Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 11 Social Change


What are the major ways in which the technologies associated with computers and information networks and systems and the Internet have changed how humans think of themselves in relation to other humans?  Changed the ideas we have of community?  Changed the ways in which we interact with others for many purposes?


How have the major social institutions been impacted and altered by computer technologies?

Where have computer technologies supported the further realizations of those values for which social institutions have arisen to represent and support?


Where have computer technologies had consequences threatening to those purposes and values social institutions have served?


The following are remarks, reflections and responses to issues and questions related to this matters in this chapter.  Each offering is proceeded by the authors name and institutional affiliation.


Joseph Snellenberg, CUNY, SPS, 2007

Actual Impact of Computing and Information Technology

“Computer and information technology and the Internet are said to be the most significant technological developments of the twentieth century. Many of our most fundamental social institutions and values are being transformed as we translate them into the new medium and move more and more activities onto the Internet—business, work, sociality, entertainment, government, education, and so on.”

--Johnson, Deborah G. Computer Ethics. Third Edition. Prentice Hall. Upper Saddle River, NJ. 2001. Pg. 199. 

            This quote, while short, gives a very accurate description of the actual impact of computing and information technology on society. This is because it shows not only how widespread the impact of computing and information technology has been, but also how many areas computing and information technology could be used for. While some of those areas are obvious (business, work, and government, for example), there are certain areas where the impact of computing and information technology would not seem to be immediately affecting those areas like education and entertainment. For example, online courses are a relatively new form of technology that has resulted from the integration of computing technology into the education sector. Also, people do not have to go to the movie theater or pick up a newspaper to find out the latest news and gossip. Thanks to websites like Youtube, people can get the stories and the facts from the Internet and other electronic formats; furthermore, newspapers are also using the Internet to reach more customers by releasing electronic forms of the daily headlines for people to read without having to pay for a stack of paper that will get thrown out the next day. The level of digital integration has had another effect on society. Companies and individuals who passed off the Internet as a simple fad have been forced to play catch-up and a near-blitzkrieg pace in order to stay successful because of how widespread computing and information technology has become. Since they chose a more conservative and overconfident path, these companies and individuals are now put in a place where they have to take the ridicule for underestimating the impact of the Internet when they once mocked that same technology for its uselessness. Overall, the fact that so many institutions are adapting themselves in order to use computing and information technology just to stay ahead in the game is a clear example of the actual impact of that technology on society. 

“As more and more activity takes place on the Internet, individuals are likely to become more and more dependent on Internet institutions. Whether it be institutions for delivering the news or performing service transactions such as consuming or banking or just chatting with others, individuals will want and need some guarantees. They will want some level of trust in those whom they are interacting. Trust can be achieved by social, political, and legal arrangements that assure reliability, confidentiality, and security. Hence, we are likely to witness the creation of a variety of systems of trust and accountability. This will no doubt consist of laws and law enforcement mechanisms, but it will also include other technical and social systems for authenticating and insuring individuals and institutions in various ways.”

--Johnson, Deborah G. Computer Ethics. Third Edition. Prentice Hall. Upper Saddle River, NJ. 2001. Pg. 228. 

            This quote illustrates a very serious potential impact of computing and information technology that is slowly beginning to take shape in the present: the need for trust in computers and related technologies. As the amount of digital conversion and integration increases, the need to assure trust and security will increase at a rate that is at least parallel to the conversion rate, if not double or even triple that amount. This is because there will be less and less stable barriers to prevent abuses of trust as the need for human supervision over the technology decreases. In other words, society will eventually demand some form of provisions be put in place in order to anticipate any abuse of trust in the future. By not having such provisions in place, society will slowly decay under the lack of systems of trust and possibly break down altogether. Thus, in order to prevent this, society has slowly begun to implement such systems today, albeit on a very limited scale. For example, certain websites containing mature content now require that you provide your date of birth in order to prove that you are old enough to view such material. This system is not limited to pornographic websites, where many would assume such a system to be used; official websites to violent videogames (e.g., the Mortal Kombat series) also use this age verification system to establish a certain level of trust with their viewers. Another example can be seen in Internet forums. All Internet forums require that you provide a legitimate e-mail address when you register along with entering a code (usually random numbers or letters) to prove that it is you registering for a forum and not some hacker trying to gain access to personal information. Even after providing this information, your forum account is still not active unless you follow a set of instructions to activate your account. It is systems of trust like these that will be expected to grow and evolve in the near future as more and more activities and businesses move onto the Internet and away from physical offices and locations in the real world. 

