1.3 Technology and society
IT systems are increasingly embedded in many aspects of our daily lives. But IT doesn't just exist in a vacuum – it has an impact on society, and society has an effect on it. It also has economic and political implications.
The end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century are often compared to other historical periods of great technological change such as the Industrial Revolution. This is because of the huge changes that are happening in many aspects of life. The terms information society and network society have been used to analyse the social and economic changes that are taking place in conjunction with technological developments. These ideas are used by policy makers to drive forward changes in our technological infrastructure. For example, the UK government's vision is that many public services will be accessible online, and billions of pounds have been spent to get computers into schools and local communities. The language used by politicians has drawn strongly on the inevitability of technological change and the need to be at the forefront of these changes in order to secure future prosperity.
One of the discussions about IT concerns whether changes in society are driven by technological development, or whether technologies are actually influenced and shaped by the society that produces them. This is a complex debate but an interesting idea to think about. On the one hand, if technologies are shaped by social conditions, then they will inevitably reflect the values and norms of the particular society in which they are created. On the other hand, if we believe technology determines the way society develops, then we might feel very helpless and fatalistic. You could also think about this on a personal level. In your everyday life, you will probably have experienced technological change as something that you have no control over – something that happens to you. For example, a new computer arrives in your office and you are required to learn how to use it, whether you like it or not. Often you have no influence or control over how technology intrudes into your life. In commercial terms this is sometimes described as either a 'technology push' or, conversely, a 'market pull'.
Yet technologies are also shaped by the people who design and create them. Societies and individuals can also control or influence how technologies are used. New mobile phones with added features seem to appear every month and relentless advertising tries to persuade us that we need to have the latest version. However, as the consumer you do have ultimate control over whether you choose to buy one or not.
Unintended uses sometimes develop for technologies. A classic example is the SMS/text messaging facility on mobile phones. Originally this was just a minor feature and was not expected by the manufacturers to be used by phone owners at all. Yet it resulted in a whole new method of communication and form of popular culture, different ways of interacting with radio and television, and even a new language form (texting). IT also has to be seen in a political context – those with power (often governments) can influence how technologies are taken up, for example by funding the development of broadband network infrastructure or indeed by restricting this growth.
Our views about technology are influenced by many factors, often by what is presented in the media.
Think about how people viewed technology in the past. In the 1960s, the cartoon series The Jetsons had a mechanical maid called Rosie the Robot. Images of the future at this time often included robots, androids or machines that looked like humans, some of which have materialised while others remain in the realms of science fiction. Now, domestic technologies such as dishwashers, microwaves and washing machines have become taken for granted in most UK households, but they are very different from the humanoid robots some people imagined.
In the following extract, which was written in 2004, Ian Pearson, BT's 'futurologist', makes a prediction about everyday life in 2010.
Read the article, keeping in mind the following questions: How accurately do you think it predicts the future? Have any of his predictions come true yet?
The Future of Everyday Life in 2010
By 2010, some of today's industries will be dead, mostly those with 'agent' in the title, replaced by computer programmes running for free. Many tasks in every job will be automated in much the same way. Computers will become intelligent personal assistants, greatly boosting our productivity. Most things that we thought need human creativity can even be automated. Computers already write good music for instance. What will be left are those areas of work that need the human touch. We will quickly move through the information economy into the care economy, exploring what it is we want from each other when we can automate most of the physical and mental bits of our work.
Equipment for the roaming worker will have access to the network via satellite or terrestrial systems. People will control computers and services simply by talking in everyday language. Computers will understand all major languages and understand what the user means most of the time, asking clarification questions to resolve any ambiguities or omissions. They will be able to read out documents or messages after sorting out what is important from the junk. Where appropriate, images can be displayed on imaginary screens floating in space. Users would simply wear lightweight glasses with projectors built into each arm and semi-reflective lens to give full 3 dimensional pictures. Active contact lenses that use laser beams drawing pictures straight onto the wearer's retinas would be in late stages of development by 2010. We could expect to have robocop style information in our field of view, overlaid on the real world. Finding somewhere will mean following the arrow floating in front of you. Satellite positioning and navigation will do all the hard work. Later still, we will see video relayed to computers that recognise people in our field of view, telling us who they are and a little about them if we want. The embarrassment of forgetting someone's name or where you met them will be history.
Network based life will affect home too. A selection of screens hanging on walls may display works of art, static or moving. Or they may act as virtual fish tanks, or virtual windows looking out onto a Bahamas beach. Or you may have a cup of coffee with a distant friend, with life sized video images. The coffee may well be made and brought to you by a robot, even by 2010. Other insect-like robots might be keeping the carpets clean, trimming the grass, tidying up, or monitoring household security. But the most widespread use of robotics in the home by 2010 will be as pets. We may have cute, cuddly robots that look like kittens, teddy bears or R2D2 according to taste. They will wander around doing cute things, respond to their names, do tricks, speak and make appropriate facial expressions. They will understand simple instructions and conversation. Best of all, they may have a radio link to a smart computer elsewhere in the house that will give them even more functionality remotely. So the pet itself may be little more than a walking robot with video cameras for eyes, microphones for ears and a speaker in its mouth. But with this radio link it will be able to act as an interface to the global superhighway and all that it holds. You could tell the pet what you want to do and it will arrange it, or rather its big brother under the stairs will arrange it.
Ian Pearson, 2004
How accurately do you think it predicts the future?
It seems to me that the author is making quite sweeping statements aimed at portraying a Utopian vision of the future. The second paragraph shown here seems quite feasible, although voice recognition software hasn't improved as quickly as people expected. Some of the ideas seem to come straight from science fiction films, but this might be because that is what other people think the future will be like.
Have any of his predictions come true yet?
Robotic pets are already available, but not very widely adopted. And there are already wearable devices such as glasses with built-in video screens.
Predicting the future is always a difficult business and we should not take this too seriously. However, most technological change does not happen overnight. As you work through the rest of this course, you will develop your understanding of the basic principles and processes involved in IT systems. This will put you in a better position to distinguish between fact and science fiction.