The social implictions of information technology

Graham H May, Principal Lecturer in Futures Research, Leeds Metropolitan University, published in Inventing the Future, Partnerships for Tomorrow, January 1996.
Information Technology has already been blamed, among other things for:

It is about to be blamed for, if it has not already:

Other technologies in the past have been accused of similar impacts - the car and television in particular - though perhaps not as early in their development. It may be the very experience of the apparent disbenefits associated with these and other technologies that have alerted us to the problems that any technology creates.

Some have even suggested that if we had known beforehand the problems that the car has created we would not have developed it. But then we would have been without its obvious benefits too.

IT has been called a meta-technology and a ubiquitous technology, meaning that it has importance beyond the confines of IT itself through its inclusion in a whole range of appliances and its combination with other technologies to create completely new opportunities.

Undoubtedly it is an important influence on society but, like the steam engine which has been seen as having a similar kind of impact during the Industrial Revolution, it is one facet of a much broader change. Phrases like The Third Wave, Post Industrial Society, Post Modernism and Information Age have been coined to describe the late twentieth century. Only the last of these offers any positive identification to the period, the others only tell us where we no longer are, or that we are undergoing another change. This is not surprising because it is difficult to identify change until it has occurred.

The scale and pace of development of IT has been one of its most significant features and provides some explanation for its rapid penetration. This is summed up in Moore's Law which points to a doubling of the capability of IT every 18 months to 2 years. Bill Gates, for one sees no reason why this should not continue for another 10 years or so at least.

IT raises again the question of the relationship between society and technology. It is frequently assumed that technology has a deterministic influence over society. It clearly does have an influence but to be strictly determinist it would need to exist apart from society. It doesn't and consequently the relationship is more likely probabilistic rather than determinist.

People do climb Everest because it is there, but not everyone chooses to do so. Technology offers opportunities, some very persuasive, but not everyone takes them up. The relationship is made more complex because technology does not just happen, it is made to happen as the result of human decision and action. Certain groups within society influence the development of technology through the funding of R&D, marketing etc. VHS is said to be technically inferior to Betamax but its marketing was better so it became the standard. The Apple Mac, among others, is claimed to be a better computer than the PC, but the PC dominates the market thanks to the likes of IBM and Microsoft.

Society's relationship with its technology is a complex one of interacting influences. Blaming the Internet for pornography is like blaming Guttenberg for 'top-shelf' magazines, and to ignore much of literature including Shakespeare and Chaucer. Not that IT does not bring new angles to the problem.

Technology is often used in surprising ways not anticipated by its originators or developers. The Internet is a good example. It began as a communications system for the US military in the event of nuclear conflict. It relies on an infrastructure that had to be invented, planned, designed, made and put in place. It is unlikely that the US military anticipated the anarchy of the Net. It is probably the last thing they would have imagined and certainly not what they planned.

The debate about the impacts of IT ranges from enthusiasts to pessimists with very different views about where it is taking us. The following table sums up some of the main dimensions of the debate.

IT scenarios for the 21st century




Social structure

Golden age of leisure

Haves & have nots


Shared affluence

Very rich/Very poor


New rural society

Electronic hermit


Genuine participation


Consumer choice

Mass produced individuality

Any colour as long as it is black


Unlimited choice

Electronic babel

Equality and access

Information as equaliser


Financial structure

Cashless society

Informal economy writ large

State and the citizen

Electronic freedom

Big Brother a la 1984

The actual impact is not likely to be either of these extremes but may have features that are perceived by different observers as having characteristics of either. At the present time there are a number of concerns about the way the technology is being developed and notable among them are access, set-up costs and exclusivity.

Clearly, at present access is limited, not everyone has the necessary technology, whereas practically everyone has a letter box. That was not always the case, nor did everyone possess the ability to read or respond in writing. Both were exclusive at one time. A number of developments, notably printed books and mass education were necessary to bring about the situation we now consider to be normal, i.e. nearly everyone being able to communicate through words on paper.

The great unknown about the new information technologies is when and if the same critical mass will develop. Efforts like Partnerships for Tomorrow are part of the process, but it is much easier to argue against the use of IT because it is not yet universal than to argue for it because it might become so. Perhaps the best argument is that we, as a society, cannot afford to allow only the powerful to have the ability to use it. We have concerns about the influence of ownership over the media, but to counteract them we attempt to regulate them and produce alternatives rather than close them down.

The set-up costs of acquiring a computer, modem etc., and affording the running costs are an issue. Perhaps the need is for a larger second hand market. There must be an increasing number of older models that are being dumped or left in lofts that could relatively cheaply be put to use. One problem with this is the rapid obsolescence of IT equipment, but if we get nearer a situation in which an old banger will at least get you on to the super highway more people may be able to afford the entry costs.

The same issue arises with schools either in providing the facilities in house or as some have suggested for students at home. A way round this could come with the realisation that providing computers for home study is much cheaper than real estate. The existing real estate probably acts as a lagging factor; we have it and cannot just get rid of it, or envisage not having it. Changes in that situation could well come from the increasing financial squeeze on higher education leading to reductions in residential study or successful schools which are oversubscribed seeing it as a way of increasing their intake. Current funding systems probably could not cope with such innovation but I know of at least one Chairman of Governors who has thought of it.

Exclusivity is clearly a problem at the moment. Although the Internet is growing at a phenomenal rate it is still a small minority who have access. The question is, is that a good enough reason for discouraging further developments? Car ownership has only reached about 70 % of households, a much lower proportion of individuals, and although there is much criticism in certain quarters of developments, like out-of-town shopping malls and multi-screen cinemas, which disadvantage non-car owners, they are increasingly popular.

If the parallel has any use it probably suggests that we would be better to address the issues of unequal access to the developments of IT than to attempt to prevent it happening, unless we discover that the heat from all these computers is causing global warming! It is important to think about the potential development of IT and other new technologies before we make avoidable mistakes. The difficulty is that predicting what the effects will be is far from certain, we may be imagining dragons where there are none and walking straight over the cliff. Perhaps the fact that some of the issues have been recognised comparatively early in the development of the technology is, paradoxically, an encouraging sign.

Graham May

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