Computing and information technology has inspired and caused a great deal of change, while at the same time, it has also created new problems and controversies in society. I think the best way to explain it is that computing and information technology in terms of social change is a double-edged sword; the technology can change the way society interacts with itself, but that change can also create things that society is either not ready for mentally or does not feel is morally right. In roughly the past 20-30 years, computing and information technologies have reshaped the view of so many things in society, ranging from simple daily interactions to even more complex things like the Internet. As a result, society has been transformed into a place where people are not only able to communicate with each other over faster and various means, but where humans have the confidence that they can do more with computers and other information technologies, and thus strive to achieve that goal.

            In regards to what has happened over roughly the past 20-30 years, I feel that the amount of social change due to computing and information technology is astounding and frightening at the same time. One moment, humans are limited to a select number of ways to communicate and interact with each other. The next, humans have so many different methods of communication and personal interaction that we start wondering why we didn’t think of these methods before. Also, the amount of new technologies appearing on the market has grown to an astronomical level. At first, there was only a small amount of computing technology available to select groups like banks and government organizations. Nowadays, there is not just an abundance of computing and information technologies, but almost everyone has access to some form of computing and information technology in their daily life. It seems like there are so many new gadgets and devices that can do so many things and connect to so many people, it gives the impression that the field of computing and information technology could possibly help to solve other existing problems in society, ranging from cancer to poverty. However, that is not something that computers and related technologies should be completely assigned to just yet because the belief that “Technology may be seen by some to be the panacea, the solution to all our problems…” (Johnson, 203) still exists. While computing and information technologies have improved over the past 20-30 years, it is that level of improvement that sheds some doubt on the future.

            The amount of growth in the field of computing and information technology, while it is impressive and practically unforeseen by many, is a cause for concern because of that very reason. New technologies are appearing almost daily and that is a signal that people should be cautious because investing in so many different devices and technologies could cause a repeat of history. The history I am referring to is the dot com bubble that appeared in the 1990s and its crash in 2000-2001. Everyone was told dot com corporations like Yahoo were some of the best investments if people wanted to become rich fast, and so people did invest in those kinds of corporations. However, as the year 2000 approached, the bubble slowly began to lose shape as certain dot com corporations began to go out of business, causing people to lose money and panic. Add on to this the pandemonium created by Y2K, it was only a matter of time before the bubble burst. When 2000 finally came, it did burst and caused a domino effect as one dot com corporation after another began to go out of business. The financial losses were immense as many who founded and/or worked at those corporations lost their jobs and became bankrupt. The crash did not only affect people within the industry, but also its investors. People who were told that they would become rich and prosperous off of dot com corporations watched as their investments slowly turned from signs from heaven to colossal nightmares. Some of these people managed to stay afloat by investing in other stocks and business areas, but others—who had chosen to rely on only those dot com corporations—lost nearly everything. While part of this problem was due to poor investor behavior, the blame is a result of the investment brokers and financial advisors whose overconfidence in one market hurt the global economy in a way that has taken some time to recover from.

