a community with widely varying attitudes
  • Very high level applications allow anyone to develop a program
  • Including the untrained, the untrainable, and the don’t-wannabe-trained

The stages of impact

  • Direct replacement of an activity with little change in productivity
  • Enhancement of activities by improvements in speed and efficiency
  • Extending activities to those that could not be done previously

What HAVE we done?

  • Created a “DIGITAL DIVIDE”
    • The have’s and the have’nots
      • Between schools, between school districts
      • Between the old and the young
      • Between parents and children
      • Between male and female
      • Between rich and poor
      • Between town and country

What HAVE we done?

  • Look at almost any job description!
  • Qualifications for a secretary: (1) ...Working knowledge of standard office practices, equipment and word- processing software; …. Preferences given for experience with spreadsheets and graphics software, Microsoft Word, Word Equation and Excel; ... experience editing and proofreading complex documents. (2) Preferences given for experience working on a Mac OS, experience with Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Banner, experience maintaining a database.

1970 IBM Advertisement

  • Yesterday, Marion was a billing clerk
  • Today, she’s a whole department.
  • Friden Advertisement
  • 1965

What HAVE we done?

    • Must be computer literate to include word processing, spreadsheets, web-based research, and email. Must have a valid vehicle operator's permit and a good driving record.
  • We have changed people’s lives
  • For good or bad?

Informality vs the Archive

  • The e-mail seemed so innocent. "Betty, hi," he remembers cheerfully typing to his colleague. "I haven't been successful reaching you by phone, so I'll try e-mail instead."
  • And so Bill Lampton--then an employee of a large hospital--dashed off the rest of his note on some trivial office matter and hit the send button.
  • Betty never got past the greeting.
  • "I have no idea what you mean about my not returning phone calls," Lampton recalls Betty firing back. "To have you accuse me of ignoring your calls is unthinkable and inexcusable. . . . As to the purpose of the e-mail that you sent me, I prefer not to respond, as I dislike dealing with anyone who assumes the worst of me."

Have we become too dependent on computers?

  • Have we become too dependent on:
    • Steel?
    • Cars?
    • Oil?
    • Electricity?
    • Telephones?
    • Plastic?
    • Television?
    • Housing?
    • Airplanes?
    • Clothing?
    • Prosthetics?
    • Society?

What have we done to Society?

  • Collapsed time?
  • Collapsed space?
  • Broken down natural barriers?
  • Intermixed incompatible attitudes?
  • Invaded privacy?
  • Made it vulnerable?
  • Created an information overload?

What have we done to Society?

  • Provided a new industry with expanding employment needs
  • New life for old industries
  • Improved communications
  • Created tools that would otherwise be impossible
  • Saved time
  • Changed the “Atomic Age” into the “Information Age”
  • For

What are the dangers?

  • Using computers where simpler solutions exist
  • Using software in critical situations

What are the advantages?

  • Using software in critical situations
    • Safety critical applications
    • Mission critical systems
  • More easily upgradeable, replaceable
  • Millions of new uses, new capabilities

What can we do about it?

  • Should we become Luddites?
  • (See

Should we have killed the railroad engine?

Should we NOT continue to develop the computer?

  • We cannot go backward
  • We have not had a MAJOR breakthrough since 1970 - the integrated circuit
  • What is the next big step going to be and where?
  • What will be the effect?

Progress, Development, Evolution

  • Whatever we do
    • We will not stop progress
    • We will not stop people using our products in ways that we do appreciate
    • And we WILL find new uses and applications that will be advantageous

Stopping Progress An Example

One last thought

  • Martin Luther King: “Our technology is outstripping our spirituality”

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