            How does this connect to computing and information technologies? It is because so many people are relying on these technologies that if the computing and information technology was to suffer a crash on par or greater than the one that befell its dot com cousins, the effect would near catastrophic. Why use the word “catastrophic” in the first place? The reason is similar to the fear surrounding the Y2K problem of the late 90s. We rely so much on computers that if they fail or if there is a computing market crash, we may lose valuable amounts of information and data on a scale probably never before seen. Our dependency on computers and other information technologies is almost parallel to an illegal drug addiction. We can’t go several hours without satisfying that urge to use computers or talk on cell phones or use Facebook; as a result, society would be seriously damaged by the loss of computing and information technology, just as those who studied Y2K prophesized. This time, however, the scale would triple or quadruple the amount it was back in the late 1990s because of how much computing and information technology has been integrated into our society. Even with this dark and pessimistic view of the coming future, computing and information technology has truly changed so much in society and that it is that positive change that I feel is the most important impact on society.

            Thanks to computers, society has transformed from a closed and relatively private one to an open and relatively public society. Half a century ago, you could only talk with family and friends either in person or over a telephone, if you could afford one, that is. Today, these two forms still remain, but they have evolved or inspired new variations. For example, the cellphone is not simply a new variation on the telephone, it is existing technology evolving into a new form and increasing it capabilities and applications in society. “It is true that often we find that technologies created for one purpose, can do more or can do something different, but even so, it is human purposes—human values—that lead us to recognize the additional capabilities of the technology.” (Johnson, 204) This example can also be applied to the computer itself. At first, it was merely a military/government device or hooked up to a large server in a building and could not do much in terms of capabilities. In the 1980s, that all changed when Steve Jobs and his associates introduced the Apple II; it made the computer more than just corporate technology, the computer was something that you could have at home and use in your daily life. Nowadays, the computer has evolved even further to include new variations such as the laptop computer, the tablet PC, and handheld devices like the Blackberry. And with these new variations, the computer has been able to change our opinions on what we can do in our lives, not just physically but mentally as well.

            One of the biggest changes in society that comes from computing and information technology is not a new device or some revolutionary software, but a revised sense of personal capability. In years past, humans were limited in what they could do, and that affected their self-confidence and their ability to aspire to do better. With the growth and expansion of computing and information technologies, humans now have greater confidence in themselves and in their work. Also, humans feel that they have an increased amount of potential in their lives because computers allow them to do more and become greater than their ancestors could even dream of. For example, businessmen can attempt to expand their business overseas more efficiently and with more confidence in their potential success because of computers. And with that increased confidence, humans can dream of a brighter future and work hard to becoming successful, whether it be in medicine or accounting or even architecture.

            In my personal opinion, the greatest change in society due to computing and information technology is the increased self-confidence and belief in human potential. Technologies such as the Internet have given people the confidence to think beyond a limited area of capabilities. For example, this very course would not exist in its current form if it was not for online software; Blackboard has given teachers and students alike the belief that they can communicate and reach out to each other better and more efficiently than ever before. Websites like JSTOR or Proquest have allowed students the potential to find that one article or journal that will make their senior thesis succeed. As a result, I feel that humans are able to think and believe that they can do more with their lives because the technology and tools needed to achieve those long-shot dreams is now readily available to society. No longer do we need to first take the time to invent the technology to make our dreams possible and then go on to actually achieving our dreams many years after we first had them. We can now simply adapt either our dreams to fit current technology or vice versa.

            I also believe that humans are only just beginning to realize their potential capabilities in life thanks to computing and information technology. While I do feel that we need to limit the amount of new devices and software being produced, that does not mean I want people to stop dreaming of new technologies. Instead, we should pace ourselves and not overwhelm society with dreams that may potentially change the world because by flooding society with new technologies all in one go, the chances that something greatly beneficial to our future could be lost or ignored completely increases. Thus, what we get in return is the newly gained confidence in ourselves and our potential decreases as a result of watching our dreams being crushed by trying to get them out too quickly. That said, not everyone gives up immediately and takes their initial defeat as a learning experience and use that feeling to push themselves further because they have realized that it is better to wait for the right moment to present their dreams to the world rather then doing at all once. In the end, I believe that the fact computing and information technology has helped inspire an entire new generation of thinkers and inventors is by far the greatest social change resulting from the impact of computing and information technology on society.

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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents